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The Website Conundrum: Design vs. Content

What comes first, design or content? I seem to be getting a lot of calls from people who have invested in a website with no content. They call me at the end of the project because they “need some words” on their site. Invariably they need it done fast. They always want the content optimised to attract search engines. I can also predict, with certainty, they will be surprised at the investment required to develop the content for their site.

Content: The Great Afterthought
You might think I’m talking about start-up companies, but I’m not. I see this problem across all industry sectors, government agencies, not-for-profit organisations, and even businesses developing their second or third website. I have never had someone contact me about content before speaking to a website designer. This tells me people are more concerned about how things look than what is being said.

Traditional Approach: Property Development
I do understand why this is happening. In a bricks-and-mortar business, getting your property is usually the first step on the road to a Grand Opening. Once you have secured a building or a piece of property, you start the construction/renovation phase. The next step is to fit it out and furnish it. The last step is to bring your stock in. Now you’re ready for trade.

The Online Conundrum
But here’s the problem. You can’t equate a website to a physical place of business. Why? In the digital environment, your content is what attracts search engines. Your content is also what keeps people drilling down into your website. In a virtual world, the design can help improve the user experience. It can promote your company branding. It can present an attractive and desirable door to your business. Good design, however, cannot keep people on your website.

Digital Approach: Publishing
Here’s another analogy to consider: Imagine a book publisher designing a book cover, choosing a winning title and having the book bound and the cover printed before an author is even selected. What sort of sales figures do you think that book would generate? How effective is the story going to be if the author is bound to the whims of a printer? When you have a website designed and developed without a content strategy in place, that’s essentially what you’re doing. A website is not an asset to your business if the content does not support what you’re trying to do. When you leave content development until the end of the project, you’re unlikely to realise the full potential of your website.

The Takeaway
Remember, your website is an asset to your business. Content is equally important to design. Developing a successful online presence means you must develop a strong content strategy to keep both search engines and visitors interested in your site. Developing content takes both time and money and must be considered in tandem with website development. Your investment should be driven by publishing, NOT property development.

What’s your opinion? What comes first, design or content?

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*Image courtesy of playingwithbrushes at www.flickr.net

  • Purba Roy Das

    Great.

  • Will do, Sarah. Keep those great articles coming.

  • You’ve made my evening, Ralston, by saying you’re educating clients about content strategy. Woohoo! When I wrote this post I thought the web designers would pounce on me but just the opposite has happened. To a person, you’ve all been supportive. I expect you’re not the only one working up a sweat on the build phase.

    Thanks so much for tweeting the post. You can stop by anytime!

  • Good points all.

    As a web designer, I’ve always sweated a bit when coming to the build phase of a web project. We now offer a focus on content strategy and actively educate clients and website owners on its importance.

    Totally tweeting this, Sarah.

  • Hi Muchiri,

    You’re the second person today who I’ve heard say the content strategy is the architect to websites. It’s a great analogy. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I appreciate it.

  • It’s is insane to consider starting a real estate development without architectural plans. Yet I believe content strategy is ‘architecture’ and websites & Facebook pages are the actual ‘buildings’. This is especially important where businesses are considering building online communities around their brands. I believe it is almost impossible to build and nurture a community without content strategy coming up.

  • Hi Valerie,

    What a great analogy! I never thought about a pretty website being the same as a pretty girl. I bet there are a lot of business owners who wake up after a couple months and realise what they have just isn’t that interesting after all.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  • It’s a no-brainer. The design is obviously important in that it must be user-friendly, pleasing to the eye and relevant to the brand. And that’s quite enough. Some clients and designers however, tend to go overboard with this and pay no attention at all to content, yet it is content that creates stickiness. Like a pretty girl with very little intellect, how long can you date her until you get bored? It’s all about balance.

  • Hi Mel,
    You’re right about clients calling after their site has been up for a little while. I see that, as well. So often they’re disillusioned by the whole process they give up on having an online presence altogether.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  • Mel

    Hi Sarah
    I speak to clients in a similar position all the time. Often their website has been up for around 3 months when they realise that it’s not getting any results. That’s about the point in time they contact a web copywriter or online marketer to see what can be done. I totally agree that the best time to start planning your content is the same time that you start planning the website – so everything is done well, right from the start.
    Mel

  • Hi Brian,

    You touch on an interesting issue here. I often find clients don’t know what content to put on their site. I, too, have experienced the situation where clients want to “see” the site before the decide what content to include. It’s a preposterous situation because the purpose of a website is to support your business. If you can’t define content without the website, I would say you probably have a bigger project to do – defining your own company.

    I agree, the best sites out there are where designers and writers are working together.

    Thank you for your valuable input into this discussion.

  • I would answer your question by saying both! I don’t believe a design can be considered good unless it has taken into consideration the requirements of content, given that a website exists to deliver content. By the same token a good design will have considered SEO right from the start of the process too. Surprise at the level of investment seems to be a problem accross the board. I would add that in can be extraordinarily difficult to get clients to think about content or marketing strategy before they see what their site looks like.

  • I agree with you completely, Ian. I know what my work looks like when I try to do my own designs. I also know the difference a great design makes to the number of people reading my content. I’m just not sure most people are thinking of content when they’re planning their website.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  • It’s amazing how many companies go strictly for an attractive design without considering content. You need both obviously, and both need to be planned for. We also work in partnership with other web designers to write content if they’re not able to.
    Personally, I think you need a good design to interest people in your website and build credibility, but you also need good content to keep them on your site and sell your services, product, or blog. It’s really a chicken and the egg situation, you can’t have one without the other.

  • Hi Deb,

    I often partner with web designers, too. We view the project from different perspectives. I find the client will tell me things about their business they haven’t shared with the designer and vice versa. My advice to anyone thinking about getting a website developed is to ensure professional webcopy is part of the costing. With SEO becoming an increasingly important part of running a business with an online presence, it only makes sense.

  • So true, Sarah. Lately, I’ve been partnering with some web developers in my area and we’re now working in tandem to do the writing and the site design in parallel. This is working pretty well since after I identify the navigation and pages that make sense for the content, they begin the design using that info and then finish it up with by dropping in my finalized content. With a team approach like this, the client “gets it” and everyone is satisfied with the results. So far, so good.

  • I’m having trouble keeping up with the comments today!

    Gary – I use my RSS feed to kick off email delivery of my blog post. I had several requests from clients saying they would like to have it delivered to their inbox. With the RSS feed, I can syndicate my blog to both my Facebook fan page and to MailChimp. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t think I needed an RSS feed but now I love it.

    Brian – I’m glad I could spread some love today especially when I really wanted to rant. You’re absolutely right about advertising. People understand the importance of content in that scenario. I’m not sure why that doesn’t always translate into the online marketing activity.

    Susan – I think web designers and writers make a natural pairing. They often do work together but, in my opinion, not enough. I know many web designers that view copy as an afterthought or a hassle. In my view, the best websites have equal elements of design and content. Web designers who work with copywriters produce a much better product.

    Thanks, everyone, for your valuable insights.

  • Hi Sarah,

    I must say I am surprised that some people have the design first and then think about the content.

    Although it is not as good example as you have given but as I mainly worked on the client side it would be like getting an art director to come up with the vsuals etc for a TV ad first without considering the script. It would not happen.

    I may be entirely wrong but is part of the problem the web designers who are not working in partnership with writers?

  • Love this, and I totally relate.

    If businesses look at the web as a channel, things get a bit clearer. You wouldn’t buy radio time or a page in a magazine without something to broadcast or print.

    We don’t really need a web site anymore. A web page is just a very convenient place to present content.

    Brian Massey
    The Conversion Scientist

  • People don’t get too hung upon RSS the usage is still very low and firmly in the tech and marketing sectors.

    I guess the way I do this differently is that I have a lot of experience and I can pretty much determine a the content strategy before the client has one, even if it is just on the back of a napkin.

    These days I don’t design unless I have the content or an outline of it. That’s just the way I work.

    What I do instead, while waiting for the content, is plan the web site and research the customers of the site. This is something most people don’t do. But that’s another story!

  • It seems I’m not the only one running into the website conundrum. Thanks everyone for your very valid comments.

    Mal – You’re right about business people signing off on a website design based purely on how it looks. Again, I think it’s indicative of the property development mentality. I’m even more surprised when they have them developed, paid for and launched with no content. Believe me, it happens all the time.

    Gary – Because you’re a web designer, I appreciate your views on this. I work with a lot of web designers for the very reasons you outline here. They expect to be producing assets for their customers and know they can’t do it without a content strategy. Unfortunately, there are many web designers and agencies that only care about construction.

    You’re right about the old attitudes towards content. Times have changed and it’s being driven by search engines. Your content has to be active and relevant or your website can be rendered useless.

    Summer – Great point about content being delivered via RSS. I agree completely with what you say. Design and content are equally important. When you get that balance right, you’re on your way to having a fantastic asset.

  • Amen! And what about the people who visit once and see all the beautiful design, but then subscribe to your content via RSS and never visit your site again? That takes design completely out of the equation and puts the focus back on the content.

    It’s like peanut butter and jelly — Each is great on its own, yet when paired together with equal weight and attention, it’s a winning combination!

  • This is easy…

    You need to have the content to (or an idea of what it is going to be) to determine the structure of the site and the design elements on a page.

    I can tell you that from experience testing of site works a lot better if you have content, even if its just the draft.

    You can’t design sections of a site unless you really know what the tone, the emotion the style of the content is. Yes the visual design has to match the content. Afterall its the content people have come to the site for.

    Even the way the site works can’t really be worked out to a fine degree until the direction and content strategy has been worked out.

    So why is it the content is done last!!

    From my view it is simple. In the old days of web design, you just build an area for the content, any content, to be dropped into. There was not complimenting the content and design. There was no making the site a living site it was just a static brochure. With the content usually lifted from print material.

    But times have changed… haven’t they?

  • Great article Sarah,

    I’m amazed at the number of professional marketers and business people who sign off on designs and layouts based purely on looks alone without consideration for any other function a site should perform.