Content is Effective Web Design

Ever hear someone say "don't judge a book by its cover" before? Well, they're absolutely right - especially when it comes to designing for the web. In contrast to a book, designing for the web raises a much more complex dilemma: we don't have the reader's undivided attention and we're often telling more than one story. We're addressing several different readers with different needs through the same medium.

In reality, web designers have they're work cut out for them. It's not as simple as creating a pretty template and plugging some content into it. The design itself is an outcome of the content. To quote someone else:

We're essentially creating a framework for communication and messaging.

The Content Conundrum by Christopher Detzi

Our work in web design is all about the content. The visual design is intended to effectively deliver and support our content. So to judge the quality of a website, you really have to judge it by it's content. Next time you critique a website try to answer these three questions:

Who is your website serving?

A lot of our upfront design research is dedicated towards understanding our users and segmenting them by the types of tasks they need to accomplish so that we can derive mental models and personas. One key benefit of doing such research is so that we can get the right content to the people who matter.

Why are readers coming to your site?

Remember that we goto websites for a reason. It could be to learn something, such as reading an article, to achieve something, such as checking my facebook inbox, or simply to be entertained, such as playing an online game. No matter what, we visit web sites for one reason or another. We need to write our content and structure our design to facilitate these motivations. Your readers came to your site to do something; get to the point.

How is your website informing its readers?

It's still all too common to see brochureware websites. These sites are organization centric and are chock full of information that tends to be informative but irrelevant to the user and their task. For example, if you're in retail chances are most people coming to your site because they want to buy something or find out how to get to your store. They probably don't care about staff policies, or how the business was founded twenty years ago, etc..

Let's use the copy for a staffing company as an example - a good approach would be to write to the user directly in a tone like this: "You can get hired today find out how!" not "Welcome to our website. We've been helping professional candidates get the positions they deserved for twenty years!". One version engages the reader directly. The other simply builds up the company. To learn more about writing user centric task orientated copy I recommend reading Gerry McGovern's comprehensive guide: Killer Web Content

Taking Content and Copy Seriously

Jakob Nielsen doesn't dance around the topic:

Text us a UI.

Aug. 2009 Iterative Tweet Design by Jakob Nielsen

Nielsen says that it's all too common for design teams to only consider full fledged GUI's as interaction design. He points out that email and even the URLs your website use are forms of interaction and need appropriate amounts of attention. He also states that the shorter your text is, the more important it is to design text for usability.

Think about short text in your design. Are the terms you're using to describe each section in your primary navigation correct? It's really important you get this stuff right.

The guys over at 37 signals have been saying this for years now:

Copywriting is interface design. Great interfaces are written. If you think every pixel matters then you also need to think every letter matters.

Getting Real: Copywriting is Interface Design by 37 Signals

Designers and clients can bicker all they want about the color, drop shadow, and font-face used on a button. But more important than all of those things, even its placement/positioning, is what the label on that button says. If a user notices and reads your call to action but doesn't understand what it means than all of that effort was pointless. This is not to discount art direction, visual hierarchy, and aesthetics, but rather to put them in their place. You need to know what you're saying before you get into any of those details.

"It looks good, but what did it say?", that's what Jamie Dihiansan asks when designing the marketing sites for 37 signals. Dihiansan says "You have to make your site memorable. Your site has to speak clearly." If you don't your project was nothing more than an exercise in aesthetic awaiting to be succeeded by more modern implementations in the fashionable world of commercial visual design.

Copy Alters the Entire User Experience

Bill DeRouchey does an excellent job pointing out that even the tone of the content can make a big difference in the overall user experience of a web site. We can write content in a way that it strikes us, or even throws us off. The point of the story is that you can create a richer and more powerful experience by writing your content in a way that gives your site some personality. If you have some time I strongly encourage you to watch Bill's talk below: