Content influences design

Too often in our enthusiasm to get the look and feel of a web application or website right, we forget that content makes up one of the primary deliverable. Content planning (what, why) and delivery (How, When, Where) is an important part of design.

At present, I am working on a number of portals with the aim of creating a consistent, seamless experience for users as they travel between portals. Now, each of these portals have a different look and feel,  its own Information Architecture and are even built on different technologies. One of the main issue here is that in addition to the design,  the “type of content” too, is not consistent. While Portal A is a repository of documents and templates, Portal B provides a number of reports and metrics on performance of products and services and Portal C acts more as a online training tool and a help desk.

Certainly, the purpose of each of these portals are unique from one another, and users accessing these portals expect information to be displayed in a manner that suits their needs. However, this is not the case with these portals.

Great wireframes need great content

I had the (mis?)fortune of reviewing the wireframes that were initially developed for the above mentioned portals. Unfortunately, these portals were built from the ground up using a single design template as the foundation.  Herein, was the problem. Wireframes provide a good visual aid to what the final design may look like and are excellent for mocking up design, functionality and content.  However, while structure, layout and design consistency is key, it is important to note that wireframes fail if the dummy or sample content is not representative of the actual data. Using “Lorem Ipsum…” text as content adds little value to your wireframes. Wireframes need to include sample content that is indicative of the “actual” data or information that will be presented to users.  While this approach gives an idea of what the final design would look like, it also provides an opportunity to review content that will be offered  to your target audience.

One of the key take-away working on this project was the importance of getting stakeholders to sign-off on the content during the wireframe stage itself. Though it may seem difficult and content may not be 100% ready, it is important to convey to stakeholders what and how content would be presented on the website. This is specially true if you are working on multilingual websites or web applications.

User centered content

Similar to user-centered design, providing content that is relevant to your users enriches the over all user experience. While segmentation works well, and most marketers do a good job in segmenting their target audience, if this segmentation is based on user demographics rather than user needs it fails to provide users with real value.

A good example for user-centered content would be University websites that have more target multiple audiences. In this case the primary audiences could be categorised into:

  • Existing Students – Need to access reports, assignments, performance, join clubs etc.
  • Prospective Students – Need to find information on relevant courses, fees, facilities etc.
  • Alumni – Need for networking opportunities, jobs, workshops and events, etc.
  • Staff – Need to administer courses, student assignments, student performance etc

Each of these target audience accesses content to meet their specific needs. Segmentation based on demographics does little due to possible overlap in roles. Jenny, in her mid 20s, earning $5000 a month, could be a staff or an existing student. Then again a particular staff could also be a prospective or existing student looking to further their education.

In this scenario, content targeted to meet specific user needs would give better results as opposed to segmentation based on demographic.

Content influences design

In the above example, while the over all structure and layout would be consistent, content would change based on the target audience. This content would influence how, when and where information is provided to your users. From collapsible panels, to widgets, from pdf files to streaming videos, from blogs to tweeter feeds, the options to present information is limitless. And depending on your content – the what and why, you chose the medium – the how, when and where, thus influencing the design and the user experience.

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