Ellen de Vries
Ellen de Vries
23rd March 2016

Look at you, sitting there at the gleaming boardroom table. It’s the discovery phase of a new project. Lovely clients. Fresh start.

In the early stages of the meeting you find out that no-one in the room wants to wheel out the same old content for their redesign. Frankly, it’s dull and it doesn’t reflect the company’s identity. 

One of the objectives of the redesign is to serve up more relevant and useful content to the users. It needs to be well considered. This is good news. It's also a responsive site, so content has to come first. No?

In the absence of the current website having much relevant or useful content, you ask: “Can you point us in the direction of any (other) content you’ve got? ”

A week passes and the discovery phase is progressing. The designers are getting ready to start their sprints… but no-one’s quite sure what to use as the raw material. 

Where’s the content to be ‘contenting-first’ with?

There are many reasons why your content may not arrive as requested:

  • The client doesn’t know where their content lives
  • The client doesn’t know what content to select for you
  • The client is embarrassed by the state of their content
  • The client already believes the content isn’t fit for purpose
  • The client is too busy to think about these things
  • The client hopes the site will have shiny new content, which makes the old content redundant
  • The client thinks they should be writing new content, which they haven’t done yet, because they’ve booked a remote farmhouse to get it done in 6 months time

In the history of our industry, this set of issues has thrown a huge spanner in the works. Many of our conventional industry processes today still ignore the fact that it takes time to discover the content and then mould it.

Enter the Content Strategist (or someone with that disposition).

If you’re on a mission to find rich, compelling content that brings the site alive, then you need to allocate time and resource to it. 

You need someone who knows how to coax out the content, the messaging, the language and the strategy from the client. She or he then traps it, cages it, apportions it and serves it up to the designers for breakfast.

Immediate gratification doesn’t exist when you’re rounding up content.

These are the two of the most common errors when it comes to rounding up the content at the beginning of a project:

a) Don’t just take an inventory of what’s on the current site and then re-design with that. The problem with taking an inventory of just the current site is that you are assuming that the current site content is up to date and relevant. Often, a company’s most precious content does not exist on their current site, particularly if they’re interested in doing a redesign. 

b) Don’t wait until you’ve got your information architecture in place and then go looking for the content. The problem with waiting until you know what you’re building is that you may not have fully investigated the potential of existing content (on site or offsite). You can only build a useful information architecture if you know what exists (by way of content on and offline) currently, and what needs to exist in future.

Put on you content stalker cap and go into the woods.

You need to accept that getting content from clients is a slow process of facilitated extraction. It’s like being a stalker for their information, but you have to find the right balance between being nosy and being nice.

Rich content seems to deliberately elusive so you need to be unafraid to go looking for it in dark places; 

1) The richest content could be offline. 
It may be hiding on paper in desk drawers, or on whiteboards that have never been wiped clean. I’ve even found it in foolscap training folders that live in the company car’s boot. 

2) The richest content could be dormant in someone’s brain.
Often, content is hidden in the client’s head…a slow process of facilitated extraction. You’ll need to get a process in place for this. It could take some time to get it out of them.

3) The richest content may be on random satellite sites online.
You may also want to consider that the most precious content is hidden in other places online. It may be on staff members’ personal blogs, social media, on satellite sites (often this is the case for campaigns), random wordpress or Tumblr sites, or elsewhere down the back of the proverbial digital sofa.

Accept that getting content out of clients is a slow process of facilitated extraction.

You need people’s trust to take you through the jungle of their working processes, their desktop files and particularly their heads. 

So here are some brief guidelines for your mission: 

a) It’s important to let them know that you aren’t scrutinising the way they’re doing things

b) It’s important to let them know that they will not be judged

c) It’s important to involve them in the decision about how this content might be more useful to them in a different format

d) It’s important to let them know that this content may be reformulated, perhaps with their help

While you’re on this mission it’s important to build allies. The people you are working with may become the future content team, in the form of content guardians or subject matter experts. 

Your allies need to be made aware of the importance of their content, and their role in looking after it. You need to help them build desire and momentum for creating the pages and the words that will eventually make their online presence come alive.

Keep educating people about the content you’ve got and its rich potential.

The collection of all content you’ve discovered is the food for the rest of your design journey. But at the moment it’s raw. It’s far from a cut and paste job,

Your next step is to manipulate it, play with it and make it ready for use. 

This is the point at which you work out how your content is going to marry up with the interaction design, the site strategy and the user’s needs. The sum total of this will make the entire experience come alive (and that’s no small task). 

It’s time to go back to the boardroom and hold it up to the client. What are you still missing?

Good luck.

N.B. I believe in Content Always more than Content First. But you get the idea.