Blog: Web Design
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Better Web Projects, Part 1: Gather Site Content Early

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

To manage successful website projects, the web consultancy must anticipate potential obstacles, and prevent them from appearing.

This miniseries is about overcoming some common obstacles. If we can eliminate these common problems, we’ll have more successful projects, our clients will be happier during our projects, and our clients will get better results long-term.

Chasing Waterfalls

Before we begin, let’s look at how many web projects are structured and managed.

The two most popular methods for managing projects are the Waterfall Method and Agile. (Agile is not something we’re discussing today. Though it addresses some of the weaknesses of Waterfall, it has it’s own unique challenges.)

In the Waterfall Method, things go in steps. Each step of the process is its own compartmentalized stage. In most web agencies, the process looks something like this:

The first step is usually meeting with clients, doing discovery, defining the problems, and writing a project brief.

Step Two is designing the look and feel of the site, presenting the design, and getting client approval.

Step Three is handing off the design to the development team to code, and bringing the visual compositions to life.

Step Four (in many agencies) is gathering the actual content for the finalized site.

Step Five might be quality assurance — stress testing, browser testing, mobile device testing, use case and scenario testing. These are all tested to ensure a good experience for the client’s customers.

The first thing we can improve in this workflow is have an idea of what the site content is going to be before we start designing.

The Reasoning Behind Content First

Now, if you’re redesigning a site instead of starting from scratch, gathering final content may be much easier. But —

In other words, our site content is going to determine the look, feel, and presentation of our site.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to figure out what we want to say, who we want to say it to, and what we want them to do once they get to your site.

But this is the purpose of website content — getting people to take action.

Customers gather information in order to take action and make informed decisions. One of the biggest things we can do to help them (and our clients) is start web projects with as much content as possible as early as we can in the design process.

Unfortunately, this is not something that happens all the time.

The Cost of “Last Minute” Content

Waiting for site content can produce two types of negative impact.

In scenario #1, there is no “set in stone” deadline, but the lack of real site content delays the project launch. This is bad for the client, and bad for the web agency.

This type of project delay is bad for the client, primarily because of lost opportunity cost.

Web projects are initiated by an outside force that compels the organization to launch or re-launch a website.

Some of the factors that can drive a site launch or site redesign include:

  • Launching a new business or division
  • Need to keep up with competitors
  • Slumping sales or site conversions
  • Poor user experience for customers
  • Need for better internal tools
  • Moving from one web platform to another
  • The current site is stagnant, due to lack of updates
  • An outdated site / better workflow
  • Making the site mobile friendly
  • Need to add e-commerce components to website
  • Internal goals / pet project

These are only a few reasons a web project needs to be done. But without proper content organized, the launch can drag on for months, or in some cases, years.

This is precious time that the client organization will never get back, resulting in lost opportunities.

Lack of content can also negatively affect a website project by forcing last-minute and rushed changes.

This usually occurs when there is a specific deadline, and the site content must be jammed into the site at the eleventh hour.

There are a few things that can go wrong here.

One, if the site has been void of content up to this point, and the whole site is being populated with content the day before the launch, there are two sets of expectations at work.

The client may expect things to look one way, and the agency may expect things to be displayed another way. Because the real content has been unavailable until the eve of the launch, both sides haven’t had a chance to double check everything and communicate with each other.

If we can use real site content (instead of lorem ipsum) whenever possible — in wireframes, in mockups, and on the staging site — confusion is minimized.

By working with real site content, both the client and agency can see and test how everything works long before the site launches, iron out any potential bugs, and align expectations.

Another challenge that can occur with last minute content is receiving the wrong type of content.

I’ve heard war stories from other web professionals, where certain spots on the site have places for short form content, and long form content. What they sometimes receive is a novel where only a sentence is required, and a paragraph is supplied where there needs to be long-form writing.

Then very awkward conversations take place, when both sides have to discuss content again.

Our aim should be to plan ahead, so these awkward conversations never need to happen.

Design Amplifies Your Message

I believe that content precedes design.

Design should be more than an attractive container that we drop content into at the last second. It should be the vehicle that drives your messages and intentions.

Good design gives people a sense of what your organization is about. Great design compels people to take action after hearing your messages.

The smoothest running and most successful projects I’ve ever worked on had a great deal of content ready to go before the visual design or web development ever began.

This is not meant as a criticism of the web industry, it’s just an observation.

Content strategy and organization continues to be one of the biggest opportunity areas in our industry where we can help clients.


In the next two articles, I’d like to look other places web studios have opportunities to deliver better client projects.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

3 comments on “Better Web Projects, Part 1: Gather Site Content Early

  1. Excellent article, John. Let’s walk into this argument from the other end.

    Clients come to us to craft a unique, branded UX which drives their audience to do something. How do we achieve this? Hum, we do things like ask the client what other sites they like to use the information as a starting point. Then we set out to build a solution.

    Ok, what drives the audience to a site? And what keeps them on the site? Is it our cool skins and functionality? Not for the returning visitors. It’s the content that brings people back.

    Then it makes sense that our job is to accentuate the content to maximize its intent and message, and as you noted, get people to do something. This is what should drive the unique branding and UX.

    Ok, let’s go one step further. The content-first approach then drives what we do for the client. Our success at delivering a complete solution that achieves the objectives is predicated on having the content.

    So yes, our first steps then should be to work with the client to get the content upfront and then set about our job.

    I agree with you. Thought provoking and insightful. Good job.

  2. Hi Tonya:

    Thanks so much for reading and adding your thoughts to the discussion. I know you and Jackie D’Elia have been having this discussion as well.

    You’re right in the fact that the most beautiful design and most delightful user experience is all for naught if the message inside the site doesn’t resonate with customers and move them to action. The wrapping is part of the overall experience, but is not greater than the package inside.

    People don’t make decisions based on looks alone. Appearances help back up the credibility of our message, but they can’t replace the absence of a message.

    Projects are often held up for months because no one involved (agencies or clients) have put forth thought into what the message of the site will be. Content, without a doubt, is the most difficult part of the project to create. So why do so many of us leave it for last?

    I believe content creation is something many agencies are uncomfortable with, as many rely on the client to come up with site content. And clients are twice as uncomfortable as we are. It’s better to collaborate on creating the site content together. Start with end goals and work backwards from there.

    The content of the site informs all the other design decisions — from site architecture to the actual design of the site. I hate the idea that everything is an interchangeable empty bucket to dump stuff into the day before a scheduled launch.

    If we are meticulous about “pixel perfect” design and efficient code, is there any compelling reason for us to treat the site content like the red-headed stepchild of a web project? Content (words, images, video, audio) is one leg of the tripod. Design and development are the other two. But without focused content, the other aspects of the site cannot do their job effectively.

    Can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts on Jackie’s podcast.

  3. Ah see forward thinking about a complete site solutions folks could be doing, such as content identification and even creation. Here is where collaborating with a strong content-centric business or person can propel your business past the competition. Even if your client is content savvy, having a voice and strategist on the team ensures the final product exceeds the client’s needs and expectations.

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