In my last post, I shared Ahava Leibtag’s perspective on a big mistake that many companies make: starting design before content is complete. I’m passionate about this because I’ve seen the inefficiencies, cost overruns, and blah results that can be avoided by taking a content-first approach. Perhaps I can save you the trouble of learning this lesson the hard way.

I’m going to spend the next three blog posts talking about why people try to design first instead of starting with a content-first approach. What starts out as a shortcut to getting started ends up being more trouble than it’s worth!

So, challenge #1 to having our content done before designing: the project team and stakeholders.

Assemble Your Team

Smaller companies and organizations are not necessarily used to thinking along these lines. I’ve worked for plenty of young and/or small shops as a freelancer and an employee early in my career. When you’re used to being in “all hands on deck” mode or where “everyone wears a variety of hats” you may not be explicitly thinking about proper roles. That said, I’ve seen even big teams fail to account for their all-important stakeholders.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer flips a stake in her hand

Sorry, Buffy. Not those kinds of stakes.

Before beginning a new project – whether it’s for print or the web – you need to be clear on who is and is not a stakeholder.

  • Who is this project trying to reach? Your external audience(s) forms the external stakeholder(s).
  • Who is writing the copy and who is designing the final product? This is your creative team.
  • Who is reviewing draft designs and providing feedback? This is your internal stakeholder team.
  • Who has final approval? This is your Chief Internal Stakeholder. The buck stops with him/her.

Work Your Content-First Approach

Great! You have your team. Now, make it a clear goal that content is done before design. No sense assembling the A Team to have them sit in the van!

A van drives endlessly through a desert

I wouldn’t watch that show.

Who are you trying to reach?

Be clear who you’re writing and designing this to reach. Write for them and design for them. Yes, that does sound like the bleeding obvious point to make here. Sadly, in the thick of it, you won’t think of whether your teenage audience can read the graduate-level writing in your product description. You won’t consider the visual challenges of your over-70 target customer when the designer turns in a low-contrast text overlay.

If you’ll pardon the paraphrase, “to err is human, focus on users divine.” Pursue your lofty aims in a practical fashion by keeping your audience in mind.

Who is writing the copy and who is designing the final product?

Assemble your creative team and equip them. Start with the copy because CONTENT-FIRST. (You knew that was coming.) Give your writer the tools and time they need, whether it’s an internal team member or an external contractor like a copywriter. Make sure they have research tools, time to draft, and time to edit to perfection.

If you’re splitting up the writing or design work, make sure you know who is merging the work and giving the whole thing a cohesive voice and look.

Who is reviewing draft designs and providing feedback?

Know who gets a say and make sure they’re available. You were probably going to set your project timeline so make sure the schedule works for your reviewers. If George is going to be on vacation during Round 2, make sure you factor that into your plan.

Crucially, be cautious about showing the draft copy to anyone but your designated internal stakeholders. Same goes later when you’re getting the design comps for review. Generally, if you pass around a design to anyone else, you risk getting unhelpful or contradictory feedback. Having a plan for review can prevent some frustrating conversations.

The one exception to that rule, of course, is testing. If you’re really concerned about getting the best design for your target audience(s), consider a structured testing/feedback process. Plan out your questions, choose 5-9 people from each audience, show them the design, and capture their feedback. With planning and prep, this can be helpful. Without it, you might just end up more confused than when you started.

Who has final approval?

Choose your Chief Internal Stakeholder wisely. This guy/gal pushes the go-button and arbitrates disputes on directions/messaging that might arise among your creative team and your internal stakeholders.

If at all possible, make sure your Buck-stopping Approver understands and embraces the needs of your target audience. That way you can trust them to approve the best design for the final users, not just for themselves or the internal stakeholders.

Trust Your Team

Sometimes the team will get stuck or a design will get leaked to someone with strong opinions that are unhelpful. Stick with your team and trust them to work the process. Get that content done. Otherwise, you might think a draft is good enough to get started on some wireframes and find your final content doesn’t fit in those neat little boxes. You might get random feedback and find yourself unsure how to respond to it.

Sherlock closes the door on a policeman with the words "Yes, thank you for your input."

Sometimes more input isn’t better; it’s just more.

Avoid the pitfalls and work that teamwork FOR THE WIN!

Next time, we’ll take up Content-First Challenge #2: Timing & Efficiency.