Rethinking Website Design: Content-First or Bust

Let’s forget for a second that we all love the nostalgia from the 1986 rock-video-meets-fantasy-epic film Labyrinth. It truly was an innovator for its time, and with brilliant minds like Jim Henson, David Bowie, George Lucas, and Terry Jones behind it, how could it not be amazing? But, while we look back on it now with adoration, it was a flop when it was released in the U.S. It was a $25 million project that drew in about $13 million by the end of its run in theatres. It received terrible reviews; Gene Siskel actually called it “awful.” Roger Ebert gave it two stars and said that the film never really came alive. Jim Henson spiraled into a brief depression due to its failure, and strayed away from directing feature length film for the rest of his life. He had to direct the Tale of the Bunny Picnic next just to get the bad taste out of his mouth.

It’s such an innovator (one of the first films with CGI) and a visually stunning film. The costuming, the special effects, and the puppetry was exhibiting things that were next seen before by audiences. Even the critics of that time attest to the accomplishments of the visual experience. So, why did it flop? Most critics cast blame on the story. Siskel said the story was “pathetic” and that it had a “much too complicated plot.” One of the problems was too many cooks in the kitchen. In addition to Terry Jones, there were no less than 6 other screenwriters who had their hands on the script – changing and diluting the story. But, the main issue: Jim Henson built a film around a visual experience that he had in his mind and he let the story come later.


I’ve been helping companies build websites for almost 10 years now. I’ve helped clients build brand-spanking-new websites, and helped other clients redesign their existing sites. Every time that I’m asked to help redesign an existing site, I ask the question “why?” Seems like the first question you would ask, right? I don’t know why I still allow myself to be, but nearly every time, I’m surprised by the answer: it’s outdated.

Okay, so what does “outdated” mean? Usually, they’ll say something like “it looks like it was built in the 90’s” or “it just looks old.” Sometimes, these customers are trying to keep up with a flashy new site that a competitor has launched. Sometimes, they’ve updated their branding and they need to redesign the site to reflect that. Only once have I had to relaunch a website because it was hacked with pornography – but that’s a story for another time. But, most of the time, they want to redesign the site to look modern, flashy, and impressive.

I rarely hear the reason is that the existing site isn’t helping them meet their business objectives. Sometimes, brands will say they aren’t getting enough traffic, but they aren’t saying why that traffic matters. I’ve rarely had to redesign a site because a company has a new enhanced web strategy that the new website needs to support. Few people have asked me to redesign a site because they have an intelligent new content marketing strategy. But these are the reasons we should be redesigning sites. And these are the things that we should be looking at before we start working on flashy new visuals and animations. You know it. I know it. The American people know it.

The Boring Way

My point is that, most of the time, when we approach website redesigns, we are thinking visuals, or some fancy new widget. There are so many considerations when building a website: should it be design-first? Accessibility-first? Content-first? SEO-first? Most people are defaulting to design-first because that’s what they feel like they need, but we aren’t thinking as strategically as we could be. Take, for example, this fairly typical website design process that I’ve seen:

  • Sitemap
  • Wireframe
  • Design / copy
  • Develop
  • Test
  • Launch

Yep, those are the steps to making or redesigning a website. But, where is the “understand the customer” step? Where is the “content strategy” step? This approach may be fine if you’re creating a landing page or a brochure-ware site, but not for brands that want to drive revenue from their website experiences.

The Strategic Way

Google “website design process” or whatever and you’ll see a lot of things that are very similar to the boring way listed above. A lot of the examples and “best practices” that I’ve researched leave out two ridiculously critical things: strategy and content. If I were to rethink this process, here is how I would lay it out:

1.    Research + strategy

2.    Taxonomy + sitemap

3.    Content outline + synthesis

4.    Wireframes

5.    Design

6.    Development

7.    Content migration

8.    Test

9.    Launch

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration. – Jeffrey Zeldman

Content Is the Driver, Not Visuals or Structure

Ok, so I just added a few things, right? Well, yeah, but I also changed the focus of the process. It’s not about creating stunning visuals (that’s what your designer and developer are for), it’s about creating a plan based on strategy and content – the two most important things in any marketing program, but especially in websites.

Content is going to solve a lot of problems that websites have. Most prominently, it’s going to help with SEO and drive traffic to the site, it’s going to help with accessibility standards, it’s going to answer customer questions or support customers on each step of the sales cycle, and more. If you take into account those who are using the site, understand their needs along their customer journey, and then provide the resources they need to them, their experience is going to be much more satisfying than if they just saw a cool animation or flashy effect you put on the main nav.

You should always have your finger on the pulse of the broader organizational marketing strategy (see tips on that here), but also think of your specific website redesign strategy within context of that. Below is a simpler way to phrase the content-first approach to web design:

  • Define your website customer (click here for help with that)
  • Understand what they need on each step of their journey on your website, and understand the end-to-end flow
  • Map how / where you can give them that info and how your complement / lead their flow
  • Start determining the specific content and where it goes
  • Write the content
  • Design the site, etc.

Benefits of Content-First Web Design

  • Customer-First Focus: This process puts the customer / personas as the main driver behind the website. After all, isn’t the site intended to help them purchase? It should be driven by their needs, but guide them to make the purchasing process painless and simple.
  • Streamlined Design: If we have our content first, we don’t have to fit the content within the design, but rather, the designers can see the content they need to display. When you design websites around content, it allows the website to take its own form naturally. The content will help shape the wireframes and structure of the site. Gone are the days of hiding content in sliders, hovers, and pop-ups because the designers have the restraints of the content to work within. This is also going to be a huge help when it comes to mobile responsive design. Remember: content is not just “text,” but also images, videos, infographics, etc.
  • SEO and Accessibility: Focusing on the content first lets you build your SEO strategy in much easier. Instead of force-fitting keywords and cramming them into small spaces left by the design, you can let them flow more organically and authentically. If you’ve built your SEO strategy (which content-first website design should enable), then your accessibility will be a cinch.
  • Better Storytelling and Conversation: Getting your story straight is what content-first website design is all about. You can define your user flows and content map early on and truly guide your visitors along a seamless story. It also makes it easier to determine the true call-to-action on each page of the site and to help guide your user along that path.

If you continue to do design-first websites, hopefully you find success. Hopefully, your websites are remembered as fondly as the design-first epic film Labyrinth, but no matter how much people love that movie now, it lost Jim Henson a ton of money. So, what’s more valuable to your business? Revenue or nostalgia?

In a follow-up to this article, I’m going to breakdown the 9-phase content-first website redesign process I’ve outlined above and give detail into each step. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts, please share! Especially if you disagree – I love a good argument!

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