May 20, 2019

Content-driven design: Content first, design second

Posted by Ragna Dik

We asked one of our UX experts 6 questions about content driven-design. Marcela works as a Lead Continuous UX and Design and has joined the Emakina team in November 2018. She is currently responsible for our commerce clients ECCO and Friesland Campina.

What is content-driven design?


One of the major viewpoints on the design process states that, in order to build the right design for any given project, you have to know what the content is before you start designing. If we consider that form has to follow function, for most websites, function is achieved by its content. Though when we speak about content, we do not just mean copy. The content includes a variety of media: From graphics, videos and audio to sexy words. In short, it is all about knowing WHAT your designs purpose is, and how the content you create will achieve that purpose, before you start designing.

A content-first approach offers many benefits: from enabling a better overall design vision to catching problems in the design before they become problems.

It makes it easier to:

  • Build out a good information architecture
  • Design to optimise the content
  • Create consistency across the site
  • Avoid endless rounds of iteration

Why is content-driven design so important?

Content-driven design does not just improve the design process, it also has multiple positive effects for the overall business:

  • Increases the chances of success, by getting your message across.
  • Design is made to support and enhance the content (instead of the other way around)
  • More engagement with the content
  • Result: customer retention is higher

As Jeffrey Zeldman once said, “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” And decoration doesn’t deliver your message. Content does.

How do you create good content?

Good content is based on your users and their motivations. Listening and understanding the needs of your customers is crucial. To create content that caters to those needs, it is vital to understand the journey that they go through. The content you create will be part of a users journey, though something has to happen before they arrive at your content, and something will happen afterwards. Thus, it is important to take the time to understand the routes in and out of your content. Consider the following questions:

  • What has the user seen before he gets to your content?
  • What do we want the user to do or feel when they click a call to action?
  • What is the purpose of a particular navigation label, or element of a page?

Always keep in mind the purpose of the content and the context it is presented in during the design process.

Other questions to keep in mind when creating a content strategy are:

  • What is the issue or opportunity we’re trying to address?
  • What do we want our users to think, feel or do?
  • What research do we have to back this up?
  • Has anything already been designed or tested?
  • Are there any constraints we need to know about?
  • What will success look like?

To what extent does storytelling play a role in this?

We cannot talk about content without talking about storytelling. Any great content starts with a story. Through stories we persuade, motivate and inspire. Our brain is wired to remember powerful narratives. Building stories around a brand increases consumer understanding and engagement. The quicker we capture the users attention, the longer they will stay on your page and the more they will engage with your content. The more they engage with your content, the higher the chance of them converting.

How can organisations cope with creating dynamic content?


User journeys are never the same. And users aren’t either. Users come to your content through different channels, contexts, other types of content, and might have different needs every time. Your content needs to be dynamic and adapt to these journeys. Dynamic content increases conversions by making the customer experience more relevant. Offering personalised and data-driven recommendations, enhancing the search with dynamic content, dynamic call-to-actions (by determining the stage in customers life, the past interactions, buyer personas) are a few ways in which dynamic content can be used to increase conversion.

What are best practices concerning content design?

  • Have a clear understanding of your user and his motivations.
  • Determine the business goals.
  • Understand where the user came from and where you want him to go next.
  • Do conversational prototyping – the easiest, fastest way to prototype a flow: Acting out a dialog between a user and a product. Talking through an interaction can uncover weak or awkward points, or highlight the good stuff. It also lets us explore the boundaries of tone of voice .
  • Make sure you have a powerful story.

Once this is clear, map out how the information should be presented in the pages and its hierarchy, with the content most critical to satisfying user needs and supporting user (and company) goals higher up. Then test it. Even if the design is not there yet.

The shift of working content first instead of structure first will lead to powerful experiences for users and great successes for brands.

If you would like to join a client session about this topic, or if you would like to discuss other prevalent topics, please feel free to connect with our team.

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