Appendix B
Episode 046 -

Design Should Follow Content

Text reads Appendix B - Design Follows Content

Web design projects in higher education should never start before content has been firmed up. Joel and Kristin from Bravery dive into the reasons why in this podcast episode.
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Joel Goodman
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. My name is Joel Goodman. With me is Kristin Van Dorn. Kristin, why do we do content before design?

Kristin Van Dorn So the reason that we try to do content before design is that designers, while they’re creating a system of tools for expressing certain ideas, if they don’t have a rhythm and an understanding of the key messages you’re trying to convey, and the priorities of those key messages, their design components are not going to be thoughtfully constructed and tailored to your content.

Instead, they’re just going to be adapted from other places or from your current content.

And the problem with current content is that it’s generally not great. If you’re doing a redesign, that probably means there’s a problem, not just with how your website looks, but a problem with how it’s performing. Right? and In our experience and in the research that we’ve done, that usually comes down to the content on the site.

So skipping the content phase just to kind of re-skin what you have will make it look better and, like, you know, might improve the usability a little bit. But for the amount of money that someone’s probably paying for that, I don’t know that there’s actually enough value there to justify that sort of an approach.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that oftentimes, people will assume designing is really decoration. So it’s like, how do I take what I have and make it look more beautiful, make it look more engaging? And I understand that impulse, but what happens when you look at, when you take a decorator’s point of view is that you’re not really using design to its full potential.

So, design has ways of prioritizing and setting up a hierarchy for your ideas. So if you have very specific key messages, if you have things you want your users to remember, if you have actions you want them to take, if you have things you want them to know and understand and engage with, design can help mold those experiences so that they’re intentional. Intention is a really great synonym for design, right?

Like, what we’re doing is a designed process, an intentional process. It’s not something where we just lay it out and let users come and decide what they want to do first. Right? We’re giving them a path to follow. And when it’s thoughtfully done ahead of time for them, they feel more comfortable. They feel like they know how to move through your site in ways that you intend them to understand.

it also can really increase how much users engage with your content and like the depth of engagement. If your content is not well designed or well crafted ahead of time, the designer doesn’t have a way to exemplify certain features or to help a user determine what’s the most important message on the page.

And instead, users end up getting lost. They don’t really know what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to go about it, or what they’re supposed to derive from your content.

One of the hard things for designers coming into a project where there isn’t fresh content, where they’re disconnected from where the content has come from, is there’s usually this expectation that there’s going to be new stuff on the page, right?

Oh, we need to have new pulls and new calls to action and new whatever. But the designers aren’t, in most cases, content designers, content strategists, or content writers. And so, if they’re not given that direction for what sorts of pulls need to be there, or what sorts of calls to action, or what sorts of components need to go onto a page, it becomes a lot more difficult for them to develop something new and something that’s really nice.

And, you know, a lot of times what we see in higher ed is we come into these projects where, it’s pages with just tons of paragraphs, you know, it’s like 15 paragraphs of text, just really dense writing. And, Is it the best choice to just leave it like that? Probably not, but someone needs to go through and pay attention to what text is on that page and figure out what can be distilled, what can be chunked, and what can be pulled out.

And that’s not a graphic designer’s role; it’s not a web designer’s role. That’s the person sitting there managing that content strategy in order to give some direction to the designer.

And that’s not to say that, you know, you need to go through your content docs and say, Oh, I want five stats here, or I need, like, six cards here. But it is saying, like, this content should be grouped, this content should be grouped. Put a call to action that says this here. The intention of this content is to do this sort of thing and then let your designers run with it and figure out the best application of UX and UI practices to make something that’s really powerful, actionable, and useful to the people who are visiting your website.

Yeah, think about it this way. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, Joel. It used to happen to me as a kid all the time when I would be studying for a test. I would remember the layout of the textbook page I was looking for, where a certain amount of information was, and I’d remember the location of the information.

So I’d remember that there is an image in the upper right corner, I would remember how many columns there were of text, and I’d be able to flip through the textbook and find exactly the paragraph I was looking for, exactly the information I needed. You know, like the layout informed what was memorable about that experience or where that information was housed.

And I think that that is a lot of the kinds of memories that we store when our information is presented visually. And so it just helps with repetition; it helps with being able to re-find things that people are looking for, for it to have a unique layout that really provides movement and direction for where users should go next.

Yeah, I think the point of this is that there’s a functional purpose in how that’s designed, not just a, as you were saying earlier, decorative purpose. It’s not just about making something look pretty; it’s about making it look good but serving the purpose that it’s intended for. And if the purpose is just to sit there on a page and not do anything, then okay, sure, great.

But I don’t think any of us really want our institutional content to do that. We want it to have an effect on our enrollment, have an effect on our retention, have an effect on our inquiries, have an effect on our donations, and all of those different things.

Yes, I think, like the larger bullet point here, the big takeaway is that, like the shape of our pages, the kinds of design we give our pages, not only do we design them, but they design us back because they tell us what’s important, what to remember, what to act on, how to engage, and ultimately they Also, they tell us how we should interact with each other in your community.

a lot of the information that you’re giving them is subtly signaling what kind of community you have and how you talk to one another. And that design comes through in not just the words that you use but the visual context you give it.