If you’re a web professional, you’re probably familiar with Jeffrey Zeldman’s thoughtful exclamation published via twitter, back in 2008 :

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it is decoration.”

This is a line of thinking that i usually summarize as “content first“. It triggered a global reflexion on what should really come first.

Design first ?

When i started building websites in a professional context back in 2000, i was all “design first”: the notion of interface was new to me, so was design, which, like many in the web industry, i learned through technology, but also due to some fine people at LAb[au] that had my ass bleed for not knowing such things as the “grid”. They also introduced me to the ideas of the Bauhaus and a global architectural approach to design: flows, space and time. Looking back, one could say it was very beautiful and inspiring at best, designy-farty at worst: very small fonts sizes because it looks cooler, experimental, very conceptual but barely usable navigation systems as we were exploring the use of interactivity to convey a meaning (see thor website).
Having the opportunity to do that kind of projects, to experiment with art vs. web design was vital to my personal insight into design. But it can only work if the target audience is ready for the extra learning curve and has the right technical knowledge and setting. That was seldom the case and I feel some projects never received the recognition they should have because of that. Today, these projects stand like lighthouses to me: they point at a sensible direction that you should try to get to, but, you know, try not to go that far and make sure your users follow along.

Client first ?

As i became a freelancer, of course satisfying the customer became my prime objective. Besides, i love to please people so it’s not like i was fighting my own nature. The projects i’ve done during the first part of my freelancing career pretty much had me saying “yes” to everything the customer would want. Hello project creeps and blown up deadlines. Still, i learned to argue constructively and to say “no” with sound arguments, maintaining a dialog that is very much appreciated by the customer and if i am happy about one thing in that “client first” phase is learning to design with the customer, rather than for it.

User first ?

Every web professional knows and does that: as soon as a website is launched, it’s like a new baby: you have to care for it and watch it closely, see it grow, afraid it doesn’t. We do that via web analytics. Pretty scarce and rudimentary at the time, it grew much better with Urchin, which was eventually bought by Google and refactored as Google Analytics. This introduced the notion of “conversion rate”: you could actually measure which part of your visitors would actually click on that “subscribe” or “download” button that was the core reason for the website’s existence in the first place. I soon learned that if you want to get your visitors to do as you hope, you need to understand it and anticipate its context, needs and objectives. Welcome usability and Steve Krug’s famous “don’t make me think“, it was all about the “user experience” which should be carefully crafted around its mental models and objectives so that using the website would be perceived as positive and successful for the user.

Content first ?

When Zeldman’s quote had its buzz in 2008, i understood it as a way of saying: “if you, as a designer, don’t love the content you are being asked to shape in an interactive and graphic manner, then who will? ” – kind of like a call to actually read the content, understand its core value, its structure and optimize it so that it could be perceived by the user as presenting good value.

Think about it : if the creation of a website was a theater performance, what would be the protagonists and what would be their personal stakes in the project?

  • The web designer (me / my company): earn a living, enjoy and live its passion
  • The website owner (customer): have the website perform a high conversion rate, meaning: connecting to its target audience and providing something valuable to them
  • The website end-user: realize personal objectives through the website in a way that feels efficient and valuable.

Conclusion

Although i like this “content first” approach, especially in the fight against the trend of “template” design (the “one size fits all” approach), i feel it’s really the people first: the customer, the designer and the end user.
At least, these are the people entitled to judge whether a website is successful or not. It’s not the conversion rate, nor the ideas behind the interface, nor the user experience that should matter first: it’s the whole at once.

With this lame-ass conclusion I’m done here, but if you like this topic, make sure you read this excellent post on Content strategy by VanSEODesign. that sparked my writing.