December 4, 2005

The Content Conundrum

As I looked over my projects at work the other day, I realized that I am working on close to 25 redesign projects. They are in various stages of the process, but a good chunk of them are stalled while the stakeholders deal with the site’s content. It may seem like content should come first— that the content should be the driving force behind the project. But in the university web site setting, I am finding that the motivation for these redesigns is often not content-driven. I am finding that when folks ask for a redesign” of their site, this can mean on of four things with respect to the content:

1. Re-skin

In this situation, folks have realized that the graphic design of their site is old and not up to the quality of other sites at the university. The site was often built by a student about 5 years ago, and it is starting to show its age. They want an updated look and feel”, but they don’t want to do any work on the content of the site. They essentially want their site skinned. Unfortunately, the student that built the site 5 years ago used the worst tag soup you’ve ever seen. There is no way to skin these sites without recoding them. And since I am going to be recoding, I want to make sure that the content is presented in the most effective way. There is no use recoding a design that isn’t working in the first place. So I talk to the client about these points, and see how they feel about taking some time to work on their content. Often, they just haven’t thought these things through (they have jobs of their own, after all) and see the benefits of doing some work on the content and layout. So, I work on the layout, give them some ideas and prototypes, and they approve a design. Then I wait for them to refine the content.

2. Just Give Me a Template

These folks want a new graphic design, and have no idea what they’re going to do with the content yet. They realize the site has some content problems, but they don’t want to deal with them right now. They want me to set up a set of templates for them and hook the site into a content management system so that they can deal with the content later themselves. No problem, I say. I just need a basic idea of how your site will be structured and the kind of content you will be presenting in order to build you an effective set of templates. And then I wait for them to sort this out.

3. Re-arrange

Here, the clients want to update the graphic design and refine the information architecture. They realize that folks are having trouble finding one or two key pieces of information on their site, so they want to make some changes. I spend time going over their content with them, and make some suggestions as to how to make the site more efficient for their users. We come up with flowcharts of content and navigation, layouts, and graphic designs. Inevitably, these site require the writing of a few key items. I wait for these to be developed.

4. Redesign

Then, there are folks that want to truly redesign their site. They have a set of goals and objectives that they want to achieve, and they want to tear the old site down and come up with a completely new site that speaks to these goals. They realize that they will need to rethink their content and re-write large parts of it. We do brainstorming, thumbnailing, prototyping, and come up with some good solutions. These are fun projects to work on, as they get all the creative juices flowing. However, we still end up waiting on that content.

What’s the Holdup?

Why do so many projects stall at the content stage? I think there are several reasons. First, this is the one stage where we as web designers can’t just do the work ourselves. We just don’t have the expertise to write effective copy about the client’s field. We need their involvement here, and our clients are busy. This is one more thing that has been added to the pile on their desk. So, the point at which the web site content makes it to the top of the pile comes down to a matter of time and priorities. Second, often the person on the client’s side that ends up with the task of dealing with the web content has no idea where to start. They don’t spend their days surfing the web like I do, and they don’t have a good idea of what makes effective web content. They are lost, and feel like their drowning under a monumental task that they have no idea how to tackle. They need some help and some guidelines. Third, it’s hard to write good web content. Even the folks that are dedicated to the site redesign and to working over their content will need some time to do this. The content needs some care, it can’t just be pumped out and published without some serious thought, revision, and testing. And finally, as with everything at the university, politics come into play. The site redesign may have been mandated by a supervisor, and the folks in charge of actually making it happen may be swamped. Or they may not really care. Content may have to be approved by all the faculty within a department or another large committee. (And we all know what committees do to efficiency…) There may be internal politics affecting which content actually belongs to this client, as opposed to some other group. Folks may be in the middle of changing jobs or dealing with organizational changes. And on and on.

So What do We Do About It?

I am looking for ways to help clients deal more effectively with their web content. While there are some issues, like workload and politics, that I just need to learn to work around, it seems like there is some education I could be doing to make things easier for all involved. So how do you deal with these issues? Any insights to share? Any techniques that work for you? Let me know! I’m sure these issues aren’t unique to universities, so examples from outside the ivory tower are welcome as well.

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Designing to Your Audience, not Your Administration I have spent the better part of the last couple of weeks looking at every university or college home page in the US. I did this as research for a