Gathering site content

I’m willing to bet that gathering content is one of the weakest parts of your workflow. The bottleneck it can create during a project obliterates launch dates, create client tension and stops you getting paid on time. Gathering content or overseeing content authoring might not beat the thrill of designing or building, but it sure as hell doesn’t have to be difficult.

It begins with the brief. The brief defines the project objectives, informed by business goals, tactics, requirements and restrictions. It should broadly outline the content required to achieve these objectives, be it information about the products your client sells; company background information; latest news. Whatever. Brainstorm with your client, conduct user research and study competing sites to guide discussion as to what content is required. If it’s a redesign, you might have rich analytics data to accompany all of their existing content. The brief is signed off before any IA or design work begins.

IA (Information Architecture, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) isn’t simply about site structure. IA covers user research: user needs, aims, behaviour and knowledge. It allows you to look at content you have, content you need, how to plan for it and how to group it. It should explore and define required content in detail. Format, length, intended audience and relevance to any specific tasks. Is it structured content, like a product page, or unstructured content, like a once-occurring ‘About us’ page? IA is not just a sitemap.

Once you’ve communicated the IA to your client, content authoring can begin. Fail to communicate the IA properly and you can kiss your deadline goodbye. The client must understand what they’re expected to produce. I can’t stress this enough: make sure your client grasps fully the breadth, detail and purpose of the content they are expected to produce.

Your IA work should’ve given you enough of an idea about the content to begin designing the framework for it. With the IA signed off, your design work and your client’s content authoring begin — in tandem.

Don’t leave your client out in the cold. They need reassurance that the content they’re authoring is good, just as you need to know it’ll work harmoniously with the design. Communicate constantly. Writeboards or Google Docs are handy for this kind of collaboration. Provide feedback and incorporate the latest content into your designs. There should be a continual conversation between the developing design and the developing content.

As your client edits and refines, so you design and build. More time spent editing and refining means a better end result. No last minute content dump into the CMS. No long, drawn-out ‘content population’ process, delaying launch. No need to look on in terror as your templates implode with all the extra content they didn’t tell you about. Donna Spencer says it best:

Content shouldn't be treated as an afterthought, or something to be ‘poured’ into the website. Content is the website.

I’m only scratching the surface of a workflow here. If you’re really interested in producing better web content, I’d highly recommend Kristina Halvorson’s ‘Content Strategy for the Web’ and Donna Spencer’s ‘A Practical Guide to Information Architecture’.