by Robin Teets, Founder of Aria Strategies and a Group 2 Strategy Partner

How Web Content Architecture Blurs the Line between Writing & Design …… And What it Means to Web Development

In my agency days of the late 90s and early 2000s – the roles of “Content” i.e, the written word in its various forms, and “Creative” i.e, design, in Web site development were usually quite clear. Content was the steak, creative was the sizzle. Separate. Yet equally important.

For most of the past 20 years since the first business-driven Web sites began to appear, the goal of Web design has primarily been to grab attention – to impress through ‘look and feel.’ And written content was designed to hold that attention – to inform, to educate, to sell. Put the two together, the theory goes, and you get the best of both worlds. You get to be pretty and smart.

Has this changed? It’s clear that it needs to. And I think it has.

Thanks to smart phones, we now literally have a world of information in our hands; anything we want to know or see can more or less be accessed by a few taps on a touchscreen. Including your Web site. If users don’t quickly find what they’re looking for, they simply move on to the next click. Too much design, too many words, they just get in the way.

By changing the tools on which we access information, our behaviors as users have been altered. This has important implications for companies in how they think of their Web sites and how they approach development. The goal now must be to get the user to the information they want, or think they want, as quickly and clearly as possible while weaving in what you want them to know along the way.

Changing the Game through Content Architecture

Utilizing a content architecture model – often coupled with responsive design – has become the most pragmatic way to address the needs and habits of the changing user/consumer. This means we’ll all need to do a better job of:

  1. Understanding the targeted user and what they want to hear;
  2. Getting familiar with the various ways they search and navigate for this information;
  3. And developing a matrix of concise content that meets their needs as succinctly and directly as possible.

When executed properly, this approach to Web development can also have an exciting side effect: the convergence of written content and creative design. The resulting new “content” that forms a company’s Web presence is an integration of two formerly distinct disciplines.

What It Means for Designers

The role of design is as important as ever, but what we ask of designers has evolved.

  • Design must first facilitate usability. This means designing to wire frames that create new parameters for creativity. It means ensuring that pretty doesn’t get in the way of smart.
  • Designers must think more like traditional marketers, figuring out how to use creative approaches to communicate information clearly. ‘Look and feel’ is important, but no longer dominant.

What It Means for Writers

Web writers have also been forced to change. Never before have they had to communicate so much with so little space and so few words to an audience whose information consumption habits are so dramatically different than they were just a few years ago.

  • Writers must rethink how to get their messages across on the (very) small screen to audiences with increasingly shorter attention spans.
  • They might need to admit that a graphic approach can be the best way to deliver a message. Sometimes the smartest approach is to just be pretty.
  • Writers will need to think more visually to maximize the impact of their message.

What It Means for Clients

Clients, too, need to change how they think about Web development.

  • First, they need to find a qualified Web content architect to lead them through a structured process to optimize navigation and interconnectivity.
  • They need to be prepared to think of their Web site through the mind of the user. Understanding use patterns and developing content to fit those patterns – as opposed to a more internal view – is increasingly critical for developing an effective Web presence.
  • They need to ensure that design and writing resources are familiar with a content architecture model, and can be comfortable and effective working within its parameters.
  • And they need to set new, more integrated objectives for your entire Web development team, and then judge the output accordingly.

In today’s Web development environment, marketing content creators and the clients they serve must be ever more strategic, clearer and concise. They must lean into each other’s traditional disciplines and roles to better understand all goals and perspectives. And they must work in an increasingly integrated way with an external view focused on users.

It’s a challenge, no doubt. But one we must all meet to deliver real value on the Web. There’s one more side effect of this convergence: it’s kind of fun.

Have a perspective on the thoughts presented above? Questions about content architecture? I’d love to hear from you.