Designing without content is cooking without a recipe

For UX designers, designing without content is similar to cooking with a bunch of ingredients but no recipe.

On the odd occasion the result is brilliant and delicious, but more often than not, it looks like this:

Mediocre at best. You should have followed a recipe.

UX design typically happens without content

In all the UX projects I’ve seen come and go, almost all have a design brief, and you’re expected to start designing immediately.

With zero content.

And I’m not just talking about words here. Content also includes themes and the feel behind it, think about the kind of dish you’re serving to the user overall. Are you whipping up a romantic dinner or a kids’ party? The ingredients might be similar but depending on the audience the outcome could be totally different.

I, like most UXers, start by creating a sitemap and navigation framework early on, before any wireframes are on the table.

But in order to do this effectively you need at least a draft idea of what content will live on the website or app.

Designing without that often leads to a design needing to be altered to accommodate the content when it’s eventually ready to be dropped in — this doesn’t always work.

Or worse, the content has to be moulded and shoehorned to fit the design, because the design was created without any real sense of purpose.

Sometimes the design dictates the content

There are situations where the design itself dictates what goes on the page. For example, Twitter set restrictions on the content users can create in order to fit a certain design. Pinterest have done the same to shape the type of content their users will create. This is where content follows design.

However, these types of services are the exception rather than the rule.

UXers, Designers and Developers all benefit from having content upfront to work with during the design and build process.

Tips for working without content

If you absolutely must work without content first, a good starting point is to work with the current, live content. A company’s website is its best prototype, after all.

When working recently on The AA’s new website we adopted this approach. Luckily for us in the first phase there were no major plans to change a lot of the content, so we were able to present designs with some confidence that future content wasn’t going to mess up the design solution too much.

Another interesting solution I’ve read about is to work with content from similar products or services.

Let’s say, credit cards. If the client is yet to give you their content, you can research for inspiration on what similar credit cards use. This won’t be hugely different to what your client is likely to eventually give you — this can serve as an excellent guide.

Steph Hay, from alistapart and Lead Strategist at Capital One wrote about a very interesting concept of creating Content Prototypes. She talks about creating a prototype through having a conversation with the user and shows an example of how she did it for a client.

This approach is something I’m very interested in trying in the future.

Don’t fall back to old habits!

We’ve all used Lorem ipsum, but this really should be a last resort. The more experienced I’m becoming as a UX Designer, the more I realise Lorem ipsum can cause problems later on in a project.

It perfectly fits the space you’re trying to fill, but it’s too perfect, and it’s unrealistic to expect that the real content will have the same fit.

Creating a better situation for client and designer

With a content first approach, UX designers can fully appreciate what they need to accommodate on the page, allowing the designer to create a solution that shows off the content at its best.

It’s often difficult for a client to understand the need to provide content right from the off, but hopefully this can shed some light.

Have you come across this problem? What other strategies do you use to help create a content first approach?

This article was written by William George-Carey, Junior UX Architect at Rufus Leonard.

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