The tip that follows will make your website owning/managing/realigning life monumentally easier… from now on, think of your website as having three distinct (but interrelated) elements: content, design, and technology.
When good websites go bad, it tends to be for two reasons. Reason #1 is neglect (and that’s a completely different post), but Reason #2 is because unbalanced emphasis has been placed on either the content, design, or technological components of a site.
For your website (and broader web presence) to satisfy both your users’ needs and your business objectives, equally-weighted importance must be placed on all three. Let’s take a look at each of them in a bit more detail…
Content is anything that conveys information to your site’s visitors in a consumable format (e.g. text, PDFs, graphics, podcasts, and videos). Ultimately, it’s not cutting edge design and tech-y bells and whistles that keep people coming back to your website over time—it’s the content that you publish on it, and the content that you publish to drive people to it.
For clarification, that’s not to suggest “content is king” (as some would proclaim). However, when designing, redesigning, or realigning a site I find it most useful to start with the content. Almost invariably, the decisions you make about content will help you make better informed decisions about design and technology later on.
For instance, how do you best locate and design the primary navigation menu of a website to make it as easy as possible for users to find certain content? Or what kind of CMS will you select (if any) based on the type of content you know your site needs to deliver (both now and in the future)? Having a handle on content allows you to answer these questions, and many others, with confidence.
But beware! As important as it is to start with content, focusing on it to the exclusion of all other things (i.e. design and technology) may leave you with a website full of information that your users want and need, but unfortunately can’t seem to find or access due to a nonsensical or cumbersome interface.
Design gives your website form, assists users in navigating and accessing the content contained within, and visually reinforces your brand. The design of your website evokes particular (and instantaneous) emotions in users, and is inextricably intertwined with the user experience the site affords.
A website’s design should compliment a brand’s existing visual identity—a practice that should be extended to a brand’s online outposts on the social web as well.
It’s easy to tell when too much focus has been placed on a site’s design. Design bias is apparent on websites that offer a fabulous aesthetic experience, but seem hell-bent on making it impossible to find anything useful past the homepage. Another indicator of design bias is a site reeking of self-indulgent, trend-laden “design for design’s sake” that quickly reveals itself to be devoid of any real substance beneath its well-crafted veneer.
Equally insidious is the under-designed site (though not to be confused with intentional, strategic minimalism). Under-designed websites often greet the visitor with a host of frustrating usability and accessibility issues. Ultimately, and similarly with content, the optimal design is one that best allows site users to accomplish their intended task while also supporting the site owner’s business objectives.
Technology is the front-end and back-end magic that makes the delivery of content and execution of design possible. Technology also allows you to engage with users directly on your site, and extend and integrate your web presence in the social sphere.
Technology comprises everything from your entire CMS, to the code used to build your site, to the social share buttons you embed onto individual pages, to membership systems, to any integrated third-party services… the list goes on. You know that the technological components of your website are doing their job when users don’t actually notice any of the moving parts working. From their perspective the experience is seamless.
But when the technology horse has been placed before the content and design cart, your internal and external users will know. One of the most common (and painful) technological missteps occurs when a CMS is selected for the wrong reason (e.g. spiffy features, cost, organizational mandate… take your pick). As much as I love WordPress, suggesting that it’s a one-size-fits-all solution for every website would be ludicrous.
Equally imprudent would be joining the rush to create a mobile version of your site without understanding why users would need to access your site on a mobile device in the first place. Technology must be context-appropriate.
Yet when it comes to technology, it’s all too easy to become distracted by the latest and greatest shiny object. When the only conceivable reason to introduce a new technological feature on a site is some variation of “but all the cool kids are doing it,” a bit of sober second thought is in order. Technology must only be implemented to solve a problem or serve a purpose, especially on a website.
Putting it all together
I’ve ordered this discussion of content, design, and technology with intention. When the development or redevelopment of a website kicks off, in most cases you’ll find it useful to discuss top-level considerations for each element in that order. Later, as the project carries on, things will likely get a bit messier with a few unwieldy double-headed arrows penciled in between the three (as discussions become more granular for the specific requirements of each element).
It’s worth repeating that this initial, loose ordering of content, design, and technology isn’t meant to imply a hierarchy—each element bears equal importance in the grand scheme of your website, as well as your more extensive web presence. Further, each element must be fully understood on its own and also in simultaneous (and highly integrated) relationships with the other two.
But life gets a lot easier when you know where to start.