Content and Design Are Inseparable Work Partners

by Jared M. Spool

Sometimes, I wonder if we should screen usability testing participants based on their fashion sense. Certainly, this user wouldn’t have made it into this session. But we didn’t and here she is.

For the last few minutes, she’s been shopping for a coin purse and she’s found one she loves. Not something I would buy, but it’s her prerogative. When you’re studying e-commerce sites, sometimes you learn the realities of what people buy. It’s not always pretty—literally.

Yet how the purse looked wasn’t the problem. Well, sort of.

As the shopper described what she wanted, this purse seemed perfect for almost all of it. It had a design she told us she loved. It was small enough to fit into her bag. It could hold her credit cards. So far, so good.

It looked like she was ready to purchase—the part of the session the design team was most interested in seeing. Yet she had stalled and was staring at the page with a puzzled look. “What’s up?” I ask in my best moderator voice.

“I can’t tell if it has a zipper,” she replies. She tells us her last coin purse didn’t have a zipper and all the coins would leak out and litter the bottom of her bag. This annoyed her.

“I would buy this if it has a zipper,” she pronounces. But we can’t see evidence that it has one. The pictures are awkward. Maybe it does or maybe it doesn’t? Nothing in the product copy says it has a zipper, but nothing says it doesn’t.

We think we’ve gotten completely stuck when our shopper announces “I think I’ll buy it, then if it doesn’t have the zipper, I’ll just return it.” Getting it back will thrill the warehouse, I’m thinking.

“Ok!” I say, showing my support for her plan. I anxiously await her to press the BUY button so we can see that checkout process.

But she doesn’t press the BUY button. Instead, she’s scrolling up and down the page, obviously looking for something.

“What are you thinking?” I ask, resorting to one of my all-time favorite moderator questions.

“I’m trying to figure out what happens if I return this?” she asks. “Do I get a refund?”

I instinctively reply, “How would you figure that out?”
“I don’t know.” More scrolling. We click on a link labeled FAQ. Lots of text. More scrolling and no answer.

Finally, the shopper moves her mouse to the Search box and types in ‘Refund Policy’. Next thing we know, we’re staring at an almost blank page focused on the words ‘No Results found for: Refund Policy.’ Silence.

We didn’t see the checkout process in that session. Later, during the session debriefing with the team, I asked if there was a refund policy. “Yup.” Why didn’t Search find it? Long pause. Finally, “because Search is for content and the refund policy isn’t content.”

If It’s Not in the Database, Is It Content?

When teams talk about the content in their design, they often talk about articles and videos that the content marketing team produces. Or, in the case of e-commerce sites, the content is what describes each product.

That’s how the e-commerce site’s team saw it. There’s a database in their system that contains all their product information. It contains all the product name, descriptions, specifications, and images for each product. That’s what the team thinks of as their content.

The team decided the refund policy wasn’t content because it wasn’t in that database. It’s a static page, somewhere on the site (though I never could find a link to it).

The search engine was programmed to only look in the database. Therefore, the refund page would never be found, since it didn’t live there.

I’d like to say this perspective of what content is or isn’t is unique to this one team who made an e-commerce site selling coin purses. Unfortunately, it’s a pervasive opinion in many organizations. (Yes, it’s the primary battle many Content Strategists fight every day.)

Content Is What the User Needs Right Now

Recently, I watched a participant struggle with an airline site to produce a boarding pass. Getting that boarding pass would bypass the ticketing lines, get them through airport security, and onto the plane. For them, that desired sheet of paper held tremendous value.

The airline’s site was doing everything it could to show them all sorts of content they didn’t want. It wanted to tell them about the frequent flyer plan, firearm policy, how to purchase extra miles, get better seats and other items not related to the boarding pass.

While the boarding pass was the single most important thing to the passenger at that moment, it seemed to be the least important thing to the airline. The passenger became more frustrated with the airline with each passing offer and informational screen thrust in their way. It was a perfect example of watching a brand destroy its desired reputation of “friendly” and “easy,” as the design was neither.

I’m betting, for the airline’s design team, the boarding pass isn’t considered content. No author created it. It’s probably not in the purview of the Content Strategy group.

The organization doesn’t consider the boarding pass to be content because it’s algorithmically generated by software. Yet, for the user, it’s the most important content they needed. This disconnect is a huge problem.

We need to shift our definition of content to be what the user needs right now. It has nothing to do with how it’s produced or where it lives on the server. If the user needs it, it’s content.

Design Exists to Help Users Get and Use Content

It’s not news that content is the most important part of a design. For years, Karen McGrane has told us that working on a design without considering the content is like giving your best friend a beautifully wrapped empty box for their birthday. They’ll enjoy opening it, but will be sorely disappointed with the results in their entirety. And recently, Steph Hay reminded us that “content is the entire reason people come to a design in the first place.”

The new thinking is that content creation and management cannot be a separate endeavor from design creation and management. That we need to inseparably integrate the two, structurally and organizationally, to create great experiences.

For a few years now, we’ve been working to identify the skills found in great UX designers. Through a lot of research, we’ve narrowed the list to eight key skills: user research, interaction design, information architecture, visual design, copywriting/content strategy, design process management, information design, and editing/curation.

The thinking, until recently, has been that content was just a piece of the puzzle. An important piece, yes. But still just one piece of a large puzzle.

The coin purse e-commerce system shows us that we can’t talk about the content without discussing the information architecture elements, like the site’s navigation and the search function. Nor can we talk about the content without using design techniques, such as user research, to uncover what is important to communicate to the user. The airline boarding pass example shows us how interaction design, visual design, and design curation play a huge role in delivering content successfully.

Content and Design Are Inseparable Work Partners

Our users don’t separate our design from our content. They think of them as the same. So, why don’t we?

Historically, it’s been an organizational need. The content group is one set of folks. The design group is another. They meet in conference rooms and occasionally at going away parties, but mostly they’re apart so they can focus on their work.

Because each job was complicated, we kept them apart. Merging them would’ve created more distractions without solving any real problems. Some of that attitude was because we had crappy processes and tools. But mostly it was an issue of control and the fact that we didn’t know better.

Now that we can study how our content and our designs affect the users’ experiences, we clearly see how this separation is hurting us. We must change it.

Organizations like the New York Times get this. For years now, they’ve had design teams sitting on the newsroom floor. This integration let them quickly put out sophisticated interactive pieces to explain complex news stories. The UX designers are considered part of the editorial team, not an adjunct department. They’ve integrated their organization and it shows in their design.

Our user experiences are a reflection of our organization’s structure. If we want content and design to feel integrated, we need to integrate our organization.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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