Content-First Design

by Steph Hay

Originally published on A List Apart on April 29, 2015.

A few years ago, I started getting into video games like Katamari, Animal Crossing, and Borderlands 2. Their designs are astounding; each feels like I’m having a natural conversation with the game, and each introduces content in the moment I needed it. As a result, the game experience feels so dang smart, and I feel like a hero whenever I play.

Here’s an example from the very first minute of Animal Crossing. All you’ve done is started a new game.

If you watch it, you’ll see the game designers make assumptions about you so they can collect innocuous personal information in a conversational way. When their assumptions are wrong, they respond in a humorous way. No harm, no foul. Yes, yes, yes.

So I started wondering how the video game industry has mastered this art of interactive storytelling so brilliantly. Who are the people on their teams? What are they called? How do they work?

I started reading up on the history of particular games in development, which kinds of themes show up in forum discussions, and checked out job descriptions that Nintendo, Bethesda Games, and Gearbox Software used.

I learned a few interesting things

Game designers start with the story. What they add to the experience complements and builds on the core story; it doesn’t distract from the priority of “accomplish goal,” even when that takes a year longer than expected, as was the case with Journey, Sony’s award-winning game from thatgamecompany. (Journey doesn’t even have a single word as part of the main game story line. Unreal.)

They design for discovery—learning in the moment not only increases retention and engagement, but it’s delightful and emotionally empowering.

I also learned of a unique role that’s part of their design process; it isn’t “copywriter.” It’s called narrative writer, game writer, or story designer.

These are content strategists, and they’re responsible for designing the conversation between player and game.

Content as the product experience is par for the course in the video game industry. And since 60 percent of people (average age 30) play video games—and it’s an $82 billion industry that just keeps expanding into every interface imaginable—it’s to be expected that our web and mobile experiences should feel more like conversations.

So I started practicing what the video game industry preached (and what the advertising industry leaders like George Lois preached before them): start with the word.

I immediately changed my process. I started writing content on day one of projects I was involved with. Those included a mobile utility, magazine, and personal projects. They also included the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) and Ben & Jerry’s site redesigns with Happy Cog, and User Interface Engineering’s conference and webinar content.

AECF, for example, was redesigning its website, which included an enormous amount of content. More than 20 stakeholders from various internal teams had their own set of requirements and goals for the new website. So at the kickoff meeting, we facilitated discussions around how well the content seemed to be meeting audience expectations by asking those stakeholders, “What are the top questions your audiences ask? What are their top complaints?”

That focused early discussions on the communication gaps we could solve with content. We then looked at “top content” and “time on site” data to qualify which pages in the existing experience were drawing the most eyeballs and interest.

What we found was AECF’s research reports were highly sought-after, but the content in those reports wasn’t surfaced in a way audiences could easily find or understand. So we started there in week one of the project, rewriting the research report page using real content from them. After we did one, we asked, “How would someone get here?” and “Where would someone go next?” as a means of determining which content to write next. Doing this enough times, over and over, meant a natural structure (IA) emerged.

This shift of working content first (conversation design) instead of structure first (system design) is how we worked for several weeks, all in a Google Doc, before we ever moved to layout and design. This approach also ended up reverse-engineering the conversation of the website—from most-sought-after content up and out—until we got to the homepage. By then, we’d already written all the content for other pages, so designing the homepage was loads easier.

The artifact we continually used through this process is called a content workbook, and AECF so kindly lets me share it in its naked state.

Working in this content-first way made for the most joyful and collaborative design projects I’d been involved in since starting my web career 12 years ago. They were iterative earlier on, focused on getting real content before trying to structure it (because designing for real content is real), and ended up leading me to join Capital One.

I never dreamed practicing content-first design and talking about it at a couple conferences would lead me to work for a bank. Especially one I knew nothing about. But the idea of creating jobs for people who get that content is product design, well that was too dang good to pass up. So now we’re growing a niche team of UX content strategists, sort of like our equivalent of the video game industry’s story designer.

Part of our process is working directly with designers and product managers to design conversations in plain text. We call them content prototypes, and they take many forms depending on the team and project.

Content prototypes

A content prototype is a Word document, text file, or Google Doc full of words that we can test with real customers to see if we’re speaking their language.

Designers and product managers can make them just as a content strategist or copywriter could. The goal of the prototype is to write the conversation we want to have with someone, then design an experience that best brings that conversation to life, no matter the technology. How to start:

  • Start writing what kind of conversation you’d have in real life if you didn’t have an interface yet.
  • Start writing.
  • Write.
  • And don’t edit. (That’s the hardest part.)
  • Keep writing. How the conversation should go will become clearer the more you write. (And the more you test with other people.)

For example, if we’re designing interactive experiences, we might create content prototypes using loads of if-then statements. (It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book: read some stuff, make a choice, see the corresponding story. Rinse and repeat.)

For example, this is a content prototype the product and design team created for Ideas, which suggests things to do, see, or buy based on your purchasing history.

Before launching the pilot in a few cities, the team wanted to A/B test some language for “Mary,” the persona they were designing for. But they already had an app designed and in regular usability testing. So they actually extracted the content from the design and put it in this Word document to isolate the conversation, then created a B version of that conversation. A few days later, they ran the test with real people. Here’s what Cary Feuer—a product manager on Ideas—said about it:

“Content prototyping FTW” seems like a pretty good tagline, eh?

More to come

We’ve got content prototypes for different kinds of projects at different stages of development, from scripts we can test on the street or in user labs, to content experiments we can deliver through email or SMS, or prototypes that capture the full (real) content across time and channels.

A lot of the content prototypes we’re creating at Capital One are for experiences that aren’t publicly available yet, but I’ll share them as I can in future posts. And hopefully you can get content at the table where you are. Content prototyping changes the way we work. It’s not a piece of real estate on a page. It’s not an asset. It’s experience design, after all.

About the Author

Stephanie Hay leads Capital One’s content strategy team and weekly design sessions for 160 people across 10 locations. She’s a resident mentor at 500 Startups, co-founder of FastCustomer, and co-organizer of the DC Lean Startup Circle.

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