Thursday, February 2, 2012

Content, structure, and design

A simple website has content, structure, and design. Those elements relate to each other, but you’ll have a much easier time managing a website if you treat those elements separately.

The content is the words and images on your website. The content is why people come to a particular page. It’s what Google indexes, and it’s what people search for. Good content (interesting, funny, current, informative, accurate) satisfies users. Without good content, there’s no reason to have a website.

The structure is the way the content is organized on your website. The structure is how you organize content onto individual pages and how you link those pages together. Good structure allows users who are already on your website to find more information on your website without resorting to a search. Without good structure, your website is at best an arbitrary bunch of pages and at worst a confusing or infuriating morass.

The design is how the content and structure looks. The design includes the page layout, font choices, color scheme, and navigation elements. Good design allows users to focus on the content and structure. Without good design, your website may prevent users from finding or using the content that is actually there.

The most common reasons that people want to update a simple website are because the content is stale or because the design is stale. It’s vitally important to figure out which is the primary problem that you are trying to solve. Updating the content is usually easy, no matter what the design looks like. Just find the old content and replace it with the new content (or add new content). Updating the design can be easy or hard, depending on how the site was created. CSS is useful because it allows you to have one file—a style sheet—that contains the design for many pages, so you can update the design across all of those pages just by changing the single style sheet.

Even though updating the content is easy as an isolated task, it is infinitely more difficult to do on an ongoing basis. You have to have a true continuing commitment to updating the content, with an identified person who is responsible for doing so. If the person with the technical knowledge to update your website is not the person with the content knowledge, both people have to work well together to make sure that the content is updated. A terrible and common mistake is to put the designer in charge of updating the content, which cannot succeed unless the designer has the appropriate content knowledge.

A second common mistake is to think that updating the design will somehow update the content. If your content is stale, putting resources into a new design is a distraction. A new design may be entertaining, and it may initially fool users into thinking that the content is fresh, but it cannot solve a content problem.

You can avoid both of these mistakes by clearly separating the work of updating the content from the work of updating the design. When your resources are limited, this clear separation of work becomes even more important so you can prioritize appropriately.

The content on your website can be divided into two categories: durable content and time-sensitive content. Durable content, such as your contact information or your core mission and services, does not need to be updated regularly. If you don’t have the time, resources, inclination, or commitment to update your content regularly, then limit your website to durable content.

Right now I’m watching an organization ignore all of this advice. They realized that they no longer have anyone who is willing to update any of the time-sensitive content on their website or associated blogs (or even to send a list of updates to someone with the technical knowledge to make the updates). The correct solution is a combination of: (1) finding someone who is willing to update the content, and (2) removing or archiving time-sensitive content that will not be updated. Instead, they are investing scarce resources into redesigning the website (badly, as it happens), removing much of the durable content in the process and leaving primarily time-sensitive content. At the end of this process, they will still have no plan for updating the time-sensitive content, and they will have lost most of the embedded value in the established website. It’s painful to see, but it’s very hard to look away.

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