Which came first, the content or the design?

This chicken-and-egg debate has raged for as long as there have been designers, and content needing design. On both sides you’ll find seemingly sound reasons to do one before the other, but to my eye the balance has shifted greatly, where we all too often see UI design happen before content. The house, in my opinion, is being built before we understand how many rooms it should have or how big it’s supposed to be.

With the proliferation of fully-designed themes, UI kits and websites such as Wix that make UI design seem instantaneous, the temptation to design in a vacuum becomes very strong.

To illustrate this point, a student asked me this question recently:

From watching your lectures and reading your articles, I understand that I should design for the content, not the other way around. But are there situations where you can design and code first, before writing the content?

For example, I’m designing a website for book reviews. The length and style of the content is calculable before I’ve even written it, the format is similar for each book, and I can just paste it in after I’m done designing.

Is this a bad habit, or do you recommend always creating and finalizing the content first before doing any design?

The reason I don’t believe you should design before content is this: everything about the design has to support, communicate and reinforce the meaning of the content.

Not the format of the content, not the delivery method of the content, not the length or volume of the content.

The meaning.

If you haven’t seen or read the content, you don’t fully understand what needs to get across to the viewer in the UI. That understanding is what should drive every aspect of design, from the amount of content on a given screen to the layers of navigation needed to determining the appropriate way of interacting with it. Throw in colors, images, font styles and everything in between; it all has to help present, communicate, support and reinforce the meaning of the content.

Designing a UI without that understanding isn’t designing — it’s decorating. It looks nice, but it doesn’t do all it could and should be doing to help the user parse, navigate, understand, anticipate and predict the content she’ll find.

So let’s consider the example above: will this approach work from a mechanical standpoint? Of course.

Will it do all it can or should to reinforce, enhance or increase understanding of the content?

Probably not.

Good user experiences happen when people feel like they’re capable of finding what they need or making sense of what the UI exposes to them. When they can’t do either, they don’t visit or read or use what you’ve built.

So when it comes to delivering positive UX, content isn’t just the most important thing; in most cases it’s the only thing.

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