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“Any man who must say, ‘I am the king’ is no true king. “ 

– Tywin Lannister

Content is king. Every designer reading this is nodding their heads right now and may even be thinking of closing this tab, as this phrase is so commonplace and, dare I say, antiquated. If it’s new to you or you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend reading the article published by Bill Gates in 1996 in which he first introduces the concept.

It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the birth of the Internet that we know and love today, as well as an idea so interwoven into our culture. Unfortunately, the reality is that more than 20 years later, content is still often an afterthought when building a digital product.

This isn’t an article detailing all the reasons or ways content strategy hasn’t been a priority. You can read a bit about that in a great article by Jared Spool. This is about the reasons I believe content will finally be a priority in the digital product space in 2017 and onward; it’s about how content is changing and what that means for a product team.

Why Content is at the Forefront Today

Let’s think for a minute about current social factors. There are a multitude of studies suggesting that we have increasingly shorter attention spans in the digital age. Last I heard the average adult’s attention span had dropped to 8 seconds, which is less than that of a goldfish

Whether or not this study is completely telling is a separate discussion, but what we do know for sure is that users have an abundance of options available to them today. If someone can’t easily find what they’re looking for in your product, they won’t think twice about going elsewhere. Unfortunately, we also know that users don’t read every single word on a screen.

Now consider the current informational and political landscape. We’re living in a time where 4 in 10 Americans report that they get their news online, and a majority of U.S. adults (62%) get news by way of social media, either directly or indirectly. Much more attention is being paid to what is being said, who said it, and the quality and validity of that content.

Online platforms such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are feeling the heat and have taken initiatives to vet and filter content. Additionally, these products have begun to push features out to their users that give them the power to report or avoid inaccurate or offensive content. More than ever, the content we each create is critical. This leads me to believe that content creation and strategy will continue to be a growing area of focus for the digital product industry.

Furthermore, Conversational UI and Chatbots are dramatically changing the landscape of digital products and services. What do these two things have in common? Language. An increasing number of nontraditional interfaces are being introduced, some of which may lack much of a tangible interface at all (I’m looking at you Siri, Cortana, and Alexa).

Content becomes even more crucial in these scenarios as words, tone, and personality will direct the entire user experience. A voice-controlled, intelligent personal assistant is a true innovation, and products such as these underscore the simple and timeless premise that the content is the interface.

A Call to Product Designers and Teams

John Maeda, head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic, suggests that writing is the new unicorn skill for designers in his 2017 Design in Tech Report.

Writing is commonly an overlooked part of the design process. Designers are expected to produce mockups, which almost always contain content, regardless of whether or not they have been provided with copy.

Designers make decisions based on content all the time. This can include how to present a call-to-action, what labels to use for navigation, how to structure a workflow or process, or how to strategize for mobile use. Content is integral to our work and to the finished product.  

Even if designers don’t consider themselves to be writers, they’re probably familiar with utilizing or crafting content in the aforementioned scenarios. If a team doesn’t have copy to work with, some common strategies include:

  • Using lorem ipsum (not recommended)
  • Using content from similar sites or competitors (don’t forget to replace it)
  • Creating sample content from scratch

I prefer the latter approach, taking a stab at getting the content as close to useable as I can from both a substance and a tone perspective. You may be wondering, why put the effort into this?

Using realistic content enables the team to properly plan for layout and spacing (both across devices and scenarios). There’s nothing worse than having to recreate or adjust a design after it’s been built because the real content is completely different than what you had planned for.

I find that thinking about content in a real sense puts the team in a mindset to uncover use cases and scenarios that may not be immediately obvious. For example, what happens when there is no content? You’re less likely to miss details such as differing states across roles, empty states, error states, validations, etc.

Realistic content also allows you to get a sense for how your product will be received by potential users. I can’t stress enough the importance of content to a user’s understanding of the overall context, as well as a given task or workflow. In many of the user review sessions I’ve participated in, the discussion inevitably turns to content at some point.

For example, the tester will ask something like: 

  • “How would you find ‘x’?”

In the case where the content isn’t clear the user might reply: 

  • “Well, I would click on ‘x’ but it says ‘x’, so that makes me think what I’m looking for isn’t there… I guess I’m looking for something that says ‘x’ or simply, ‘I’m not sure what ‘x’ means’”.

Reviewing and testing information architecture, labels, and terminology is imperative to creating a successful product. This is especially the case if your product is specialized, complex, or intimidating by nature. 

Just as we value basic layout and typography guidelines, I’d argue it’s important to understand fundamental interface writing. If you’re not sure where to start or you’d like to brush up on your skills, I recommend UX Writer John Saito’s simple guidelines for writing interface content.

Whether you’re a designer, product owner, or other member of a product team, be mindful of the content you’re sending out into the world. Words are a powerful tool not to be taken for granted.

How does content layout and structure affect your online experiences? Let us know what kind of content design catches your eye in the comments section below!


Bill Gates (2010, May 31). Content is King

Jared Spool (2014, June 4). Content and Design Are Inseparable Work Partners

John Maeda (2017, March 11). Design in Tech Report 2017

John Saito (2016, August 24). How to Design Words

Alyson Gausby (2015). Attention Spans.,d.cGc

Zoltan Kollin. Myth #1: People Read on the Web.

Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel, and Elisa Shearer (2016, July7). Pathway to News 

Kristin Harvey (2016, May 16). What Flavor is Your Content.

Jeffrey Gottfried and Elisa Shearer. News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016 (2016, May 26).

Tara Weber (2013, January 16). Does Your Content Travel Well?

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