Content Before Design: 3 Steps to Better Websites

A Content Strategy Is Necessary for Successful Web Design

If you’re in the process of building or redesigning a website, developing a content strategy before designing your website is critical. Content strategy keeps your website anchored to the most important things, so you can deliver a user experience that meets their needs and business goals. You don’t need to have every single line of copy approved before the design process starts, but it is imperative to make some of the big decisions about what content to present, how to present it, and give weight to what matters most.

What is Content?

It is information about your business that helps people decide to buy. It’s what you communicate. It’s how you communicate. It’s the tone and style. It’s what you emphasize and what you don’t. It’s how you tell your story.

Why You Need Content

Without good content, there’s no reason to visit a company’s website, read their tweets, open their emails, or care about anything they say. Most importantly, there’s no reason to interact with a company or build a relationship with them.

Why Must Content Come First?

"Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration." Jeffrey Zeldman

Decoration doesn’t sell products.

"We don’t want our content to break the design." Margot Bloomstein

A broken design is just as pitiful as broken copy. And u dnt liik to reed that do u?

"If we design before we have content, we effectively create the packaging before we know what’s going to go in it. And if the content doesn’t fit the package, there are only two options: start from scratch, or try to jam the content into the existing package. We don’t want that."  Rian van der Merwe

Designing without content is ineffective and can cost you additional time and money. 

"Content provides value only when it communicates a message or assists a user in completing a task—anything else is just dead wood." Felicity Evans

Dead wood doesn’t help you acquire new customers.

"It’s time to stop building the house without knowing how many bedrooms it may need. It’s a paradigm shift in the way we think about building websites. But it has to be done. Because you know what they call things that are beautiful, but have no function? Useless."  Mark Boulton

Useless is what gets people fired.

"It’s inherently impossible to design a great user experience for bad content."  Kristina Halvorsen

You can’t design well with bad content. 

How to Start with Content First

1. Perform a Content AuditNo need to reinvent the wheel. Find out what existing content you already have. This means documenting your website content and evaluating it. Use an excel spreadsheet or tools like GatherContent to work through all of your content, recording the link, titles, keywords, document type, owner/maintainer, and other key notes. This is a great opportunity to do a ROT analysis. ROT stands for redundant, outdated, and trivial. suggests identifying these types of ROT content:

  • Outdated news or events that are represented as new
  • Welcome or overview pages that repeat content on lower-level pages
  • Useless information and unrelated links
  • Broken links or missing content
  • Mislabeled headers and page titles
  • Missing or duplicate meta page descriptions and keywords
  • Outdated contact information

2. Determine Messaging HierarchyIf you’re not giving people the right information, it doesn’t matter how you dress it up, it’s not valuable to users. So, first, focus on what the right information is. And then make sure you prioritize it so that users can easily find it.

You can do this by creating a messaging hierarchy. Stephanie Hay, a usability-focused copywriter, recommends setting up a table with three columns: one for the message the user reads, one for the associated business purpose, and one of the underlying business outcomes.

Next, you need to determine the prioritization of the messages. What’s most important? What order of these messages would make the most sense to users? What’s the most logical, intuitive flow? This should guide the rest of the project, including the design.

3. Develop a Content StrategyYou’ll need a plan for what content needs to be created, when, and how. Use your content audit to determine what content is missing and determine what the process is for creating it. Using your messaging hierarchy, determine how content will be structured. What order does it go in? You may also want to document a procedure for determining when content is no longer effective/valuable and should be removed. According to Kristina Halvorsen, at its best, a content strategy defines:

  • Key themes and messages
  • Recommended topics
  • Content purpose (i.e., how content will bridge the space between audience needs and business requirements)
  • Content gap analysis
  • Metadata frameworks and related content attributes
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Implications of strategic recommendations on content creation, publication, and governance


If you’re going to invest the time, resources, and energy into developing a new site or redesigning an existing site, it’s critical to take the time to create a content development strategy to ensure you meet the goals of both your users and the business. It’s so easy to get caught up in the feverish anticipation of getting your new website, but if you want it to be worthwhile, honor the process. Have the patience to do things right the first time so you don’t have to spend more time and energy fixing it later. And finally, as always with marketing, serve your customers first. They are the reason why you are here.

Ready to start your content strategy? Let's strategize.

Content Before Design: 3 Steps to Better Websites