29
Nov
12

Content as Structure: A Collaborative Model

Anyone familiar with the process of Web site development recognizes its ground plan:

• Site map
 Wire frames
 Content outline

Although these are common tools of the trade, in my experience, their relative functions are poorly understood. As often happens in agency life, the confusion stems from a misapprehension of roles and responsibilities. But the terminology itself also contributes to the problem; it encourages us to see architecture and content as separate entities, instead of as two sides of the same coin.

For when it comes to communication, content is structure at a fundamental level. That is, not the content of callouts or sidebars, but the rolling out of the Web site’s major themes. As such, structural content must be developed side-by-side with the site map and wire framesthe needs of each balanced against the needs of the others.

To arrive at that balance, an information architect (IA), a user experience (UX) specialist (when these functions aren’t combined) and the copy lead must work collaboratively, using a simple social skill most people revel in: conversation. That’s “conversation,” mind you, not bullying, best-practice-evangelizing, stone walling or any other species of rank-pulling that has wrecked more projects than I can name.

I’m talking about conversation that respects the expertise of colleagues in different disciplines. It implies a team’s willingness to revise or recast until it arrives at a coherent structure flexible enough to accommodate the ebb and flow of the branded message. 

Density, intent and relative value.
The first step is for both the IA and the copy lead to sketch an outline for the site. They then meet to reconcile their visions of the structure, eliminating any page for which there is no meaningful contentwhether because it delivers no value, duplicates material found elsewhere on the site, or repeats information your carefully targeted audience knows by heart.

Next, the copy lead and IA need to establish meaningful user paths. They need to understand: 

 The number of distinct audience segments
 The content that matters most to each segment
 The number of clicks needed to access that content

Based on their analysis they may need to adjust the site structure, but the extra effort is worth it. Users who stay with you online are users who can get what they need from your pagesand fast. 

Written, not “placed.”
As I see it, only after these issues are resolved are we ready to talk about user experience. Developing wire frames before this stage most often leads to three undesirable phenomena: design templates with too many or too few components, with overly elaborate functionality or with excessively formalized directional copy, including my all-time favorite: 

PLEASE CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE NOW.

What everyone needs to know, from the loftiest Account Supervisor to the most under-appreciated programmer, is that wire frame copy, once input, is impossible to erase. It doesn’t matter how often a copy deck is reviewed, revised, proofread and approved, some element of the original placeholder copy will find its way into the release. 

It also doesn’t matter if the placeholder copy is off strategy, graceless or makes no sense at all. Project for project, the only copy that’s completely impervious to revision is placeholder copy someone is simply too lazy to update.

Better that it never be input at all—especially considering it’s completely unnecessary. The function of a wire frame is to delineate structure and function, not surface features like headlines, links or button copy. For everyone’s sake, use “Lorem ipsum…” That’s what it’s there for.

Structured, not “penned.”
For the copy lead, the biggest hurdle is finding an effective way to right-size, streamline and otherwise apportion copy so it fulfills its only function: to create structures that channel your message and motivate your audience. By corollary, the function of Web copy is not to:

 Showcase literary talent
 Audition for Comedy Central
 Emulate a TV news anchor from 1962

That’s because effective Web copy rolls out both the brand narrative and the localized product story in a coherent, appealing and emotionally compelling way. To accomplish this, however, the copy lead needs three essential tools: an eraser, a pair of scissors and the patience of a saint—to to steer clients away from drowning their message in a viscous stew of “benny bullets.”

While the elements of the process I’ve outlined are simple, their implementation requires a shift from a top- down, assembly line approach to an organic development, an outgrowth of decisions arrived at by a real consensus. Best of all, it’s a process you can bring online anytime, even if your creative staff isn’t entirely composed of Smurfs. 


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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