An Event Apart: Content First

by August 6, 2012

In his opening keynote at An Event Apart in Washington DC 2012 Jeffrey Zeldman talked about the need to keep content front and center in Web sites and the Web design process. Here's my notes from his talk on Content First:

  • Content is really a design problem. Yet the sites we design are often hostile to content. They don’t think about contingencies or how content creates an overall user experience.
  • Only thinking of the content on your site as brochure doesn't prepare you for inevitable changes.
  • Many of our Web sites are hostile to content. Content is often subservient to related links, SEO content, navigation systems, and more.
  • For years Web designers have ascribed to the "3 click" rule. If people can't find something in 3 clicks, they'll give up. But the truth is as long as there's progress being made (moving to goals), people will continue.
  • The purpose of the Web pages is to connect the right user to the right content at the right time.
  • Web designers don't have control over the visual experience of Web sites. Users are in charge of how they view the Web: form the browser they use, to font settings, etc. But now they have even more control.
  • It’s not just the visual experience that you might not be able to control. If we don’t design to be friendly to content, our users will find a way to make the content friendly anyway. Through tools like Instapaper and Readability, people are time and design shifting to experience your content the way they want. This is the evolution of readers taking control over their reading experience.
  • If your design doesn't give user the content they need, they'll find other ways to get to it.
  • This is how the Web works anyway. But we’ve all believed we had control by creating illusions of which browsers and screen sizes our users had. This is a "consensual hallucination" among Web designers. We've never really had control.
  • How can we create designs that don't get in the way of content but still communicate a personality? This is the challenge for designers working on the Web today.
  • Designers are advocates for the user. We're customer service representatives for our organizations. Everyone impacts user experience, which means everyone is responsible to customers.
  • Design that does not serve people does not serve business. When you do things that are anti-user, you are designing anti-user patterns. Example: services that spam your address book without you knowing it.
  • Design that is hostile to users is also hostile to business (esp. in the long term). You don’t want to be the company known for tricking users.
  • If you create designs that trick the user, you're not doing right for the business. Anti-user practices come back to bite you.
  • When things negatively impact the business, business owner pay attention.

Content Precedes Design

  • Design without content is decoration. It used to be that you worked on look and feel before you thought about content. But it’s actually very hard to do design without content.
  • It’s important to have a style that is appropriate but hard to develop that style without an understanding of content.
  • When the Blogger team asked for design templates, it was really difficult to create anything appropriate devoid of content. Doug Bowman made a universal template that was minimalist and ended up on 20 million blogs. It was the best solution for the problem of designing where you don’t know the content. But it’s one of the only success solutions to this problem out there, which illustrates how hard it is to design without content.
  • A design that understands and supports content is always going to be better. Doug's solution is one of the only ones that works devoid of content up front.

Progressive & Responsive Design

  • The days of "best viewed with" are over. Don't force people to use a particular browser to access your content.
  • Progressive enhancement is a universal smart default. Most of agree that it’s a best practice to create an experience that can reach everyone.
  • Responsive design is progressive enhancement taken to the next level for the Web we have now (many devices, many different ways to interact with content). Layouts that adapt themselves to devices can be implemented in many ways.
  • Responsive sites react to the needs of the user through screen size and other contingencies.
  • Responsive design is a small screen design vs. a mobile strategy. You may only need a small screen strategy for your site.
  • Great mobile thinking takes into account the special things you can do on a mobile device.
  • Small screen and limited utility force us to put user needs first.
  • When doing responsive design its important to think about mobile first. Work out content, usability, and what is most important on mobile, then go out to the desktop. "What are the three things that have to be on the page?"
  • Mobile first =user first = content first. This is the way all our Web sites should be made. Thinking mobile first forces you to only keep what matters in our sites. We have to think about usability & content because people on mobile have very little time and screen space.


  • Content is a design problem. Good web design starts with content. Yet our designs are often hostile to content.
  • If our designs don’t serve content, users will find ways to get the content anyway.
  • Mobile and responsive are creating a new interaction design landscape that puts users and content first.
  • If we don’t design with content first, our users will do it for us.