Breaking Development: Designing with and for existing content

by April 8, 2013

In her presentation at Breaking Development in Orlando FL Sara Wachter-Boettcher shared how we can take a deeper look at our existing content on the Web and move it forward into a multi-device/context Web. Here's my notes from her talk on Designing with and for existing content:

  • People are very eager to jump into mobile. We're making good progress but sometimes we rush into things without taking a look at the bigger picture.
  • Many mobile solutions are just a band-aid for existing organizational issues. We're afraid to tackle the real (often bigger) issues that are responsible for our situation. Organizations don't have time for a map, they just need to get things done.
  • But the real solutions are not quick, surface-level changes. They require us to take a hard look at our existing content and how we can make it work better for us on mobile and beyond.

Hard Truths

  • Making things look simple is easy. Making something simple to use is much harder (especially when the underlying systems are complex) but that's what we should be doing.
  • Designing for ourselves is easy. We can manage complexity because the teams are small and the problem space can be controlled.
  • But the real problems exist in organizations that are just average and have complex systems to manage.
  • If we only focus on making things look simple, the real content issues underneath will still lead to complexity. People will hit a wall of messy content when they try to get things done.
  • What leads to messy content: complex topics, changing terms/additions, endless modifications, and aging platforms. You can't build a good experience if you are trying to build on top of messy content.
  • You can't simply add some media queries to solve these deeper content problems.
  • What is structured content: trim and compact, modular so it can be moved, logically broken into parts, clearly labeled, and cleanly stored.
  • Is structured content available in an API a strategic priority? It is if you don't have APIs in place already.


  • If you want to get inside an organization, get into their content. Content audits allow you to see all the content you have on a site.
  • Content audits can be mind-numbing but they actually give you a handle on your content - they can be eye-opening.
  • Too much crap slows people down, they want to get to the information they actually need. Many mobile sites deal with this issue by simply removing content. Instead, go through all your content and figure out what you need everywhere not just on mobile.
  • Find out what you have: quantity, location, and topic. If you don't have the time to do this yourself, hire someone to help you.
  • Your content needs to be working for you. If it isn't doing its job, you don't need it.
  • During an audit, you'll find a lot of content rot: outdated or useless. This content can simply be removed. One large audit found that 30% of content had "rotted".
  • You may also find examples of "fluff": content that is overly wordy and ultimately meaningless. This content can be streamlined and optimized.
  • The long term win of understanding content is opening up conversations about priorities and roadmaps of content. This helps people not only understand but care.
  • Designing for content out: how can you do this when you have lots of content? You can't work from the content out on every page -its too much. Instead focus on representative content. Representative content will help you develop useful, meaningful templates.
  • Ask up front: what are the kinds of things we are publishing? What shape do they have, what pieces define it?
  • Content types are based on shape and purpose, from these elements you can define requirements for each kind of content.
  • The long term win of content types is understanding how content supports your strategy. This gives you a way to evaluate what content you actually need.

Systems, Not Pages

  • If you want structure, you have to find the relationships between content.
  • Large navigation systems are challenging across devices. The more you can interconnect content, the less navigation you need.
  • A lot of content is not connected because people think of it as pages, not as a system.
  • Metadata provides additional information about content: usually behind the scenes but sometimes exposed to end users.
  • Rule-based layouts use metadata to decide how and where to display content. Metadata allows helps align content to appropriate layouts and priority.
  • Content is easier to access in lots of natural, useful ways without relying only on the structure of pages.
  • When content is a system that supports the business, it is not just one destination. People begin to collaborate and think more broadly on the effect of their decisions on the whole.
  • We all work hard at honing our craft and learning new techniques. We want our work to be effective.
  • Don't let crappy content make your solutions crap. Stop focusing just on surface-level solutions that make things look ok... tackle the hard work to really improve things.