Want to dramatically improve your digital experiences? Focus on this, above all else.

Published August 4, 2020.

Here’s a question for you:

Why do you visit websites, use apps, and interact with social media and other digital experiences?

Is to right click and admire the source code? No way.

Is it to stare at the colors and design elements for hours on end as if they’re a work of art? Nope.

There are only four fundamental reasons why we interact with digital experiences:

  1. To connect with others.
  2. To learn something new.
  3. To get something done.
  4. For entertainment and distraction.

Can you see what these things have in common?

They’re all driven by content — consuming it, creating it, or acting on it.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re streaming your favorite show, communicating with family and friends, learning a new skill, shopping for new shoes, or executing a transaction inside your online banking account. Digital experiences are all about the content.

That’s why I believe content is the single most important element — more than visual design, code, or anything else — and it should command the majority of your attention on your own digital experiences.

Think of content as the heart: Without it, the experience dies.

To illustrate this fact, here’s a demo I’ve given a number of times over the years, most publicly at the October 2019 San Diego Accessibility and Inclusive Design Meetup.

Let’s say you’re shopping for a CX / UX consultant, and you happen to land on my Deedub Inc. website. This is what you’ll see:

A screenshot showing Deedub Inc. logo at upper left, navigation at upper right & a midpage photo of Dave Woods with intro text set on a sky blue background.

Now, let’s do a little experiment and shut off the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) code, thus removing all elements of visual design and formatting, leaving only the raw HTML content:

A screenshot showing the same contents as the last one, but completely disheveled with no colors, special fonts, or other visual formatting.

Definitely not as effective or inviting, but still readable and usable because all the content is still there.

Now, let’s do the opposite and remove all the content, but keep the colors, shapes, and other visual elements:

A screenshot of a white nav bar, white circle, & sky blue page body that is completely devoid of all text, photos, links & other content.

Wow. Not at all usable or useful, is it?

At this point, you might be thinking “OK Dave, that’s true of content-driven marketing websites, but it’s not true of apps.”

Alrighty then, here are some screenshots from a ride I once took using a popular ridesharing app (with some heavy editing to hide the real identity of my driver):

Three screenshots of various areas within the app, one showing a map & route, another showing info about the driver & the third showing settings & options.

And now, let’s do the same and remove all the content:

Three screenshots showing the same three areas within the app, but completely devoid of all text, photos & icons.

Where am I going? What time will I get there? How much does this ride cost? The app is completely useless without this critical content.

“But Dave,” you say, “this isn’t a realistic simulation because we would never launch a digital experience without any content.”

Fair point, so let’s highlight a more realistic example:

Have you ever come across a website home page that is hopelessly cluttered and messy — the kind where you can spend a solid minute staring at it yet never find what you’re looking for?

Of course you have, we’ve all seen them. (I would show a specific screenshot here, but I’m not a fan of named public shamings, and I also don’t want to violate any copyrights.)

Some of the worst offenders are government and school websites. All too often, they have 50 or more links, buttons, sentences, images, and other elements of content just thrown indiscriminately onto the home page. Worse, the content is often out of date or saddled with cumbersome, unhelpful language that makes it harder to comprehend and navigate (anyone up for some acronym soup or “click here” chowder?).

How do these sites get so bad? Because they’re typically developed without even the slightest strategy for organizing, creating, and maintaining their large volumes of content (more on this in a moment).

And finally, one additional realistic example: the smart speaker.

A white Apple HomePod sitting on a blonde woodgrain tabletop.

It doesn’t have a screen or input device. As a result, there’s no visual user interface to design, view, touch, or click. No colors. No textures. No buttons. Just spoken words — it’s 100% content.

Now can you see why content is so critical to the success of your digital experiences — especially in a world with an ever-increasing number of small-screen and no-screen devices?

It turns out the old expression really is true:

Content is king. But…

Sadly, you’d never know it by the sorry state of many digital experiences.

In fact, I felt compelled to create this demo and write this article because I regularly see overwhelming evidence that most people and organizations don’t take content seriously.

The most notorious example is when designers insert latin “lorem ipsum” placeholder text into their user interface mockups rather than using actual content that would better inform the design.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As a consultant, when I’m approached by a potential client about a website redesign project, it’s often obvious that they haven’t given much thought to their own content. For example:

Another major cause of content-related friction: Most people have no idea how much work actually goes into making a quality digital experience. They also completely misunderstand who or what is responsible for the various elements of the experience.

For example, in many organizations, upper management sees a need for a new website or app and immediately thinks “it’s technology, so it let’s assign the project to the IT department.”

The obvious problem is, IT teams don’t usually employ any content-related professionals (why would they?), so the deficiency is built-in from the start.

To make matters worse, outside of IT, many of these organizations have no in-house design or UX teams, and they’re lucky if they have just one in-house communications or marketing professional on-staff (most have none). This is especially true in governments and K-12 school districts.

Combine these factors with limited budgets, and is it any surprise that the state of digital content is so bad in government, academia, and beyond?

A related (and stunning) factor is that some people genuinely believe software is a magic bullet. Just purchase a proprietary content management system (CMS) or website builder based on promises made in a slick sales pitch and, poof — insta website!

Of course, it doesn’t actually work that way. The software is merely the foundation. People still have to actually build the website on top of it — including the content — and that can take 100s or 1,000s of hours.

Despite this fact, I continue to see organizations chain-smoke content management systems, and with every resulting redesign and relaunch, they’re perplexed why people hate the new website as much as the old one. That’s like having terrible, uncomfortable furniture and deciding the solution is to repeatedly move from one house to another — but hanging on to the same bad furniture with every move.

And perhaps the saddest (yet funniest) example of all: I once heard a high-paid city manager proudly boast that his city’s new website “cost only $200.” In reality, the $200 only covered the cost to license the CMS. I guess the 1,000s of pages of content on the site just wrote themselves, right? (And, yes, this particular city’s new website turned out as bad as you’re imagining.)

But government and academia aren’t the only offenders. The biggest shock I’ve seen is resource-rich corporations that recruit large UX teams that seem awfully light on content-related talent.

For example, here in the San Diego area, I occasionally check job listings to get a sense of what’s happening in the local UX industry. Sadly, I rarely see the word “content” mentioned inside these job descriptions. In fact, I recently did a random sampling of 20 UX-related job opportunities, and only two of them included legitimate content-related responsibilities.

To my fellow design and UX pros, I love you, but in all seriousness… How will we ever create truly amazing experiences if we don’t sufficiently incorporate the most important piece of the puzzle?

Add it all up, and it becomes clear:

The reason for our discontent is because we’ve chosen to dis content.

So, please, use this article as a source of inspiration. Consider it a rallying cry to take content more seriously.

Hire or partner with content strategists, content creators, storytellers, and content-minded design and UX pros (and if you don’t know who to turn to, I happen to know somebody with stellar references).

Scrutinize every content-related detail, right down to the tiniest microcopy inside seemly-insignificant links and buttons.

Let’s improve people’s lives by enhancing our digital experiences — one page, article, email, social media post, photo, video, audio clip, icon, and word at a time.