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"Content First" Approach to Website Development

"Content First" Approach to Website Development

Solve serious business problems by working with your client on getting the website content upfront.

This Article In Presentation Format (37 slides)

Most web designers use "Design First" approach

Now you probably have a web development process something like this - and this is the so-called “design first” approach:

  1. Client signs the contract.
  2. Client pays the deposit.
  3. You start working on the design, using Lorem Ipsum and image placeholders as content, because the client hasn’t prepared any content yet. 
  4. Client approves the design and you begin back-end web development and front-end development.
  5. You’ve completed the website and are now waiting for the client to either deliver the content or enter the content himself. You’ve completed everything but the final testing.

Weeks and months pass. There is no content, there is no payment of the remainder of the fee, and the client is busy every time you ask him about content.

The client finally reappears and starts delivering the content in drips. This goes on for a few weeks or months. Still no payment. 

The client is now all of a sudden dissatisfied with what you programmed and designed. His content does not fit into your design (“Why did you make so little space for the headlines? I thought this was obvious”), there are missing features (“I thought there would be a gallery here, we have a ton of images”) and there are ‘bugs’ in the front-end (“We have a lot of product categories, look at how this pull-down menu looks like now!”). 

The project is now seriously ‘late’. The client is blaming you for your ‘bugs’, conveniently forgetting about the time when they were no-show. You’ve been working for weeks at loss. And you got paid months or sometimes years later than you expected.

A better way to deliver websites: "Content First"

Imagine working like this:

  1. Client signs the contract.
  2. Client pays the deposit.
  3. You consult the client and work with him on content planning and creation, and you didn’t forget to include this work in your price.
  4. Client delivers the minimum viable content, as you taught him and as you agreed.
  5. Only after you’ve received the content do you schedule the project and start working in four phases: 1) back-end development, 2) entering the content, 3) web design, 4) front-end development.
  6. Client pays on time every couple of weeks, as defined in the contract.

The above is the so-called “Content first” approach. 

If you’ve been experiencing delays in payment and sudden troubles with delivered code and design that the client has previously approved, it could be because you’ve been working oblivious to the needs of the real content. You’ve been fitting the foot to the shoe. You’ve been building a house without knowing how many people will live in it and what they need.

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"But this is unrealistic and idealistic"

I’ve researched what web professionals say about the “content first” paradigm. Some are raving about the many benefits they’ve experienced (I am one of them). Some say this approach is great, but unrealistic. 

I say it’s as unrealistic as demanding to get paid on a fixed date. You can make “content first” a matter of contract and good communication with the client. 

Yes, it does seem unrealistic if you believe that there’s something wrong with saying no to the client and being the one who decides what gets done and when.

But let me ask you this: do you command your mechanic about what steps he should take to repair your car? Even if you tried, would he agree to do it if he knew that your demands would get you killed on the street? Wouldn’t you like the mechanic to warn you and stop you from killing yourself in traffic?

Clients seemingly ‘insist’ on “design first” because they don’t know of any better way

Are they to blame? Nobody has ever shown them any alternative. But they do want their project to succeed. They do want you to stop them from killing themselves. “Content first” is that one thing you need to educate your clients about to help them stay alive. 

Yes, clients will be late delivering content. But you’ll get paid on time.

Yes, it will be tough on them and on you to complete all this content work before seeing any creatives of yours. But you’ll get paid to help them.

Yes, the client will change their content along the way and there will be more of it than expected. But you’ll get paid to do more work when there’s more work.

No matter how good your contract is and how good a communicator you are, there will be challenges. That’s the nature of building a website.

But none of the above becomes a deal breaker when it’s you who runs the show and when you talk to the client about it.

Nowhere does it say that you must forever blindly design web pages, design databases, program back-ends and develop front-ends without knowing what content you are designing and developing for. No other profession would agree to working with so many unknowns for free.

And nowhere does it say that you must deliver 95% of the work, be paid 50% or less and wait for months to collect the remaining fee.

You get paid when you say you get paid. You get content when and how you say you should get content. You schedule work when the minimum conditions are met.

And all of this happens based on what you define in the contract which the client has signed and discussed thoroughly with you.

What happens when web professionals run the show

When you take control of the web development process, you make sure that:

  • the project is delivered on time,
  • the client doesn’t have to pay more than they agreed in the contract,
  • there are fewer extra features to be added,
  • there are zero nasty surprises along the way,
  • minor changes can be made without increasing the price, without breaking the website, without delaying the launch date, and without annoying the hell out of your client and your colleagues.

Links to useful resources

I collected experiences from others who use “content first” approach successfully:

You’ll notice more and more web professionals talking how responsive design makes “content first” a necessity. In the future, it will be all about content on a myriad of devices of unpredictable sizes, shapes and functions. If you’ve had trouble with clients complaining how their website behaves on their desktops, wait until your clients start judging your design and development work based on how their website behaves on their iPad one, two, three, and seven. 

The time is now to rethink how we deliver our work and who should have the final say about our web development process. Like I said, this is a big shift. But the problem of delayed payments poses a serious threat to your business and “content first” solves it to everybody’s satisfaction.

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