Questions on content

I was recently asked a few questions about clients and how to get them to provide content. Matthew Smith, who is one of the moderators over at the Textpattern forum, is putting together a series entitled Clients and Designers, and asked me and a few others to contribute our thoughts. Here are mine.

We've spoken before about the client supplying all the content for a site you are building. What does that process look like for you? How do you normally instruct the client on those requirements, what the content should look like, how it should be organized, etc?

For me, the process of gathering content is much like pulling teeth. You know it's in their best interest to have their content ready, and hopefully so do they, but the process is sometimes painful, and takes constantly reminding. I mean, nobody likes to do work, and sometimes the assumption is if we "hire a web designer" all our problems are solved instantaneously, and magic mouth-watering content will somehow fill that database. The truth of the matter is, if you decide to have a website for your business or ministry, it's like adopting a baby.

We as the web developers are the adoption agency contact, serving as a dedicated social worker in the best interest of the child. We know the ropes, have dealt with the process before, and really do care deeply about the little bundle of joy that is a new website. Sometimes though, you will be working with people who just are not going to be good "parents" and will forget to feed that baby. Far too often, once the adoption paperwork has been signed, the infant dies of neglect and malnutrition.

Alright, enough metaphors. Basically, without fresh content, all websites stagnate, and people will quit visiting. If that is the case, then it would be better for the client to have not had a website to begin with. That is the analogy I like to use when working with clients. I try to help them realize that having a website is not a mystical solution to their nebulous problem. It takes hard work to keep things running, and a bit of a time investment to learn the CMS that is powering the site.

The following phrases on your website will make you look like a chump: Coming Soon / Under Construction / Beta. If it is a client's website, it should not be publicly viewable if it is still incomplete, and it never needs the label of Beta unless it is an actual web application that is breaking new ground. If it is an informational site, then there is nothing Beta about it, because that type of site has been done thousands, if not millions of times.

If you are still working on a site section, do not put a link to it in the navigation. For instance, there's no reason that the end-user needs to know that a church is constructing a Missions area of their site until it is actually ready. If you put up a link in the navigation, and it links to a blank page, that gives the impression that your church does not care about missions, because there's no way of knowing exactly how long it has been blank, or when to expect some real content. Instead, keep it under wraps and then launch that new section with a lot of fanfare when it is ready.

If they want me to put all the initial content in, rather than just give them an empty framework, I have no problem with that. In such cases, I require that it be written before I complete their site. Ideally, it would be all drafted up ahead of time. Jesus talks about such preparation in Luke 14:28-30, in which you need to consider the cost of building a tower before beginning construction, lest you be stuck with half a tower built, and become the laughing-stock of the neighborhood. Likewise, pushing a site live with only half the content ready painfully reveals the lack of planning that went into the project.

I would urge anyone considering launching a new site to really put some thought into their content. This means having written copy ready, or at the very least a clear understanding of what sorts of categories and site sections you want. Information Architecture is one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of a website, and can really make or break the entire venture. If your client wants lots of imagery, where will it come from? Designers are usually not photographers. Yes, we have an eye for visual layouts, but do not have a whole pile of stock photography sitting around. Purchasing those pictures from stock photos sites costs money, so have some idea of what the client wants.

Awhile ago, I had my worst client ever. I worked with a mortgage agency that wanted pictures of their managed properties on the site. I asked them when they would make the photos available, and they seemed confused by the question. I am not sure why exactly, because we were in different areas of the country. Perhaps they thought I was going to fly over to their city, then travel around taking snapshots of their properties, which of course I would have somehow be able to identify with my keen Spider-sense, without any guidance whatsoever. In the end, I had to cut them loose because they lacked any semblance of focus, drive or vision for what their site would be about. Not wanting to be a jerk, I gave them all the source files and wrote up specific instructions for an eventual webmaster to finish adding in their content later. Basically, what should have been a "we exist" brochure site dragged on for six months with no significant progress due to lack of content. It has been said before, but I will say it again — Content is King.

Have you ever suggested that a client hires a copy editor?

Typically, I do not mind editing copy. I think that part of being a designer is being able to communicate, and a large component of that is being able to write intelligibly. For more on that, check out the current article on A List Apart by Derek Powazek. It is entitled quote poignantly: Learn to Write.

Last year, I did a website for free for a friend's ministry that would not have otherwise been able to afford to pay for one. It was for Life Light Ministries, an outreach ministry to orphans in India. My friend John is natively from India, and English is his second language. So, while he gave me quite a bit of written copy, much of it needed reworked in terms of spelling and grammar. This was something I was happy to do, and continue to help out with. That would be the exception to the rule though, as obviously I cannot afford that amount of time or opportunity cost for every single person who might ask.

I think that if we as designers are unwilling or unable to do this, at least in the initial stage, then we are short-changing our clients. Once a project has been signed-off and approved, then of course you would want to encourage them to get more help with writing new copy, because one cannot be expected to function in that capacity without compensation. Ideally, they will have people who can write well and have a compelling message to convey, otherwise they really do not need a website, because nobody will visit it anyways. There have been several instances in which someone would approach me about doing a site, usually some sort of get rich quick scheme, but the ideas would be flimsy at best. In those cases, I am thankful that I have the luxury of not needing their business, so I would just tell them bluntly their website would not be successful because of misplaced and unrealistic motivations.

If a client has suggested that they will not have a "webmaster" how much flexibility do you try and build into a site, how much control for change?

I think whole concept of a webmaster is a misnomer. The busy Information Age in which we live has seen a slew of fine content management systems emerge, with which people can manage their own site. I think the whole notion of needing a webmaster is a bit antiquated. To say that you will not have a webmaster is a lazy way of saying "We don't want to think about our website." If that is the case, then they should probably not have a website to begin with. Essentially, if someone knows how to use Hotmail, they know enough to manage their site's content once the initial CMS installation has been handled. Most organizations have someone who handles their print publishing and proofreads articles. Usually, after I have shown people how easy it is to use a CMS, that helps alleviate some of the fear of not having a webmaster, and then they can assign one of the staff members they already have to keep their content updated. If people are unwilling to at least try to learn how to maintain their website, I usually will choose not to work with them. The reason being, my work will go to waste if they never actually put their site to good use.

I look at it this way: You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. We can kill ourselves spending several months planning, designing and building a highly functional website that is extremely easy to manage and keep updated, but if the client is simply unwilling to function as their own webmaster, or does not have the necessary staff to do it, then it is all for naught. I will say it this way — When I develop a website, I am all about putting the client in the driver's seat. If they want to store that vehicle for communication in their garage under a tarp, then it will never see any mileage, and we will never know how well it would have performed. In those few cases where this has happened, I regret having ever worked with them, because the site is not benefiting anyone or changing any people's lives. Sure, it makes for a nice static screenshot in a portfolio, but that is time that could have been better spent elsewhere.