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Text Matters

by Tom Johnson on Nov 5, 2010 •
categories: technical-writing writing

I've noticed something lately. If you redesign your website, almost no one comments. If you make a cool graphic, almost no one comments. If you make a screencast or video, almost no one comments. But if you write a good post (which is 95% text), you get a ton of comments. I've seen this happen over and over. Why is that?

In the realm of content, an image can play a strong supporting role, as can a design or a video. But text is the lead actor. Text engages readers on a deeper level because text allows you to explore and communicate complex ideas in ways not possible with other mediums. In the world of content, text matters. A lot.

Design as Packaging for Content

Given the power of text, it's ironic that the interaction designer, or that design, has been so highly esteemed in organizations. Where I work, interaction designers are key players on projects. They are gods, basically. But when designers leave content out of the user experience, as Karen McGrane says in her IA Institute presentation, designers are, for the most part, merely creating packaging around content.

Users aren't seeking packaging. Users want content. Content is a major part of the user experience, if not the central aspect of the user experience. If you don't believe this, Karen says, the next time you give a gift to someone, give the person a nice package with nothing in it and look at their reaction.

Karen McGrane's presenation at IA Summit.
Karen McGrane says excluding content from the user experience is like giving someone a nice box with no present inside. People don't want packaging -- they want content.

Have web development teams been duped all along about the over-importance of design over content? Content has been marginalized and overshadowed by css and jquery and ajax and image gradients and drop-down menus and all the design aspects around the content. But it's the content that mainly matters to users, not design. The best strategy for design is to foreground the content, to be invisible so that content is the lead actor in the spotlight of the audience's attention.

A Collective Delusion

If content matters so much, why don't we place more importance on it? It seems like the mantra of tech comm for the past 40 years has been, “we do more than write.” I don't know why we've been saying this. Text forms the bulk of most content. Text has the most power to influence and engage users. Writing good text content, particularly for websites, is challenging. Yet we trade our birthright for porridge and try to distance ourselves as much as possible from being classified as "writers."

By the way, if you haven't seen Karen's presentation at the IA Institute, check it out. You'll be pulled in by the way she debunks this "collective delusion," as she calls it.

Her main argument is to persuade information architects that content is an integral part of the user experience and can't be ignored. In all the wireframes and prototypes and designs and other plans for websites, include content. Make it a part of the plan from the beginning. Karen argues,

We as an [information architecture] industry have to stop thinking that our job is making wrappers. Our job is not making templates. Our job is not making buckets that people can put stuff into. Our job is making an experience. And that experience includes figuring out what the content is. So you're going to start thinking beyond the template. Here's what you're going to do .... 1. stop acting like the content isn't important. If somebody says oh no no no, we're going to figure out the content later, if someone says user experience includes IA and IXD and Visual Design, call them out on it and say hey, I think content is part of the experience too.

Sponsored content

Karen is right to include content in the user experience. How could anyone rationally exclude it? If no one else steps up to the plate to champion content, then the designer should advocate for it, because the designer is crafting the user experience, not just designing sleek-looking prototypes.

(By the way, she isn't arguing that designers should function as the content strategist on projects, only that they shouldn't get tricked by clients into thinking content is an unimportant, figure-out-later component. Designers already have enough to handle. Adding responsibility for content to their plates too is impractical.)

Writers as Content Strategists?

Why not put writers in charge of content? From my interactions with writers, writers are analytical thinkers who can assess large chunks of content and see the whole as well as the parts. Writers can create content where its absent; they understand consistency and semantics and connotations. They can read large amounts of content on a website and make connections about organization, structure, and messaging. Writers are thoughtful and strategic. They are content creators, not package makers.

If content serves as the core of site appeal, shouldn't a content expert play a role in shaping and planning that content? In a response tweet today, Karen agrees. She says, "Tech comm people should be all over CS."

Content of course includes more than text. It covers video, audio, and images too. But the kingpin of it all is text. Words. And this is the writer's domain. Rather than trying to move beyond text, maybe we should embrace our strength.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.