How to Design Flexibly to Manage Content

John Newton's picture
John Newton
Sereno blog

As web developers, I think we're all pretty much in agreement that the old Photoshop-led approach to design look-and-feel first is not the way anyone should be working these days. However, this leaves some designers and print-led web agencies somewhat nonplussed. How do you design realistically and loosely around emerging site architecture and UX elements?

I think many designers want to nail everything down. This is wholly understandable given their experience of dealing with print (no second chances) and of managing client expectations where the design can be seen as the fixed blue-print for all development. I also think it's too early for many designers to fully appreciate the flexibility needed when designing responsively for mobile too. This is a habit that needs to be developed over many projects - I'm not just talking about a site that also works responsively but a site that really works well on multiple devices because someone has thought-through these issues at every step of the way.

It also helps if you've actually had to support and run responsive sites for a while.

This stuff isn't always easy and we're all learning all the time. A recent article from usability expert group Nielsen/Norman Group highlights the importance of flexibility in templating designs with content in mind. As designers by and large do not deal with dynamic web content, it can be hard for them to accommodate the fuzziness around flexible layout areas.

Why can't we have all those elements lined up?

Well, if we do that, truncated content might not always make sense or what rules will need to apply at different viewports, the site builders say. It seems obvious to the usability expert or site architect but in point of fact tasking the designer to come up with a perfect design in the first place gives them an impossible job. Designers will often develop a close relationship with a client and can feel an understandable obligation to meet and please all client expectations around presentation and brand alignment. If it's hard for designers to always appreciate the constraints around flexible multi-device development, how much more true is this for clients? We also need to look at the conventions designers have inheritied. Lorem ipsum. Really, this should be totally banned from all web projects unless perhaps you're designing a site for the Vatican. It gives both designers and clients a completely false view of how layouts really work. The answer - get real content in at project start. In this way, you'll find out how long a teaser really needs to be, or how many words your content titles need to contain for them to make sense. It also engages UX experts, designers and clients around the common purpose of actually solving problems around real content. Sure, someone can point at a site that implements a highly complex design conceit the client would like to see. But has the client got the expertise in house to support managing and updating the feature? Or can the client live with the time overhead of rewording content to fit the constraints of that snazzy design element? In my experience, the answer most often is 'no'. Sometimes, we'll all agree that an unusual or challenging design element is really worth the effort. But content managed websites need to be sustainable too.

They are dynamic entities that need to be economical and easy to run over time. And achieving that goal is the essence of good design.

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