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By Tom Davies

Content Model First Development with Craft CMS

At Zaengle, working content model first means the combined application of four key practices:

  1. Creating a site’s content model at the very start of development. Craft, one of our preferred content management systems (CMS), makes this process easy, fast, and even — dare I say it — fun
  2. Opening up the CMS to the content team as early as possible and supporting them to populate it with real content. This needn’t be complete, but it should be as representative as possible
  3. Using that real content from the beginning of the development process, rather than only in QA or nearer to the end
  4. Identifying where friction exists between the real content and the content as envisioned (be that in the design or in the content model as implemented) and working collaboratively to reduce that friction

The advantages

This approach leads to higher quality, lower stress project delivery by:

  • Creating a virtuous cycle in which we surface and resolve content-related problems early while there is still time and budget to correct them
  • Starting the time-consuming process of content creation earlier, while also reducing the total effort required

Let’s take a look at what this looks like in more detail.

Benefits for content teams

Even with a solid plan and content guidelines in place, gathering content for a web project can be a demanding task, and one that frequently takes longer than anticipated. In our team’s experience, it’s also one of the key factors that can lead to stressful (or even missed! 🙀) go-live dates.

In a traditional process, content delays are compounded by the fact that content is usually assembled in a separate repository because the “real” system isn’t ready yet. It must then be transferred into the CMS starting at a point that’s by then (inevitably) close to the end of the project.

Parallelizing content and development work

By content modeling first and then opening up the CMS to the content team early on, authors are able to start building out content in parallel with the development team’s work on the site, rather than waiting for it to be complete. Our content authors benefit from being able to work directly in the CMS. And the development team benefits hugely from being able to use real content in their work.

Improved author experience

The user experience of those who will be editing a site is just as important as that of the end user. A poor author experience (AX) leads to user frustration, lost productivity, and the tendency to silo off content work as the responsibility of smaller subsets of team members. This tends to result in both less frequent content updates and in underutilization of design features that the site provides.

Giving the content team access to the CMS while the site is being built means that the development team can benefit from authors’ early feedback about what they find difficult or confusing about the content management process. We can then fix those issues by adding in-context documentation and instructions, or making changes to the content model itself, before soliciting more feedback and repeating the process.

Eased author onboarding

All new tools have a learning curve, however gentle. Where a project involves the introduction of a new CMS, opening it up to authors as soon as possible means that we can start the process of familiarizing and training the content team early too. This in turn avoids the need to compress that process, makes the content team more productive, and also fosters a sense of ownership among those who will become the stewards of the site.

Benefits for project quality

For the design and development team, working with real content from the start means they can more easily achieve a high degree of alignment between the project vision and the outcome that actually gets delivered.

Specifically it can help ensure that:

  • Design intentions are honored, not just design artifacts
  • Delivered features are proven at launch to be robust and flexible enough for real world use
  • Bugs related to variations in content are discovered and fixed well before launch

Increased alignment of vision, design and outcome

Static designs always look neater with rows of items of even height and carefully cropped images. Such designs tend to gain stakeholder approval more easily. Unchecked, this tendency can lead to the delivery of designs that only account for the “happy path” of idealized, unrepresentative content. Alas, the real world of the web tends not to be so tidy.

By modeling our content at the start, and working with representative content from the beginning of development, it’s possible to test and find the limits of a design early. That means it’s possible to fix issues while there are still the resources available to do so.

More robust components

Real content tends to have more variation within it than idealized content. Using that real content during development provides the development team with a wider range of scenarios that they need to support, resulting in more robust code and more flexible components.

Spend less time testing

Testing how UI behaves under different content scenarios can take up a significant amount of project QA time. Using a range of real content reduces the overhead for this work, meaning the testing team can instead spend more time on other higher value activities.

The “how”

If by now you’re on board with this idea but are wondering how to get started, here’s what you ideally need to have in place to take advantage of a content model first process:

1. Right skills

You need a project team that is skilled and experienced in content modeling. This might sound obvious, but it’s actually not. Devising, refining, and implementing content models is a multi-faceted skill that combines elements of content strategy, user experience, information architecture and development. Getting the foundations correct at the outset saves a ton of work in the later stages of the project, but requires the right people to do the work.

2. Right tools

You need a technology platform that permits rapid content modeling and easy management of changes over time. A content model first approach is only possible if your CMS allows you to quickly and easily build out a content model independent of how that model will be displayed to your users. We love Craft for this very reason (among many others), but there are many great content management systems that can enable this approach.

3. Right mindset & relationships

This is probably the easiest place for a content model first project to fail, because it can require a shift in mindset. For example, stakeholders need to trust the project team to make the right adjustments to previously approved designs according to the realities of the content requirements. Similarly, design and development teams need a collaborative, flexible relationship that is open to feedback on both sides. Timescales and budget allocations need to be drawn up to allow for feedback loops and iterative improvements.

Perfect is the enemy of done

All this might seem like an overwhelming amount of change to put in place, but in reality you can start small and build up your processes, skills, and tooling over time.

In an ideal world, content modeling would start before visual design happens. But in the real world, that often isn’t possible, and starting as soon as wireframes or design is available will still deliver benefits. Likewise content doesn’t need to be perfect, only at a minimum to be representative of the final product in terms of qualities like structure, length, language and formatting.

Similarly, it’s possible to gradually adopt a content model first approach. For example, it can be trialed with a single section of a website where more of the content already exists, or where the content structure is more well defined (blogs or news sections can be a good place to start).

Wrapping up

Our experienced team here at Zaengle have the skills to help you accelerate your next web project with all the benefits that a content model first process can bring. Get in touch with us to find out more.

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By Tom Davies

Senior CMS Developer x 10

When Tom's not coding or playing legos with his kids, he's on a long-term quest to bake the perfect sourdough.