Modular Design Does Not Mean Mediocrity

Keith LaFerriere, Chief Experience Officer

June 29, 2017

Cicero's loosely-translated statement: “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide” is a long-standing excuse to create mediocrity. It applies more to alcohol and red meat than design and wowing our customers, right?


Sort of.

There are some who want to push the limits excessively - beyond moderation - for both content and presentation, while others feel very comfortable creating an experience that gets approved quickly, and fits like a worn pair of sneakers. The problem is that the former can cost a heck of a lot more than you've got, and the latter has the potential to stink. We need balance.

Balance Through Modular Design

We also need ways to offer our teams the flexibility to create elegance in design that doesn't compromise the other aspects of the project (namely: building it, testing, and deploying). Enter: Modular Design

Modular design requires taking an inventory of content types and media, and separating requests into more manageable portions (or units), which helps you recognize each individual request as a deliverable, requiring assignments and responsibilities.

To do this, I follow a four-step process that helps delineate what content units each section of a Web site must cover - as opposed to content that acts as filler, or filler units. Before I outline this process, here's how I define the two components:

Content Units

Content units are any type of content that:

  • Is sectional in nature.
  • Is updated with some degree of frequency.
  • Has a direct impact on the structure of a navigation tree or site map.

Examples of content units might include client case studies, products or services, core offerings, and any application-related content such as Help files, a wiki, or a glossary.

Filler Units

Filler units are content that:

  • Does not have a definite destination.
  • Does not impact a Web site’s overall structure or linking strategy.
  • Has a short life span.
  • You could remove without changing the integrity of a site’s navigation.

Examples of filler units might include a video you intend for a single viewing, a news article, a signup form, a short-term promotion, or a contest.

Step 1: List and Gather Your Content

Content can drive the creation of a user experience in more ways than just affecting its layout and look. A working inventory is achieved by dividing content units into more finely grained classifications. You can list the content units in a spreadsheet, then have your client add their classifications to the spreadsheet, and finally, decide who will produce them.

This exercise does not replace the creation of a site map or navigation tree. However, assigning responsibilities with deadlines for the creation and collection of content units helps you to manage a deliverable.

For creative managers or content producers, getting a client to deliver information in a well thought out manner can be a daunting task. Teams often have no idea where to begin, even if they were the ones who originally wrote and produced the original experience.

By working out a set of deliverables and giving your client some of the responsibility for producing them, you can get better results, and you deliver those results faster.

Step 2: Assignments and Delivery

You should make assignments in conjunction with your resources.

In some cases, our responsibility is the editing and approval of content rather than its actual production. One method we've used in getting quicker results is to introduce our process to the content authors - making sure they recognize that the project is happening and we need their help.

It's obvious that, if you dictate to them, you'll most likely be ignored. Typically, just a few people generate the information and create the content for a large-scale, global initiative. Not only is it their job to write, edit, and produce the content, they must get it approved and work out how to fit it into the context. This process should help the team by working out a reasonable assignment schedule, and make sure they have attainable goals that fit within the timeline of the project. If they need to push something to a later phase, let the editors and marketing managers prioritize things for you.

Step 3: Mind the Gaps

Some of the most important content units are those that present error messaging and form results.

We might concentrate on content such as news articles or pages detailing information about a company, but some of the most important content units are those that present error messaging and form results. So many factors dictate a user experience, and oftentimes, we overlook some of these minor, but extremely important pieces of content.

Taking the extra time to recognize and work on these items presents a better experience, and one that might even reduce nuisance calls and/or tickets.

Step 4: Review and Schedule

The review for your content units should include quality assurance, approval, editing, and, of course, launch.

If you're responsible for managing a large-scale Web application, there are times throughout the development lifecycle when you'll be asked to deliver specific content for the team to appropriately test and build. In such cases, we include the delivery schedule in Step 2 to ensure that all project team members understand when and where the team will require content.

Managing the User Experience Through Content Units

We're all aware that too much content can impair a user's ability to both digest information and associate it with an entity, regardless of the type. But how about managing future designs and taking things into consideration before they become issues? Wireframes and/or prototypes aside - they deal with the now - we should manage content as units, enabling us to present user experiences that can truly scale.

Considering that a user experience has a shelf life, we should take note of the various types of information and functionality we'll need, then make decisions that we can apply to future versions of a Web site or application. For example, a sign-in box is always an essential functional area. By decomposing your experiences into content units, you can create content unity, and save a great deal of time and resource frustration.