Aligning Headless Content with UX in Design Projects

Aligning headless content with UX in design projects

Content and UX teams must improve how they work together to create designs that can evolve and scale. How can they best collaborate as equal partners?

Michael AndrewsPublished on Jun 28, 2021

Traditional web design practices have resulted in siloed solutions that don’t age well. Enterprise content and UX teams are rethinking how they approach design projects. 

Coordinating Content and UX

In traditional approaches to web design, both UX and content work can be screen-centric and channel-specific. Content is often an afterthought, forced to fit into the design after it’s been set. And the design may not be easily changed because the content is tightly coupled with the current design.

Headless content provides more latitude for both content creators and designers by decoupling the content from the design. They enjoy greater planning autonomy and experience fewer dependencies between their activities that would create bottlenecks and rework when changes are needed. Teams routinely say that headless projects are much faster to implement. And headless offers more flexibility to improve UX. Accenture recently noted that headless is becoming “the new normal,” adding that “the flexible head gives you more flexibility and opportunities to evolve the customer experience.”

Decoupling content and design allows many activities to be done in parallel. But planning autonomy does not imply that content and design decisions are independent of each other. Both designers and content specialists have a responsibility to coordinate their different streams of work so that they are aligned. And coordination depends on different team roles understanding how the activities of their colleagues contribute to the overall design.

Organizations are improving the maturity of their design and content operations. But in many organizations, the understanding that UX teams have about content research and development is still limited. Likewise, content teams often have only a selective understanding of UX activities. In these cases, the relevance of activities outside one’s area of specialty is not appreciated. It can result in poor coordination that hurts the quality of the design and slows down project progress.

The first step to align UX and content work is for everyone on the project to discern and understand the range of expertise that each role contributes. Content and UX teams should share a common understanding of the inputs required to deliver a successful design. Both UX and content activities need to be treated as equal priorities. And each role should have a clear understanding of how their work depends on the work of the other role. 

Everyone working on the project should have a common view into:

  1. What work needs to be done?
  2. When is it done? 

To maintain alignment, those working on the project should be guided by a high-level roadmap showing the activities of both the UX and content streams of work.

Phases of a design project

Every organization follows a slightly different process to develop its customer experience. However, we can break the process down into common phases. Looking at a project in terms of phase shows the progression of understanding and development, in contrast to a generic process perspective, which stresses cyclical feedback. Describing the project in phases does not imply that the process is strictly linear or that phases for different project streams can’t happen concurrently. This view also doesn’t try to present specific feedback within and between phases. Instead, its goal is to provide a generic roadmap showing the broader flow of knowledge that emerges within large design projects. 

For this discussion, we’ll divide major design projects into five phases, each with a distinct focus. We’ll give each phase a name, though your teams may use different terminology for each phase.

  1. Discover: Identify problems and opportunities
  2. Envision: Explore options and decide the solution
  3. Build the foundation: Design and plan the implementation framework
  4. Build the solution: Develop and deliver UIs and content
  5. Refine: Evolve the customer experience

The focus changes in each phase. At the start, both UX and content teams focus on understanding the current state. In the middle three phases, they shift their focus to the future state. After the delivery of the project, the focus returns to the new current state and how it’s performing. 

  1. Discover: focus on needs
  2. Envision: focus on design concepts
  3. Build the foundation: focus on the global structure
  4. Build the solution: focus on individual instances
  5. Refine: focus on learning and evolution

Two of the phases focus on building, though they have very different orientations. The foundation building phase looks at the high-level structure that will be used to support many instances of the solution: the screens and content items users will encounter. The solution building phase focuses on creating all these screens and content items. For all this detailed work to happen, many preparatory activities need to have occurred.

Many executives assume that design teams can start building a solution right away. But this roadmap shows that the phase to build the solution only occurs after important preparatory work has been done.

Design-related activities

Let’s look at some representative activities associated with each phase. Not every project will do all these activities, and some may include some others not listed here. Moreover, these activities may start earlier or end later than indicated.

A phase-by-phase view highlights the responsibilities of different roles. It allows teams to see what activities are being done around the same time (collaboration and coordination opportunities) and which ones they can expect to have been done already (inputs to other activities). The balance of responsibilities will vary according to the staffing of teams. Some UX activities may be done by content or developer roles if UX staff are few. Content activities may be done by UX, business, or developer roles when content staffing is limited. 

Discover: Identify the problems and the opportunities

The discovery phase explores unknowns through research and information synthesis. It looks at business, content, and customer dimensions relevant to the project. It may confirm anecdotal impressions, synthesize many different sources of data and perspectives, and will often generate fresh insights about the current situation that the design project can address. 

Key goals include:

  • Researching the business landscape
    • Strengths and weaknesses
    • Opportunities and threats
  • Understanding the content’s current state
    • Strengths
    • Gaps
    • ROT (redundant, obsolete, or trivial content that’s not needed)
  • Empathizing with customers
    • Their behaviors and attitudes
    • Their pain points and desires

The discovery phase can involve a range of activities and collaboration between the roles. 

UX activitiesContent activitiesBusiness or Developer Inputs
  • User observation and interviews
  • Mental models
  • Current state customer journey map
  • Personas

  • Content inventory
  • Competitive audit
  • Audience segments
  • Analytics and search logs research
  • Ecosystem map
  • Terminology audit
  • Research on audience queries and terminology

  • Stakeholder interviews

Envision: Explore options and decide the solution

The envision phase decides an important question: What precisely will the team be designing and building? 

The envision phase makes early ideas about the design tangible so they can be scrutinized, modified, and tested:

  • Fleshing out and prioritizing specific requirements
    • User needs
    • Business requirements
  • Ideating solutions
    • Developing a hypothesis
    • Prototyping and validating concepts
  • Developing the strategy
  • Eliciting and analyzing feedback to improve understanding, explore options, and confirm decisions

The envision phase also involves the widest range of activities for both UX and content teams. These activities establish the intention and direction of the experience that will be developed. 

UX activitiesContent activitiesBusiness or Developer Inputs
  • User scenarios
  • Future state customer journey maps
  • Service blueprint
  • Task analysis and modeling
  • Card sorting
  • Conceptual prototype
  • Concept testing
  • ORCA diagrams showing UX objects
  • User stories or Jobs-to-be-done

  • Editorial vision and strategy
  • Message architecture
  • Develop proto-content
  • ‘Core model’ content requirements
  • Domain model
  • Content migration and sourcing plan

  • Use cases for functionality
  • Value proposition
  • Defining KPIs

Build the foundation: Design and plan the implementation framework

The project team has now narrowed down what to build. Before teams can start building specific pieces of the solution, they need frameworks for those pieces to plug into. 

The foundation building phase defines the core framework upon which the design will be based:

  • Structures
  • Systems
  • Patterns
  • Flows

Building these foundations requires deep thinking. Many organizations have design systems that can support new projects. However, a big redesign or re-platforming project may require major UX work in the foundation building phase, as will projects addressing new channels. On the content side, a move to structured content using a headless CMS prompts work relating to defining the content model to manage content items so they can be delivered where they will be needed.

UX activitiesContent activitiesBusiness or Developer Inputs
  • Front-end styles
  • Design systems
  • UI interaction patterns
  • Global information architecture
  • User flows

  • Content roadmap
  • Content model defining content types
  • Content matrix of content items to create
  • Taxonomy
  • Content style guide
  • Word lists and nomenclature
  • Voice and tone guidelines
  • Journey stages and statuses
  • Channel definition
  • Workflow definition
  • Content assembly and interaction rules

  • Product feature roadmap
  • Front-end framework
  • Planning of customer roll out or on-boarding

Build the solution: Develop and deliver UIs and content

At last, the team is ready to build the pieces of the solution that customers will see and use. Even after the initial project launch, this phase may continue, especially on the content side. While some designs such as apps have fixed content, most designs will host a flow of newly added content. 

The goals for the solution building phase are simple:

  • Producing content and designing assets
  • Connecting and implementing these assets
  • Releasing to users
UX activitiesContent activitiesBusiness or Developer Inputs
  • Wireframes or screen layouts
  • Screen visuals and behavior
  • Site map
  • Navigation

  • Creating copy and digital assets
  • Content testing
  • Editing and approvals
  • Translations and localization
  • Accessibility
  • SEO and metadata

  • Coding screens
  • API integrations
  • QA

Refine: Evolve the customer experience

After the full launch of the project, the work’s still not done. Both the UX and content teams will assess what needs changing or improvement. Live designs and content provide detailed feedback from a wide range of users that wasn’t available in earlier phases. 

The refine phase aims to:

  • Test and learn
  • Optimize
  • Scale and extend

Metrics are important in this phase. On the content side, individual content items will need to be:

  • Updated
  • Revised to improve their performance
  • Retired when no longer relevant
UX activitiesContent activitiesBusiness or Developer Inputs
  • A/B testing
  • Usability testing

  • Content analytics
  • Audience feedback
  • Content maintenance
  • Lifecycle management

  • KPI performance

Better collaboration starts with a dialog

The activities listed in each phase are meant to start a discussion about what activities your design project should be doing. These activities are sometimes approached in different ways and occasionally go by different names. UX and content teams should identify:

  1. The activities each team considers necessary for the project
  2. The scope and purpose of each activity
  3. The overlap in the scope of various activities
  4. How an activity can influence the outcome of other activities
  5. The ideal timing of the activity from the perspective of each team

Having this discussion will bring more alignment between how UX and content teams approach design projects. In future posts, we’ll look in more detail at how content and UX activities influence each other.

Written by

Michael Andrews

I’m Content Strategy Evangelist at I appreciate the value of great content. My mission is to help others produce the best content they can.

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