Don't Be a Jerk with Content

This guy? He's a jerk.

Next time you’re thinking about your site content—what’s working, what’s needed—try this:

REMOVE EVERYTHING!

That’s right, take it all out. The logo, the about section, the blog, footer links, your list of rhubarb pie recipes, the whole shebang, so there’s nary a nary-thing there. Have you done it? Great.

Take a look at that lovely, white browser page. Simple. Direct. No distractions. But, alas, not very good a communicating anything useful to your users.

So what do we put back?

There’s a inclination to fill the site back up with the content we just removed, all the stuff you think you need. You probably had a reason for adding it, right? Or what’s there might be based on “everybody else has that stuff so I should too.” Maybe it’s things you think you just can’t live without—they’re the essence of you (cue swelling music). But here’s the thing:

Don’t be a jerk about content.

It’s a famous scene from Steve Martin’s The Jerk and you if haven’t seen it—or watched it for a long time—watch now.

During his extended, clumsy exit from his wife and home, he picks up inconsequential trappings, a lamp, matches, a chair, repeating again and again he doesn’t need anything, except this thing, and this other thing too. Soon he’s a walking flea market of stuff that actually has a purpose, but in his current state, is useless and random baggage.

While it’s doubtful your site has such silly baubles, there’s a good lesson here. The jerk is motivated by what he thinks he needs, ignoring the reality of the world around him—that’s what’s funny. The “world around you” is your users. Ignoring them isn’t funny, it failure. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re a web shop, a large online-store, or an organization with 100+ site pages. Tailored, thoughtful content your users want should be the ultimate motivation in deciding what’s cut from your site and what stays.

How to be a content nice guy.

Let’s return to your blank, white site. A user shows up and thinks, “Hey, where’s this thing? Where’s that?” Ask yourself, what would users ask to be put back? This is where you start. It’s a simple game that easily puts you in the place of your users and their expectations. Granted it’s not absolute—unless you’ve got some fancy mind-reading skill—but it helps getting out of your own head and seeing your content from a fresh perspective.

User expectations don’t only apply to whole sections, but in the details too, like copy and images. What can you pull out of your about section? Can you simplify the main nav? And so on.

It’s difficult to strike a balance between what a user wants and what a user didn’t know she wanted but actually did. The danger of overloading your content just in case a user wants this or that is turning your site into Martin’s shambling junk store where there might be something valuable yet requires too much work to find. Get the good stuff in front of you users and leave the rest off the page. It’s good idea to fire up your analytics and see what’s working. Maybe that list of rhubarb pie links was a hit. Fortunately websites aren’t made of stone. You can always add it back.

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