eSites Network Website Design


No One Nos: Learning to Say No to Bad Ideas

No. One word, a complete sentence. We all learned to say it around our first birthday, so why do we have such a hard time saying it now when it comes to our work?

Guilt. Fear. Pressure. Doubt. As we grow up, we begin to learn that not doing what others expect of us can lead to all sorts of negative consequences. It becomes easier to concede to their demands than to stand up for ourselves and for what is right.

Need to no

I have made a career out of having to say No. It is my job to put an end to bad design practices within an organization before I can make any progress on improving the lives of our customers. And it’s rarely easy.
My client says, “I want to build a spaceship!” I say, “No, we need to make a kite.”

My client says, “We need to keep that space blank for my next genius idea!” I say, “No, we’ll find space for your idea once you have one.”

My client says, “I want this done tomorrow!” I say, “No, it will take a month.”

I am a human brake pad.

Each one of us brings an area of specialization to our projects, and it is our responsibility to exhibit that expertise. If you don’t know anything that no one else on your team knows, then it’s probably time to walk away. But if you do, it is your duty to assert that capability and share your knowledge for the betterment of the final product.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A ‘no’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.” As people who create stuff with the hope that other people will use it, it is outright cowardly for us to protect ourselves before defending the needs of our users.

When to no

When I’m incredibly passionate about something, I tend to be stubborn. And when I recognize a problem, I’m not one to keep it inside. As a result, I have had some situations with teammates and clients in which I have been rather abrasive with my delivery of a no. Fearful that I won’t be heard or understood, I have overemphasized my position to the point that people don’t hear what I said but how how I said it.

Having been made aware of this issue and given the opportunity to fix it, I can freely admit now that it was getting in the way of my ultimate goal—helping people. As practitioners in design and development, there are many common difficult situations in which we may find ourselves, and there are tactful ways to handle them. Perhaps you will recognize a few of the following.


When you’re hired to serve a specific function on your team but are asked to do something you’re not comfortable with, often the best way to say no is to simply educate the other on best practices.

We recently received a client request to remove a quick e-mail-only mailing list signup from their site in favor of a full-page signup form.

Fearing that this would significantly decrease their number of subscribers, we informed them that it is common practice for websites to include a quick subscribe since most people don’t want to spend the time filling out a form. A simple but powerful business case: The shorter option “would allow for immediate capture of interested people,” he explained. And they were sold. They hadn't considered that before, but once they had that information, it armed them with the power to make a better choice. The client was happy with the decision, she thanked me for being an expert and educating her instead of just doing what was asked.


When I worked as a user experience designer, I was surrounded by a large team of engineers who were also accustomed to doing design. Most of the time, they had really interesting ideas that I enjoyed riffing off of, but now and then they got stuck in the details and I would have to make my case.

In one particular design, one of the engineers insisted that a drop-down component was necessary for the selection of three options. I urged that three radio buttons would be more appropriate, but the engineer was unconvinced. The disagreement went on for a few days before I realized that I needed data to support my case.

She turned to a UI prototyping tool that automatically evaluates the effectiveness of a design based on a “predictive human performance model”. The results showed that expert use task time was dramatically reduced with radio buttons over drop-downs. Seeing the facts, the engineer relented.

“Your opinion won’t matter. It’s important that you prove your point with numbers.”


Sometimes the best way to say no to bad design is not to take on the project in the first place. When a freelance content strategist was recently asked to help a friend’s brother with a website for his concrete company, he knew he had a limited budget but expected that he could help him limit the scope.

“Besides wanting ‘flying’ menus on each and every page, in a different style for each page, he wanted huge orange diamonds for the menus on the front page, and to top it off, he wanted a custom-made animation of a concrete truck on the front page and in the sidebar of every other page—the barrel rolling around with the logo of his company.” Now that just gives me shivers.

He advised that his customers would be more interested in some relevant content, such as a portfolio of his previous work, but he was convinced that he needed lots of flashy extras to impress his visitors. And he wouldn't give up.

Not wanting to overtly turn down the work, he contacted animators and Flash designers, and came back with a price that was five times the business owner’s budget. He demanded a lower price, but he just apologized and said that that’s what he would have to pay the appropriate people to do the work. Unsurprisingly, he took a pass, and he later found out that he’d been trying to get his dream site built for the past eight years. Happily, he wouldn't be the one to give it to him.


An independent user experience designer, was hired by an early stage startup — a private photo-sharing web app — to act as project manager to get them to launch. The product was intended to be an alternative to Facebook for parents who desired private groups of friends with whom to safely share photos of their young children.

Because the team envisioned the product as appealing to all members of the family, they wanted people of all ages to be able to use the app — including children and elderly grandparents without e-mail addresses. To allow for this, they developed a login system that relied extensively on cookies and technological trickery to provide secure access without requiring the user to enter credentials. Things were constantly breaking, and as a result, no one could log in.

She felt she had to step in. “I ended up making the argument that they needed to design not for extreme edge cases, but for the more probable, and revenue generating, ones,” she explains. “Would someone who doesn’t have an e-mail address be savvy enough to want to share images and photos on the web? Probably not.”

To sway the team, she took a step back and did some user research to develop personas to guide their decisions. Once the team was refocused on who they were really designing for, they were able to move forward more strategically. As disagreements in execution came up along the way, she would do a few quick usability tests of the proposed idea, and let the team see with their own eyes how their prospective customers struggled. By reframing the argument away from their opinions and demonstrating the negative impact on the user, the opposition was quickly defeated.

How to no

Last October while on the phone with a friend, I complained about having way too much on my plate and desperately needing someone to give me a break. He made me realize that it was actually I who was to blame, taking on more than I could handle by not protecting my time.

My methodology now for saying no “while getting to Yes.” Our desire to say no is not to be contradictory, but rather to stand up for a deeper yes — what we believe to be true, right, virtuous, and necessary. And that instead of making our defense a negative one, we can frame it in a positive light that is more likely to lead to a favorable outcome.

The structure of a positive no is a “Yes! No. Yes? statement.” The first Yes! expresses your interest; the No asserts your power; and the second Yes? furthers your relationship. For example, you might say “I, too, want prospective customers to see our company as current and approachable, but I don’t feel that a dozen social media badges at the top of the page will help us achieve that. What if we came up with a few alternative approaches and chose the most effective one together?”

Not just delivering your no in that manner, but also preparing for it and following through on it in the same way. Without a plan and without continued action, your assertion is a lot less believable — and a lot less likely to work.

Some of the most powerful takeaways from saying a positive No just might help you when it comes time for you to fight the good fight.

  • Never say no immediately. Don’t react in the heat of the moment, or you might say something you don’t really mean. Things are rarely as urgent as we believe them to be, so take a step back, go to your quiet place, and really think through the issue at hand. Not only will your argument be clearer once you’ve had a chance to rehearse it, but it’s more likely the other will be ready to hear it.

  • Be specific in describing your interests. When saying no, it’s better to describe what you’re for rather than what you’re against. Instead of just maintaining a position, help the other person to understand why you are concerned and what you’re trying to protect. You may just find that you share the same goal, and can work together to find the right solution.

  • Have a plan B. There will be times that other people just won’t take your no for an answer. So you’re going to need a plan B as a last resort. Are you going to go over the person’s head? Are you going to prevent the project from moving forward? Are you going to quit? By exploring what you’re truly prepared to do ahead of time, you’ll have considerably more confidence to stand your ground and you won’t be afraid of what might come next.

  • Express your need without neediness. Desperation is never attractive and won’t get you anywhere. Present your case with conviction and matter-of-factness. Does your assertion cease to be true if the other person refuses to agree? No. So don’t act like it does. Needing the other to comply makes you look unsure and dependent, diminishing yourself and putting them in a position of power.

  • Present the facts and let the other draw their own conclusions. I’d venture to guess that most of the time you’re working with people who are pretty smart, pretty logical, and pretty well-intentioned. Perhaps they just don’t have all of the information that you do. Instead of telling them what to think, it is more useful to provide the necessary facts on which they can base their own judgment. Sometimes allowing the other person to feel like the decision was partially their own will help you get your way.

  • The shorter it is, the stronger it is. Pascal famously said, “I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” The longer the argument, the sloppier and less well-thought out it appears. You don’t need five reasons why something won’t work; just one good one will do.

  • As you close one door, open another. Don’t be a wet blanket. If you strongly believe that something shouldn’t be done, devise an alternative that the team can get behind. You aren’t helping anyone—let alone yourself—if you simply derail the project with your objections. Being a team player instead of a contrarian will help build trust and respect for your ideas.

  • Be polite. Ninety-nine times out of 100 we’re talking about issues of mild discomfort and dissatisfaction of our users, not life-or-death issues. There’s no reason to raise your voice, use inappropriate language, or cut anyone down. When you do, you prevent people from hearing the essence of what you’re trying to communicate. So keep your cool, be kind, and give your teammates and clients the respect they deserve. Just because you might understand something that they don’t doesn’t mean you’re a better person than they are.

Good to no

By taking pride in your work and upholding your role on a team, you will help to create a positive environment for all involved. No doubt other people will follow in your footsteps, and each person will become more responsible for themselves and for the greater good of the project. You’ll be seen as more professional, more authoritative, and more reliable.

Also consider the possibility that you may be steamrolling over other people’s ideas, and they’re too afraid to speak up. One of my favorite sayings is: “God gave us two ears and one mouth to use in proportion.” Let this be a reminder not only to say no, but to be willing to hear no, and to encourage others to do the same.

Design Criticism and the Creative Process

At a project’s start, the possibilities are endless. That clean slate is both lovely and terrifying. We begin by filling space with temporary messes and uncertain experiments. We make a thousand tiny decisions quickly, trying to shape a message that will resonate with our audience. Then in the middle of a flow, we must stop and share our unfinished work with colleagues or clients. This typical halt in the creative process begs the question: What does the critique do for the design and the rest of the project? Do critiques really help and are they necessary? If so, how do we use this feedback to improve our creative output?

The critique as a collaborative tool

When we embrace a truly collaborative process, critiques afford the incredible intersection of vision, design, strategy, technology, and people. The critique is a corrective step in the process that allows different ways of thinking to reach common ground—for example, compromising on visual vs. technological requirements. Critiquing an unfinished design mitigates the risk of completely missing a project’s ultimate goals. Acting as a wedge in the creative process, good feedback can readjust the design message and help us figure out what we’re really trying to say.

The Design Process
The idea of DIWO — Do It With Others — says, “We need to think about art–working more like a laboratory, that we are performing research and working together.” If the critique is to help us to collaborate, it must sound like a suggestion rather than an order. It should be conversational, both giving and taking, again in the interest of collaboration. When design critiques are one-sided—for example, when commands are issued without explanation—the result is like playing telephone: the message arrives diluted and insensible because the message bearer has no context or ownership over ultimate design decisions.

It’s important to remember that critiques are meant to improve output rather than hinder process. “Often times the thing that turns a hunch into a real breakthrough is another hunch that’s lurking in somebody else’s mind.” Encouraging the overlap of ideas from multiple people, as in critiques, facilitates these breakthroughs.

For a designer, a good critique can:
  • prevent a meandering design from veering too far from timeline, budget, scope, or other project constraints,
  • allow others to help, teach, and guide when there are weaknesses or confusion,
  • accustom others to the shoddy state of unfinished designs to talk about bigger ideas and strategy,
  • familiarize colleagues, managers, and clients with the design process,
  • invest everyone in the project early on,
  • circumvent alarming change requests by responding immediately as a team,
  • distribute responsibility for developing creative output,
  • help build team trust, and
  • eliminate destructive ego.

Presenting designs

Sharing your work at any stage can make you feel vulnerable, but discussing it lends credence to the design process. Present a rationale for all design decisions you make. If that’s impossible, ask yourself where there’s room for improvement, and listen to suggestions. A plethora of tips are available on presenting designs and public speaking. Use these resources to target your growth areas and then practice good habits every opportunity you get.

What is good feedback?

While critiques are important, what people actually mean when they give feedback may still be a mystery. How do we connect the abstract things that people say to what we actually create on our computers? Here are a few scenarios where you can rein in vague feedback to benefit the design.


Example: “I don’t like it,” or “I really love it!”

Ask specific questions to collect specific feedback. Zoom in on whether or not they like what they see to figure out exactly what they like. Ambiguity feels safer but it doesn’t benefit the conversation or the design. For likes and dislikes ask specifically about typography, color, layout, images, etc. Show them the kind of response you might be looking for. Ask questions even if they seem absurd, even if you’re pretty sure you understand what the other person is saying. Doing this reveals potential miscommunications at an opportune time rather than later on in the project when it becomes a costly inconvenience.


Example: “I don’t like purple.”

Sometimes a colleague or client gets hung up on a strong personal distaste, usually on one particular detail. When criticism is based on personal preference, separate subjective comments from objective ones to filter the really meaningful feedback. Readjust your line of questioning—instead of asking what the person standing next to you thinks, ask what the target audience for the project might think. Would they, too, not like purple? This helps prioritize design effort by focusing on feedback that affects usability or product quality. Remember your own biases and be honest about them. The best designers work with their audience in mind regardless of personal inclinations.


Example: “It looks fine as it is, let’s just go with it.”

If a person cannot discern between good design and bad design, it is tempting to believe they are design blind or incapable of appreciating good work. It could be, however, that they don’t quite understand or accept design’s role in product engagement or they are not comfortable talking in visual terms. Use probing questions and specific examples of websites or animations or whatever your end product is to understand their particular reluctance. Sometimes it takes several examples to figure out the root of the problem. If observers are tightlipped, reassure them that all feedback is helpful whether it’s positive or negative. By interpreting criticism this way you not only allow an open conversation, you also control it by managing your own reactions.


Example: “This needs to appeal to Baby Boomers but the users will probably be in their early 20s.”

Put the other person in your shoes. How would they approach this situation? Asking for advice (avoiding sarcasm) doesn’t hurt a project; rather, it opens up communication and helps people think about the project’s overall objectives. Pinning down clear, measurable goals from the outset ensures that you are approaching the project from the same perspective.


Example: “I’m not sure what I think. What do you think?”

It’s common to be asked for your professional opinion on a decision that someone else must make. The risk is that they don’t actually mean what they are asking. For instance they might be testing your subjectivity to see how your preferences measure up to their own. Regardless of the intent, this is an opportunity to gain someone’s confidence. Offer your opinion but be sure to back it up with good logic, such as user experience best practices, type methodology, or color theory. Keep your knowledge-sharing relevant and be as straightforward as possible. A situation like this is a chance to educate, and by using it to its full potential you can benefit everyone involved in the project.


Example: “That’s a great idea, but not right now.”

There seem to be few choices in this situation. You can argue until you’re blue in the face, attempt to create allies that will help argue your case, or you can forget about your brilliant idea for now, and save it for later or for some other project. What you choose to do depends on what is at risk. For example, you don’t necessarily want to argue with your largest client. Nor do you want to push the idea if the opposition is practical, i.e., too little time or budget. If you do pursue the idea, pitch it to the best of your ability, state it to the best of your ability, but don’t overstep your boundaries before calculating the risk. There will be people that respond differently to your approach, so learning to gauge what motivates the people that you work with is helpful.


Example: “I don’t like the type or that picture. The colors are off. I think you’ve missed the point.”

Sometimes in the design process, especially with too much feedback or too little initial direction, the end message appears diluted or warped and you find that you missed the mark. Don’t give up as a default, but know when to cut your losses and start over. Gather as much information as you can about why this attempt failed. “Each project I suffer like I’m starting over again in life. There’s a lot of healthy insecurity that fuels this stuff.” Starting over on the same project can be even more disheartening, but the accomplished architect offers a lesson; each time we begin again, we do so with the knowledge and lessons we learned before, increasing our potential for success in each new effort.

Negotiate criticism

The idea that feedback is not fixed is a common thread in these scenarios. Our interpretations and reactions influence feedback. A critique is the beginning of this negotiation process, allowing the exchange of thoughts and opinions. Ultimately it is important that our designs accomplish business goals and engage our audience, but getting there is not always as straightforward as it seems. Every time project members exchange and share information or insights, the project value goes up. On the other hand, if communication isn’t adding value, ask whether it is important that you collaborate or if there is an alternative.

The designer as collaborator

The critique’s importance in creative output is not a new idea. But embracing the critique depends on knowing your value to a project and understanding how to navigate process to achieve great work. The idea about “shipping” or delivery, and “thrashing,” the idea of experimenting despite uncertain outcomes. “What you do for a living is not be creative; everyone is creative. What you do for a living is ship. And as someone who knows how to ship, you have a discipline and part of your discipline is that you insist on thrashing early.” It sounds simple enough but in the depths of process it is not always an easy formula to follow. Critiques can help us navigate both complex processes and projects. The better we are able to do this, the more we can collaborate effectively, improve our creative output, and create original and engaging work.

A Checklist for Content Work

In content strategy, there is no playbook of generic strategies you can pick from to assemble a plan for your client or project. Instead, it rests on a series of core principles about what makes content effective — what makes it work, what makes it good. Content may need to have other qualities to work within a particular project, but this list is limited to qualities shared across all sorts of content.

If this looks like theory, don’t be fooled. It’s really entirely practical: if we consciously refer to principles like these as we go about our work as info-nerds of various kinds, we’ll have an easier time making good, useful content—and explaining our priorities when we’re called to do so.

Good content is appropriate

Publish content that is right for the user and for the business

There’s really only one central principle of good content: it should be appropriate for your business, for your users, and for its context. Appropriate in its method of delivery, in its style and structure, and above all in its substance. Content strategy is the practice of determining what each of those things means for your project—and how to get there from where you are now.


Let us meditate for a moment on James Bond. Clever and tough as he is, he’d be mincemeat a hundred times over if not for the hyper-competent support team that stands behind him. When he needs to chase a villain, the team summons an Aston Martin DB5. When he’s poisoned by a beautiful woman with dubious connections, the team offers the antidote in a spring-loaded, space-age infusion device. When he emerges from a swamp overrun with trained alligators, it offers a shower, a shave, and a perfectly tailored suit. It does not talk down to him or waste his time. It anticipates his needs, but does not offer him everything he might ever need, all the time.

Content is appropriate for users when it helps them accomplish their goals.

Content is perfectly appropriate for users when it makes them feel like geniuses on critically important missions, offering them precisely what they need, exactly when they need it, and in just the right form. All of this requires that you get pretty deeply into your users’ heads, if not their tailoring specifications.

Part of this mind-reading act involves context, which encompasses quite a lot more than just access methods, or even a fine-grained understanding of user goals. A meaningful analysis of a user’s context requires not only an understanding of user goals, but also of their behaviors: What are they doing? How are they feeling? What are they capable of?

It’s a sensible notion. When I call the emergency room on a weekend, my context is likely to be quite different than when I call my allergy specialist during business hours. If I look at a subway map at 3:00 a.m., chances are that I need to know which trains are running now, not during rush hour tomorrow. When I look up your company on my phone, I’m more likely to need basic contact info than your annual report from 2006. But assumptions about reader context—however well researched—will never be perfect. Always give readers the option of seeing more information if they wish to do so.


Content is appropriate for your business when it helps you accomplish your business goals in a sustainable way.

Business goals include things like “increase sales,” “improve technical support service,” and “reduce printing costs for educational materials,” and the trick is to accomplish those goals using sustainable processes. Sustainable content is content you can create — and maintain — without going broke, without lowering quality in ways that make the content suck, and without working employees into nervous breakdowns. The need for this kind of sustainability may sound boneheadedly obvious, but it’s very easy to create an ambitious plan for publishing oodles of content without considering the long-term effort required to manage it.

Fundamentally, though, “right for the business” and “right for the user” are the same thing. Without readers, viewers, and listeners, all content is meaningless, and content created without consideration for users’ needs harms publishers because ignored users leave.

This principle boils down to enlightened self interest: that which hurts your users hurts you.

Good content is useful

Define a clear, specific purpose for each piece of content; evaluate content against this purpose

Few people set out to produce content that bores, confuses, and irritates users, yet the web is filled with fluffy, purposeless, and annoying content. This sort of content isn’t neutral, either: it actively wastes time and money and works against user and business goals.

To know whether or not you have the right content for a page (or module or section), you have to know what that content is supposed to accomplish. Greater specificity produces better results. Consider the following possible purposes for a chunk of product-related content:
  • “Sell products” — This is so vague as to be meaningless and is likely to produce buzzword-infested fluff.
  • “Sell this product” — Selling a product is a process made up of many smaller tasks, like discussing benefits, mapping them to features, demonstrating results and value, and asking people to buy. If your goal is this vague, you have no idea which of these tasks (if any) the content will perform.
  • “List and demonstrate the benefits of this product” — This is something a chunk of content can actually do. But if you don’t know who is supposed to benefit from the product, it’s difficult to be specific.
  • “Show how this product helps nurse practitioners” — If you can discover what nurse practitioners need, you can create content that serves this purpose. (And if you can’t find out what they need before trying to sell them a product, you have a lot more to worry about than your content.)
Now do the same for every chunk of content in your project, and you’ll have a useful checklist of what you’re really trying to achieve. If that sounds daunting, think how much harder it would be to try to evaluate, create, or revise the content without a purpose in mind.

Good content is user-centered

Adopt the cognitive frameworks of your users

On a web project, user-centered design means that the final product must meet real user needs and fulfill real human desires. In practical terms, it also means that the days of designing a site map to mirror an org chart are over. In the user-centered design system, design should “make sure that (1) the user can figure out what to do, and (2) the user can tell what is going on.”

When it comes to content, “user-centered” means that instead of insistently using the client’s internal mental models and vocabulary, content must adopt the cognitive frameworks of the user. That includes everything from your users’ model of the world to the ways in which they use specific terms and phrases. And that part has taken a little longer to sink in.

Allow me to offer a brief illustrative puppet show.

While hanging your collection of framed portraits of teacup poodles, you realize you need a tack hammer. So you pop down to the hardware store and ask the clerk where to find one. “Tools and Construction-Related Accessories,” she says. “Aisle five.”
“Welcome to the Tools and Construction-Related Accessories department, where you will find many tools for construction and construction-adjacent activities. How can we help you?”

“Hi. Where can I find a tack hammer?”

“Did you mean an Upholstery Hammer (Home Use)?”


“Hammers with heads smaller than three inches are the responsibility of the Tools for Home Use Division at the far end of aisle nine.”

“Welcome to The Home Tool Center! We were established by the merger of the Tools for Home Use Division and the Department of Small Sharp Objects. Would you like to schedule a demonstration?”

“I just need an upholstery hammer. For…the home?”

“Do you require Premium Home Use Upholstery Hammer or Standard Deluxe Home Use Upholstery Hammer?”

“Look, there’s a tack hammer right behind your head. That’s all I need.”

“DIRECTORY ACCESS DENIED. Please return to the front of the store and try your search again!”
Publishing content that is self-absorbed in substance or style alienates readers. Most successful organizations have realized this, yet many sites are still built around internal org charts, clogged with mission statements designed for internal use, and beset by jargon and proprietary names for common ideas.

If you’re the only one offering a desirable product or service, you might not see the effects of narcissistic content right away, but someone will eventually come along and eat your lunch by offering the exact same thing in a user-centered way.

Good content is clear

Seek clarity in all things

When we say that something is clear, we mean that it works; it communicates; the light gets through. Good content speaks to people in a language they understand and is organized in ways that make it easy to use.

Of course, clarity is also a virtue we should attend to in the production of our own work. Goals, meetings, deliverables, processes—all benefit from a love of clarity.

Good content is consistent

Mandate consistency, within reason

For most people, language is our primary interface with each other and with the external world. Consistency of language and presentation acts as a consistent interface, reducing the users’ cognitive load and making it easier for readers to understand what they read. Inconsistency, on the other hand, adds cognitive effort, hinders understanding, and distracts readers.

Some kinds of consistency aren't always uniformly valuable, either: a site that serves doctors, patients, and insurance providers, for example, will probably use three different voice/tone guidelines for the three audiences, and another for content intended to be read by a general audience. That’s healthy, reader-centric consistency. On the other hand, a company that permitted each of its product teams to create widely different kinds of content is probably breaking the principles of consistency for self-serving, rather than reader-serving, reasons.

Good content is concise

Omit needless content

Some organizations love to publish lots of content. Perhaps because they believe that having an org chart, a mission statement, a vision declaration, and a corporate inspirational video on the About Us page will retroactively validate the hours and days of time spent producing that content. Perhaps because they believe Google will only bless their work if they churn out dozens of blog posts per week. In most cases, I think entropy deserves the blame: the web offers the space to publish everything, and it’s much easier to treat it like a hall closet with infinite stuffing-space than to impose constraints.

So what does it matter if we have too much content? For one thing, more content makes everything more difficult to find. For another, spreading finite resources ever more thinly results in a decline in quality. It also often indicates a deeper problem—publishing everything often means “publishing everything we can,” rather than “publishing everything we’ve learned that our users really need.”

There are many ways to discover which content is in fact needless; traffic analysis, user research, and editorial judgment should all play a role. You may also wish to begin with a hit list of common stowaways:
  • Mission statements, vision statements, and core values. If the people within your organization are genuinely committed to abstract principles, it will show in what they do. The exception is the small number of organizations for whom the mission is the product, as is the case with many charities. Even then, this kind of content should be supplemented with plentiful evidence of follow-through.

  • Press releases. These may work for their very narrow intended audience, but putting them undigested onto a website is a perfect example of the how-we’ve-always-done-it mistake.

  • Long, unreadable legal pages. Some legal awkwardness is acceptable, but if you want to demonstrate that you respect your readers, take the extra time to whittle down rambling legalese and replace needless circumlocutions with (attorney-vetted) plain language.

  • Endless feature lists. Most are not useful to readers. The few that are can usually be organized into subcategories that aid findability and comprehension.

  • Redundant documentation. Are you offering the same audience three different FAQs? Can they be combined or turned into contextual help?

  • Audiovisual dust bunnies. Do your videos or animations begin with a long flying-logo intro? Do they ramble on for 30 minutes to communicate ten minutes of important content? Trim, edit, and provide ways of skipping around.
Once you've rooted out unnecessary content at the site-planning level, be prepared to ruthlessly eliminate (and teach others to eliminate) needless content at the section, page, and sentence level.

Good content is supported

Publish no content without a support plan

If newspapers are “dead tree media,” information published online is a live green plant. And as we figured out sometime around 10,000 BC, plants are more useful if we tend them and shape their futures to suit our goals. So, too, must content be tended and supported.

Factual content must be updated when new information appears and culled once it’s no longer useful; user-generated content must be nurtured and weeded; time-sensitive content like breaking news or event information must be planted on schedule and cut back once its blooming period ends. Perhaps most importantly, a content plan once begun must be carried through its intended growth cycle if it’s to bear fruit and make all the effort worthwhile.

This is all easy to talk about, but the reason most content is not properly maintained is that most content plans rely on getting the already overworked to produce, revise, and publish content without neglecting other responsibilities. This is not inevitable, but unless content and publishing tasks are recognized as time-consuming and complex and then included in job descriptions, performance reviews, and resource planning, it will continue.

Hoping that a content management system will replace this kind of human care and attention is about as effective as pointing a barn full of unmanned agricultural machinery at a field, going on vacation, and hoping it all works out. Tractors are more efficient than horse-drawn plows, but they still need humans to decide where and when and how to use them.