Content Planning: The Story Of Sketch

In 2017, online content planning tools are plentiful. Ten years ago, these tools weren’t common and they certainly weren’t New Zealand made.

Back in 2008, Webstruxure developed what was perhaps New Zealand’s first content planning application. It was ultimately a product with never quite got off the ground, but a story that’s worth telling. So here, we bring you:

The Story Of Sketch:
Why Webstruxure’s 2008 Flagship Product Never Quite Got Off The Ground

A pain point. A Webstruxure product that eased the pain. And a gap in the market.  What didn’t work? Why didn’t Sketch become a case of “Shut up and take my money?”

The pain point

Webstruxure has been in the web design and development business since 2001. When building websites for clients, we repeatedly found that the biggest problem was content.

We got used to clients who were happy to spend hours pondering the precise shade of teal to use on their home page, but who, when asked about content, airily said “Oh, we’ll just copy it over from the old site” – even when the old site had a completely different structure.

And then the week scheduled for the website launch would come round, and whenever we asked about all that content that had to go on the site before the launch could happen, we’d be told “It’s coming!”

Deadlines would come, and deadlines would go… and eventually we’d end up with content that was rushed, missing, or didn’t make sense.

Content was a pain. For clients, for us, and for users. So late in 2007, we decided to ease the pain by creating Sketch.

The product

Sketch was a browser-based tool that let users develop the information architecture and content of a new or redeveloped website without having to wait until visual design was complete and the actual site pages were ready to populate.

Sketch helped the user build the draft site structure of a website as a set of pages, on which content could be written or edited using a simple text editor. The user could browse and modify the site structure and associated content, leave notes for other users, and save their work and export it to other platforms.

As we said at the time:

Sketch is great for website designers. Just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, so no site design survives contact with the client – especially when the client starts trying to fit their content into the design you’ve created.

Sketch can end the trench warfare by allowing designer and client to develop the site together. The client can load content into the prototype design, and if the design doesn’t seem to be working, designer and client can collaborate on changing the structure till it does. What’s more, Sketch can act as an online wire-framing tool.

There are some things Sketch is not. It’s not a content management system. It’s not a page design tool – the “look and feel” design still needs to be done elsewhere. But it is a mighty fine tool, and it’s remarkably flexible.

 

The gap in the market

In 2017, tools like Sketch are common – some with Sketch’s stripped-down aesthetic, some much more fully featured. But ten years earlier, when Sketch product development started, they were not at all common, and those few that did exist were cumbersome and expensive. The aim of the project was to launch a product with the minimum necessary feature set that eased the pain point by allowing early, easy website content creation.

We did a lot of market research with New Zealand web companies in 2008. We told them:

Sketch solves budget overruns, stress, delivery delays, and strained client relationships.

Sites with budgets of $10,000-$15,000 don’t have good tools to draft and agree a content architecture for the site, and they can’t afford to employ a specialist information architect.  So, the content architecture of the website – and hence, its design – is built in complete dependence on effective communication between the designer and the client.

This communication often fails, with disastrous results. Expensive and time-consuming changes have to be made late in the project, and someone has to pay for them. Timely delivery, the project’s profitability, good client relations, and the client’s return on investment are all seriously threatened.

Sketch prevents this by allowing the parties to draft and organise the website content before the site is built. The client can actively participate and see the site’s architecture planning. The designer gets a draft website signed off before building it. Thus, the effectiveness of the organisation and analysis stage is maximised.

And our market research showed us that web design companies were interested in such a product: 11.5% of New Zealand’s approximately 750 design agencies wanted to test Sketch, in its pre-commercial or beta form, as soon as possible.

What didn’t work?

Our market research showed we’d correctly identified that content creation for web sites was a major pain point for New Zealand web designers. But in the end Sketch was never commercialised, although it remained in use as a very useful content creation and organisation tool for a number of our internal clients.

Why not? Looking back, there seem to have been four main factors:

  • Identifying and implementing the minimum necessary feature set: While some of our potential clients liked Sketch’s focus on structure and content, others said that it needed more ability to include visual design elements. In trying to satisfy both camps before our first commercial release, we ran into technical and informational problems.
  • Failure to gain investment: We needed investment to get Sketch to first-release stage, and we couldn’t get it.
  • Alternative products coming on the market: As we continued our efforts to get Sketch ready for release, other products, such as Balsamiq and Jumpchart, were released – and they each did a good chunk of what Sketch would have done.
  • The need for Webstruxure to earn a living: The failure to gain outside investment meant that Webstruxure was increasingly having to take on client web development projects to keep paying the bills. The more time and energy we spent on those, the less we had available to spend on Sketch, and the Sketch effort became increasingly fragmented.

So Sketch was not, in the end, a success. But we learned a great deal, including key lessons in content organisation and project management that we still make use of to this day.

If you want support with website content planning and creation, talk to us today.