“We have so much content, we don’t even know how many pages are on our website.” “It’s impossible for anyone to find anything.” “Our call center spends too much time answering questions about already-available information.” “I’m more likely to Google what I’m looking for than dig for it.” “I just bookmark everything.”

Sound familiar? A good number of Happy Cog projects begin with stakeholder comments like these. Our clients work tirelessly to publish their latest efforts, but in the shadows, there are content cracks: bloated site structure, countless tags, redundant writing, etc. Whether our clients are drafting a timely response to a current event, announcing a new conference, or publishing a fresh editorial spotlight, they first need our help to wrangle the chaos.

One way to understand the breadth and depth of a site’s content is to methodically review what’s on the existing site. Imagine you’re presented with the task of assembling a piece of furniture. Assuming a certain minimum level of patience, you’ll likely remove the pieces from the packaging and set them out in a way that you can see how many parts you have, of what type, and how they’re different. Same thing here. To design a better experience, we have to take a closer look at the parts in order to know how they should fit together.

In the content realm, the act of evaluating the parts is called a content inventory and audit. As part of an inventory, I go through every page of the website that I can find (though you can certainly just review a subsection if your project calls for a narrower lens). For each page, in a spreadsheet or Google Doc, I’ll track things like page name, URL, repeatable modules, and potential content types. I’ll also assign each page a number string, so that I can remember structure without having the website pulled up. For example, if 0.0 is Home, 0.2 is the second link in the main navigation, and 0.2.1 is that landing page’s first child. By auditing that inventory, I might notice that content is regularly removed from the site, but dead links remain. I might find that a site’s structure is very shallow, or perhaps heavily weighted to a particular section. Patterns, holes, strengths, and weaknesses emerge.

While content inventories and audits are typically conducted by a content strategist, as a systems-minded designer, I’ve learned that I’m equally equipped to separate signal from noise. Designers have a lot to gain (and contribute) by participating or even conducting an audit themselves.

Through a content audit, designers have the opportunity to formulate hypotheses in the formative weeks of an engagement. Acting as users trying to understand what’s presented, designers will jump to how design can help alleviate issues they’ve found. “I wonder if this content would be easier to access if it wasn’t four levels deep…” “Could this endless sea of text read more clearly if it were structured as a table?” Early hypotheses are catalysts for the new user experience.

Designers are primed to notice what’s unique. They’ll ask where are the exceptions, special treatments, and one-off features that may call for heavier design (or development) effort. Participating in a content audit brings to light requirements for unique design opportunities. In that way, your team can sooner plan for client discussions and internal resources that address more involved tasks.

Most importantly, as designers review existing content, they’ll form a mental model that will help them speak confidently about their client’s digital world. So, when working in the following weeks to create an inspiring concept and lasting system, they’ll be able to reference that model. They’ll derive insights that can drive and defend their design decisions. That’s pretty empowering.