Karen McGrane

Mobile content strategy link-o-rama 2011


A List Apart asked some very smart people (and me) what they learned about the web in 2011.

I wrote about my realization that the problems we face with a multi-device future, the problems we’re trying to solve with responsive design or with other interaction design strategies, these problems are just as much about content strategy, and the solution lives way down in the CMS:

What blew my mind this year was when I realized that the problems we have with mobile and the problems we have with content management systems are the same problem. It’s been clear to me for a while that we need to provide better interfaces and workflows to content creators—if we want to publish great content, we’ve got to give people the tools to do it. What I didn’t realize until this year is doing that solves a lot of problems for mobile, too.

If we’re going to succeed in publishing content onto a million different new devices and formats and platforms, we need interfaces that will help guide content creators on how to write and structure their content for reuse. When we talk about mobile, we often focus on the front-end interactions, design, and code, but what I realized this year is that the solution to many problems with mobile lives way further down the stack, in the CMS.

This didn’t come to me as a lightning bolt out of the blue. I learned it the honest way: by researching and reading people who have smart things to say about our editorial processes across print, web, and mobile, content management interfaces, workflows, and APIs, and what that means for the future.

You might want to learn this too, so here’s a roundup of some of the best sources.

Structured Content + Responsive Design

If you think responsive design is just for designers and developers, then you’re missing out on the most exciting thing to happen to content strategy since the Excel spreadsheet.

A Richer Canvas
You know, I think we’re on to something when very respected graphic designers like Mark Boulton start arguing for content strategy. Actually, go ahead and smack me for saying that—of course great designers want great content, and skilled writers respect excellent design. The challenge is for us to work together to figure out what it means to think from the content out rather than the canvas in. What kind of structure do we need to put into our content so that designers can embrace the “unpredictable, fluid, fragile” nature of the web?
See also: Mark Boulton on designing websites using “content out” in .Net Magazine
See also: Content First by Jeremy Keith

Structured Content First
Stephen Hay gets this party started with a presentation that explains how content should be platform-agnostic for content, and platform-aware for user experience. Because layout and responsive design is only part of the problem, he explains that structured content is the baseline we need for responsive design. This is a Slideshare presentation, but don’t fret—there’s an audio track available and video too!

Structured Content, Shifting Context: Responsive Design, Content Strategy & the Future
Sara Wachter-Boettcher gives a great introduction to why responsive design isn’t just about design—it’s a content strategy problem, first and always. Content has to be ready for a future that’s fluid, shifting, and adaptive to change. To do so brings together the best of information architecture and the best of content strategy: people who are effective at structuring and describing content because they deeply understand the message and the meaning.
See also: Content First?: Semantics, Structure, and Why We Should Care by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Nimble Report
Rachel Lovinger showed me a draft of this report when we were at the first CS Forum in Paris a couple years ago. It blew my mind then, not just because of the smart writing and appealing design, but also because it neatly synthesized a complex topic and made it accessible to mere mortals. It still blows my mind today, for being years ahead of its time. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s a classic. If you’re wondering why it makes my 2011 roundup even though it’s been around for a while, it’s because no discussion of this topic would be complete without it.


Mmm, alphabet soup. Once thought to be strictly the domain of hard-core techies, content management systems and application programming interfaces are now topics that should matter to every content strategist.

4 ways content management systems are evolving & why it matters to journalists
A better title might be: “… and why it matters to every business.” Publishers may be the most demanding users of a content management system, but the challenges they face in distributing and managing content across the entire social ecosystem are shared by many. The solution is to think of CMS as set of technologies, not a one-stop-shop, and to embrace open-source projects like WordPress, Drupal, and Django. The most benefits are gained when businesses think of the CMS as a platform that requires constant development and refinement to make it both useful and appealing to its content creator users.

COPE: Create Once, Publish Everywhere
Daniel Jacobson of NPR (now at Netflix) describes NPR’s approach to content management and API development, which aims to separate content from display to ensure content modularity and portability. NPR credits its API with increasing page views by 80%, largely because they’re able to get their content onto a variety of mobile devices without custom programming.
See also: Notes from NPR’s 2011 SxSW Session, by Scot Hacker

Your WYSIWYG Editor sucks
The title says it all: WYSIWYG CMS editors are the enemy of both structured content and standards-based web design. Let’s rise up and defeat them! Rachel Andrew details the many, many ways that they suck, and explains how we can do better. She notes, wisely, that there are technology components to this solution, but the real challenge lies in getting content authors to give up their familiar Microsoft Word editing model.

Make It Semantic from the Start
CMSes are vertically integrated, combining content editing + management with display + publishing. Their production model is still print-centric, thinking about how to get content online only later in the process. This might (sort-of) work when going from print to web, but it breaks down when going from print to our crazy multi-device future. Dan Willis says the answer is a semantic publishing system that chunks content appropriately, allowing it to be recombined in different ways on different platforms.
See also: When Did Print Become an Input? by Ann Michael
See also: Publishers: Structured Data and Content Management Systems by by Andrew Davies
See also: The New, Convoluted Life Cycle Of A Newspaper Story

Add To RSS

If you haven’t heard enough on this subject, then you should be following these writers.

Every Page is Page One
With topic categories like “Metadata Matters,” “Objects vs. Chunks,” and “Every Page is Page One,” Mark Baker’s blog reads like a rallying cry for the future of content. Of course, the future of content isn’t new: he’s a 20-year veteran technical communicator.

A blog “where web content management and user experience collide.” Fortunately, the collision is less like a car accident and more like a streamlined knitting of perspectives. Michael Kowalski has worked with tons of publishers and believes “editorial staff should be given great tools to work with, that offer every bit as good a user experience as the best consumer apps.”

The CMS Myth
Hear veterans of the interactive space tell you why your web CMS isn’t a silver bullet. It’s about more than just the technology: it’s about people and process too. Sounds good, right?

The Rockley Group
Ann Rockley has been talking about what she calls “Intelligent Content” for years. Her book, Managing Enterprise Content, is an out-of-print gem; fortunately for all of us a second edition is on the way.

Me Me Me Me Me

Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I’ve said a thing or two about these subjects in 2011.

5by5 Podcasts
5by5 is a fantastic set of podcasts, a few of which I’ve appeared on recently.
The Web Ahead with Jen Simmons
Content Talks with Kristina Halvorson
The Big Web Show with Jeffrey Zeldman and Dan Benjamin

Web Content 2011
Jeff Eaton and I gave a presentation called “Making the most of mobile,” where we talked about our favorite subject, the “reusable content store.” How will it help us deal with the proliferation of new devices and platforms, and what are the challenges that prevent us from getting there?
Video Part 1
Video Part 2

Drupalcon Chicago
Eaton and I again co-presented, this time talking about how to use familiar practices from user experience to customize the interface and workflow of Drupal, in a presentation titled “Baby Got Backend: Content administrators are users too.”

CS Forum 2011
I gave one of the keynotes at this international content strategy event. This talk, called “The way forward: what’s next for content strategy,” was aimed squarely at the content strategy profession and talked about what we as a community need to do next.
Notes by Martin Belam

Do It With Drupal
This was the first draft of my latest “stump speech,” called “Adapting ourselves to adaptive content.” In this talk, I pull together everything I’ve learned this year, and identify what we need to do next to adapt our content to the new world of fragmented devices and platforms we now live in.
Video (requires subscription)

An Event Apart
I couldn’t be more excited to be taking my “Adapting ourselves to adaptive content” talk on the road with An Event Apart this year and next. I’ve already spoken in DC but you can see me in Atlanta, Seattle, or Boston in 2012.
DC October 24-26, 2011
Atlanta February 6-8, 2012 (register)
Seattle April 2-4, 2012 (register)
Boston June 18-20, 2012 (register)