Karen McGrane

Uncle Sam Wants You (to Optimize Your Content for Mobile)


In 2012, President Obama mandated that all executive branch agencies must optimize their content for mobile. This initiative is part of a larger digital government strategy to build a 21st century platform to better serve the American people.

I wrote this talk especially for An Event Apart DC 2012, hoping to engage the company town around some exciting changes in government. I’m really enthusiastic about this subject, so I took this show on the road, to Breaking Development Dallas. The good people at BDConf were kind enough to share the video of this session, and I’ve got it here, along with the slides and a full transcript.

If you just can’t get enough of this subject, I wrote an article for A List Apart with the same title: Uncle Sam Wants You (to Optimize Your Content for Mobile)

Talk Description

President Obama recently directed all government agencies to optimize their content for mobile, saying “Americans deserve a government that works for them anytime, anywhere, and on any device.” Government has a responsibility to make its content available to all Americans equally. What about your organization? If the government has mandated its agencies to develop a content strategy for mobile, isn’t it time you did too?

In this session, Karen will discuss why it’s important to think holistically about publishing your content in whatever channel or device your customer wants to consume it—and what the risks are in not making content accessible to mobile users. Already convinced it’s important? She’ll also explain how to get started with your mobile content strategy, defining what you want to publish, what the relationship should be between your mobile and desktop site, and how your editorial workflow and content management tools need to evolve.


Hi, this is me. If you get confused about who I am while I’m standing up here I’m the one going like this.

Back in the 70s and 80s, Digital Equipment Corporation, DEC, was one of the world’s largest and most powerful mainframe computer companies. Back then they just called them ‘computers’. They were successful because of their focus on the minicomputer segment. Back in the day you’d buy an IBM System 360 and the idea was that you would buy this one giant monolithic computer that would power every computing task that you would need for your entire organization. You’d have to clear out the entire basement, it would take up the size of a two story building. In the 60s and the 70s DEC made its mark on the industry by focusing on smaller computers aimed at a smaller segment. They made minicomputers that you could use to power the computing needs of, say, an individual academic department, or maybe an individual engineering department could buy one computer. They started with this PDP line and the real success came from this little baby here, the PDP 8. I have a fantastic photo; it’s a really blurry photo in a book that I wish I could share. It’s a farmer who has loaded one of these babies onto the back of his potato picking machine so he can use an actual computerized approach to picking his crops which, I personally believe, makes the PDP 8 the world’s first mobile computer.

DEC, especially in the 70s and 80s, they’re doing really well. This guy here, Ken Olsen, their founder and CEO. Look how happy he is. He’s sitting on top of the world here.  By 1988 DEC was the world’s second largest computer company behind only the 500 pound gorilla in the room, IBM. He’s justifiably proud of the role that his computing company has played in the marketplace. He feels confident that the minicomputers that they are building are satisfying customer needs.  He has his finger on the pulse of the marketplace and he knows for a fact that there is no reason why any individual would ever need to have a computer in their home. Why would he think that? Why would he think that the entire industry that he’s helped create, the entire mindset around what a computer did, would in some way be replicated by having a computer in your home?

I guarantee you there’s somebody in your organization right now that is telling themselves, ‘There’s no reason anybody would ever need to do that on mobile. I mean, why would they ever need that? I’ve got a desktop; they can use their desktop, right?’

Imagine this: 1988. Ken Olsen is overseeing his empire. They have the VAX-11, they sell the VAX which is literally one of the world’s most popular minicomputer or microcomputer units. They sell to universities and engineering firms all over the world. They’re selling the VT-125 graphics terminal; this is the world’s most well sold, most popular graphics terminal. Not just sold to run on their mainframes but sold to run on everybody else’s mainframe. Look at this, look how happy this guy is. You can’t actually see how happy he is because of the mustache but I swear to god he’s really happy. There are rainbows shooting out of this graphics terminal.  It’s amazing. 1988. These people are sitting on top of the world.

Except for this total piece of shit. I mean, look at these things. Is there any reason to believe that your entire business, your entire industry is going to be destroyed by this cheap piece of plastic? Look at this: this is a TV set, it’s a black and white TV set. What the hell is that? I’m not kidding you guys, this is a cassette tape deck. Could you imagine? You are running one of the world’s largest mainframe computer companies and you’re supposed to believe that your entire industry is going to be destroyed by something that stores its memory on a cassette tape. It’s only got this tiny little rainbow here. The rainbows don’t even shoot out of these things. Come on.

Within two years, in 1990, soaring demand for these cheap pieces of plastic ravaged DEC sales. The company suffered its first loss ever and they start doing layoffs.  Within the next year, 1991, they posted their first full year loss. They lost money in five of the next seven years. In 1998, ten years later, ten years from the point at which they were the number two computer manufacturer in the world, they were out of business. They were sold to Compaq which sold to HP. The entire company was gone because of these cheap pieces of crap that frankly didn’t work as well. They kind of sucked.  How could Ken Olsen have ever been expected to realize this? How could he ever have been expected to anticipate this? This must be some crazy fluke, right? No one’s ever seen their business destroyed this way, right?

On the contrary. This is, my friends, what is called a disruptive innovation, and it is one of the most well-studied phenomena in management consulting. What it means is that there are all kinds of examples of cases, technology or a device, that doesn’t perform as well as the current market leader. It doesn’t do the same task as well. It’s not quite as good as the existing thing. In a sense, it’s more expensive. It costs more to do the exact same thing that would be cheaper with the larger, more well-established industry leader. It’s not really, in any sense, better. People aren’t clamoring for this thing.

But there is one thing that it does really well. And that is that it creates an entirely new market of customers who previously, whether due to skill or due to money or due to some other barrier in the marketplace, would have never had access to this product.  This has happened time and time again. In industry after industry the new technologies that brought big, established companies to their knees weren’t better, they weren’t more advanced. They were actually worse. These new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy and in almost every way inferior.

This comes from a New Yorker piece on Clayton Christiansen; he’s the guy known as the discoverer of this concept. You see this in industry after industry. The classic study that Christiansen did a lot of work on is disk drives. Disk drives are described as the fruit flies of the technology industry. If you want to study how something evolves you can’t study people because we take too long to reproduce, so you study fruit flies. They’re reproducing like mad all the time. Same thing with storage devices, same thing with disk drives. The pace of change is so quick that you can actually observe what it is that makes customers buy these new devices. You look at this evolution and you might think, ‘Well, this is just a natural evolution, right? Of course things should get smaller. Of course things should get cheaper.’

But why? What is the driving force? If you have a machine that is already set up to use a 14” disk drive or already set up to use a 5” disk drive why would you want something smaller?  It’s not going to be cheaper to start. It’s going to be more expensive. It’s not going to hold as much memory to start so it’s actually going to be more expensive to buy a product that does something worse than the product you already have. The innovation doesn’t come from the people who already have the installed base of computers that are working off the larger size. It comes from an entirely new market that comes in and drives demand and drives innovation for a much smaller size. You’ve seen this happen time and time again as disk drives have gotten smaller.

Look at radios. Can you image being the manufacturer of one of these gorgeous pieces of furniture? The radio was designed to be a family experience, a communal experience. These things are high end pieces of furniture. They had fantastic sound quality, they were gorgeous.  Why would you ever expect this entire market would be disrupted from this cheap piece of plastic that your teenager would take to the beach. Of course nobody has a full sized furniture radio anymore. Within a few years, within the decade the cheap transistor radio had completely taken over the market. Do you know why? Even though to start out with this cheap piece of plastic sucked, it had tinny sound, you couldn’t really get the stations in. They got better. They improved themselves and finally the idea that you could have a cheap portable device that was yours, that you could take anywhere, the quality of it got better and finally it was like, ‘Why do we need a radio? Why do we need a big piece of furniture?’

You see it with printers all the time. You know anybody who has an offset printer in their office anymore? Of course not. The thing is an offset printer, when you buy it and invest in the high cost of having it up front, it’s actually very low cost when you print things. It prints better quality prints for a lower cost as long as you invest in the high cost of buying it. Why wouldn’t anybody choose quality over having some crappy inkjet printer attached to their computer? I don’t know. Maybe because people want a crappy inkjet printer that’s attached to their computer, that can be theirs? Oh, my God. I can make my own color prints right now.  I don’t have to walk across the office. I don’t have to wait in line, I don’t have to share. I would rather have one crappy printer that’s mine, mine, mine, all mine than a much better, higher quality device that I have to walk across the office to share with people.

You’ve all seen this happen with photography, right? I’m sure anybody who invested the amount of time and effort and money into learning how to use an expensive, beautiful camera, it took work to use those things, is sitting there looking at your iPhone and Instagram right now going, ‘This is bullshit.’ But you know what? The camera that’s always with you, the camera that fits in your pocket disrupted an entire industry. For Kodak it wasn’t just that they were disrupted by the loss of film. It wasn’t just that film was taken away from them as their cash cow. It was that the entire concept of the camera went away.

So you can imagine what I’m leading up to here: we’re seeing yet another disruptive innovation that is going to disrupt an entire industry and it’s this one: the personal computer. I think one of the most interesting things about what’s happening right now, the same disruption that happened with mainframes and personal computers, is now happening with personal computers and these tiny little portable computers that people have everywhere. The exact same arguments to deny the reality of every other disruptive innovation are coming true again. ‘They’re just a piece of crap. You can’t really do anything on them. Nobody’s ever going to use those to replace the real computer.’ Even Clayton Christiansen, the founder of this idea, one of his most embarrassing predictions is that the iPhone would fail. Because he’s a low end guy. He believes in disruptive innovation happening from the bottom and when he looked at the iPhone he said, ‘I see an expensive cell phone.’ What he didn’t see is a really cheap computer. What he didn’t see is really cheap internet access that would be available to people who never had it before. Remember what he said about a disruptive innovation? It’s the idea that a new group of consumers, a whole population of people who previously have not had access to a product or service will now get access to it. They won’t need the money, they won’t need the same skills. They’re going to have something that previously they would never have been able to own.

Looking around the room here, looking at a population of people, all of whom have a laptop and probably multiple computers; I probably have four or five computers at home right now and that’s not even counting all the phones that I own. I’ve had home internet access since 1992 or 1993. It was crappy but I had it. It’s easy for people like to us to lose sight of the fact that 20% of Americans have no internet access at all. That number is not as interesting to me as this one: it’s the 35% of people who have no home internet access. I want you to think about that for a moment. Imagine that you didn’t have internet access at home. Imagine all of the things that you do that you wouldn’t want your employer to watch you do, that you wouldn’t want your co-workers watching you do. Even overlooking the obvious, think about all the things like looking up your bank statements, searching for a medical condition, or looking up information about your personal health. Even shopping for Christmas presents. None of that is possible if you don’t have a connection, if you don’t have an always-on connection that you can use at home.

The numbers are much worse, this is for all Americans, when you look at populations of people who have been traditionally disadvantaged. So 29% of black Americans don’t have any internet access at all. Half, 51%, don’t have broadband connectivity at home. That is crazy. The numbers are basically the same for Hispanic Americans: about a third of people don’t have any internet connection at all and about half have no connection at home. So if you’re low income you might imagine…guess what? You don’t have enough money to buy food, you don’t have enough money to buy gas, internet is going to be seen as an unimaginable luxury. If you’re considered low income in this country, you make less than $30,000 a year, 38% of people do not have any internet access and 59%, almost 60%, of people don’t have a broadband connection at home. What are you going to do? Hope that your employer looks generously on the kind of searches you want to do? Go to the library or a computer lab every time you want to look something up?

If you have a disability, 46% of Americans with a disability don’t have internet access; 59% of these don’t have a broadband connection at home. These numbers are true even after they have controlled for the fact that people who are disabled are also more likely to be low income or are also more likely to not have a high school education. You know what sucks about having a disability? Not being able to see or hear or walk. You know what would make that suck even worse? If you didn’t have the internet to entertain you. Think about how much bigger people’s worlds would be if they just had access to the internet to keep them connected to the outside world or to give them access to resources and services and tools that they otherwise wouldn’t have available to them. If you don’t have a high school diploma, 57% of people don’t have internet access and a whopping, crazy 88% of these people don’t have broadband access at home. Think about it: you don’t have a high school diploma which means you don’t have a job, which means you don’t have any money, which means you don’t have internet access. And that leaves: crystal meth. You guys laugh now. If I took away your home internet connection you would be stock piling cold medicine in like two weeks. It would be like an episode of Breaking Bad in here.

No broadband connection at home. No internet connection at home. No computer at home. You know what everybody does have? Everybody has a phone. Right now, phone penetration is at about 88% and I guarantee you within a few years having a mobile phone is going to be considered one of those staple items that everybody has regardless of income, regardless of age bracket, regardless of whatever.  In the same way that everybody in this country has a television set, everybody in this country is going to have a phone. These numbers haven’t changed much.

The numbers that are changing are the numbers of people who say that they use their phone to go on the internet. Within just the last three years these numbers have skyrocketed. Right now, 55% of people who have a mobile phone say that they use their mobile phone to go online. I want you to remember this 55% number because we’re going to be talking a lot more about these people. I think you guys can all do the math here. This differential here? This is smartphones, right? The only reason that these people are going on the internet using their phones is because they have a smartphone that makes it easy.

Let’s do a little bit of a breakdown of the numbers of people who are adopting smartphones.  One really interesting thing that you can take away from this, the majority of populations, Black and Hispanic and Asian people, they are all majority smartphone users. The only people, the only population of Americans that are still majority feature phone users, that do not have a smartphone, are white Americans.  I’m going to do the math for you guys here. There are a disproportionate number of people from these historically under-served groups who are using their phones as their primary way of accessing the internet and a disproportionally small number of white people do that. Do you know why? Because a disproportionate number of white, educated, college educated, higher income people do not need to use their phones as their primary way of accessing the internet. But for other populations that need is very real.

So, I started calling these the mobile only user or the mobile mostly user. And these people, they are out there. Of this 55 percent of people that I was talking about who say that they access the internet from their phones, 31 percent of Americans say that they only or mostly ever access the internet from their phones. So, here’s what I’m saying, 31 percent of Americans who have ever picked up their mobile device and accessed the internet on it, that’s the only way they use it or they say that that’s mostly how they get online. Maybe they do have an internet connection at work but the thing is for them that mobile device is their primary way of accessing the internet.

And that’s why I wanted to belabor the point about the people who don’t have a broadband connection at home, okay? I’ve gotten flack from people when I talk about this number saying,”Oh, well, yeah, but I mean they can still access the desktop site.” Screw that. Are you kidding me? Just because they have access to a broadband connection at work means that they’re going to wait until they get into the office or wait until they go to the computer lab and access your website from their desktop browser? Heck no. The fact that they’ve got a mobile device in their pocket and they’re saying, “No, that is the way that I mostly access the internet,” is basically their way of saying, “Yes, that’s the way I prefer to access the internet.”

So, that’s 31 percent of Americans [of the 55% who access the internet from their mobile device]. The numbers, as you might imagine, for some of the populations that I talked about who don’t have broadband connections at home, they’re much higher. So, 39 percent of Americans who have never been to college say that they mostly use their phones to go online. Forty-three percent of low income Americans do. Okay? So, if you can’t afford to have both a broadband connection and a mobile phone, which one do you think you’re going to choose? I mean think about that for yourself. If you had to pick one thing in your life right now, which would you pick? I bet a lot of you would say, “”You know what? The phone does a lot more for me than my desktop computer. If I had to choose between one or the other I’m going with the phone.”

Forty-two percent of Hispanic Americans say that the majority way, the way that they only or mostly access the internet is off of their mobile device. A whopping 51 percent of black Americans, over half of this population, only accesses the internet through their phone. This is standing here in 2012. These numbers, guys, they are not going down. This is only going up and that’s because mobile, it’s like mobile is the final frontier in the access revolution. Okay? Mobile is what has erased the digital divide. A mobile device is the internet for many people.

If your stuff, if your content, if your information, if your products, if your services are not available on mobile, they don’t exist for these people. They don’t exist for almost a third of Americans who browse the internet on their phones. They don’t exist for the nearly half of black Americans who are browsing the internet on a phone.

Or worse, what you are telling these populations of people is that this is the internet. The internet for them is this sub-par experience where they get sucked into thinking okay, here’s some nice big tappable buttons. Here this looks great. Oh, wait, what I want to look at I’ve got to go in and swim around in this desktop website. I’ve got to like pinch and zoom my way through this experience trying to figure out what I’m looking for. And I hear from people all the time like, “Oh, well, you know, Jakob Nielsen of all people says if they really need that information you can just send them to the desktop site.” Who thinks that this is an acceptable experience, pinching and zooming your way through a site that was designed for a monitor that’s like five times bigger?

We’ve gotten used to it, right? We’re comfortable with it. I’ve been tapping my way through my iPhone for quite a number of years now. Think about the populations of people who do not have an internet connection at home, who do not have a mental model that they are working off of how a desktop site is structured, who aren’t going into this saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I use this on my desktop machine all the time. I totally know where this is. I can just like zoom my way in there really quick.”

This is what we’re telling them the internet is. Figure out how to navigate and tap your way around an experience that was designed for something five times as big. Have you ever tried to search for anything where you type in something that you’re looking for and you see the link? And you’re like, ‘Great. There’s a link in Google to what it is that I’m looking for.’ And you tap on that link and you get unceremoniously dumped onto the homepage of a mobile site because it doesn’t have that content. Could you imagine if you were somewhat unfamiliar with using the internet, your experience of trying to search for something on Google always had you randomly dumped on some mobile home page that had no relationship at all to what you had searched for? You’re confused. Google doesn’t work. Here’s what we are teaching these mobile only users: Google doesn’t work. That’s not a good experience on the internet.

Have any of you used your mobile device to share social content? Of course you have. The numbers are crazy. Something like 20% of Facebook users say they never use the desktop website. They only use Facebook on mobile. You go to Facebook or you go to Twitter and you tap on a link that you’re looking for and you wind up on a page where all they can tell you is, “Oh, we’re sorry. This thing that you wanted just doesn’t exist on mobile. You want to go try swimming around in the desktop site looking for it?”

We are telling this vast number of Americans that they are second class citizens. Their experience of the internet is not the equivalent to what everybody else gets. Their experience of trying to find something that they’re looking for, of trying to do something that they want to do isn’t equal. They are getting the crap version, the lite version, the broken version because that’s all they deserve. Think about it: 80% of Fortune 500 companies, including companies like Target and Wal-Mart, only accept job applications on line. High school students who have broadband connections at home have graduation rates that are 6% to 8% than students who don’t. Some consumer advocates say that consumers can save $8,000 a year simply by having access to discounts and coupons available on the internet.

I think there’s probably some of you who might walk out of here today and say, “I get it. You’re talking about these underserved populations. But that’s not really what our company does. We want to sell products to people who have money. That’s our business model: selling stuff to people who have money.”  Do you think you’re an equal opportunity employer? Because you’re not, if you don’t have your content where all of these groups can see it. Which is mobile. Do you think people should have the same right to access to healthcare information or information about how to manage their finances? Well, they don’t, as long as that information isn’t available on mobile. Do you think that students should have access to all of the same educational resources and job hunting resources that are available?  Do you really believe that America is a meritocracy if that information isn’t available on mobile? Because it’s not.

There is one thing, there is one organization out there that does understand, that does believe, that does have a responsibility to get its content out equally to all people, and that’s the US government. The American system is predicated on free access to information and I’m proud to say that our government has actually recognized the responsibility they have to communicate with our citizens in whatever channel, on whatever device they need to. Just recently this year President Obama has ordered federal agencies to optimize their mobile web content. Obama has said he wants government services available for the mobile web. He says, “Americans often have to navigate a labyrinth of different websites and locations to find information about relevant government programs.” Some of these programs don’t even have a website, so what he has done is he has ordered federal agencies to make two key services available on mobile within the coming year. This is because Americans like you, every American out there, every American citizen deserves a government that works for them anytime, anywhere and on any device. I want to echo what Brad said here, “This is not politics.” We all can have reasonable disagreements about who to vote for, but I hope that we can all agree that it is a good thing, a good thing not just for our industry, but it is a good thing for the American public if we have a government that is saying it is important to make sure that government resources and services and information are available to our citizens in whatever format, in whatever device those citizens are using. If that’s mobile then it’s time that we got our stuff out there.

This initiative, to mobilize content, is part of a larger 21st century digital government strategy. It’s part of this 21st century platform to better serve the American people. This is a sweeping platform linked to, in the links that I’ve got on Twitter, if any of you are interested in it I would strongly encourage you if you’re interested in this kind of stuff and you haven’t seen this report, to take a look at it. It makes me proud to see our government being this thoughtful and this forward-looking about what technology is going to mean for its citizens in the 21st century. There are a million recommendations in there. I read this report and was just like, ‘Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh.’ You know what? If I were out there advising some Fortune 500 company now this is exactly what I would be telling them to do.

I want to talk a little bit about a subset of the things that they’re recommending. To me the most interesting part is that what they’re saying is that the federal government should focus on the fundamentals of customer-centric design. Wow. Can you imagine what that could actually mean if that could actually be operationalized in the American government? That they might be able to look at their citizens, look at their constituents and follow the same kind of user-centered design processes that people, like me, try to follow when we’re designing products and services for people to use. You might be curious about what does the federal government think a customer-centric process is? Let’s ask President Obama and this bald eagle what they have to say.

It falls into four key categories. First thing is that they say we should conduct research to understand the customers’ business needs and desires. Second thing we should do is we should make content more available and more accessible through multiple device agnostic channels. Third thing is we need to make content more accurate and understandable by maintaining plain language and content freshness standards. Finally, they want to offer easy paths for feedback to ensure that we continually improve service delivery.  I’m going to simplify each one of these things and talk through them in turn.

The first one I’m going to call research and planning. Second one is called adaptive content. Third one is going to be changes you should make in writing and editing your content and then finally, developing a mobile governance strategy.

Let’s talk and research and planning first. As part of the approach to mobilizing content the US government has outlined a mobile roadmap for all of its federal agencies to follow. Here’s what it recommends. Within three months they need to go out, talk to some of their constituents, some of their customers, citizens, to identify what they think the highest priority services are to put on mobile. Within one year they want to make two key services available. When it’s practical, when they get around to it, they should publish a plan for approving additional services as needed.

I don’t know that I would totally recommend that you adopt this as your roadmap. For example I don’t know that making just two key services available within a year will meet the needs of your citizens or your customers or your population. But the idea is you should have a roadmap in place. I think one of the most frustrating things for organizations…I’m dealing with clients right now that are sitting on this massive mound of web content and saying, ‘We get it. We know we need to do this. You’ve even sold us on the idea that we should put all of our content online but how are we going to do that?’ That’s why we call this a strategy. That’s why we call this planning.  My job here in writing a book called Content Strategy for Mobile isn’t to point at you and be like, ‘Ahhh. You suck because you don’t have your content on mobile. Let’s just give up now.’ My goal is to say, ‘It is okay to take baby steps. It is okay to say that we are going to figure out what the two things are that we can do in the immediate term and then have a plan, have a roadmap for what we’re going to do in the long term.’

But the real challenge here is that you have to have a content strategy in place. You have to know the end state that you want. I got this quote from Gerard Gober from Comcast, I did an interview with him talking about how they were thinking about moving to mobile. I like to describe it as, you have to know, you have to put that flag in the sand even if it’s way, way out in the distance.  Even if it’s way out in the distance you’re saying at some point in the future we want to make sure that we’ve delivered a “parity experience” as Brad Frost would call it, for our content. We want to make sure that all of our content is available on mobile. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s not going to happen next week. But if you plant that flag out there, if you know the end state that you want, you’re going to have a lot easier time shepherding all of the people and the resources that you need. If you’re staring at that flag off in the distance your whole team is going to have a lot easier time getting there than if you don’t know the end state that you want and you’re just wandering around in the sand going, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Anybody, if you’re the US government, if you’re a tiny organization, anybody right now can say, ‘We recognize the importance of getting our content on mobile. Even if we’re not ready to execute on the entire vision right now we are at least going to define what that vision is.’

For me the vision is that you would have adaptive content. As I was prepping for this talk I was like, ‘Man, I wish I had defined adaptive content someplace.  Hey, you know what? I just wrote a book about this. I probably did define it somewhere.’ In my mind adaptive content is that you have flexible content. It’s content that can adapt to appearing on a range of different screen sizes and in different formats so that it’s appropriate for the device. It’s saying this isn’t just a front end design problem. This is also a problem that lives in the structure of our content.

The US government has defined three different things that they need to do. One of them is that they’re telling their agencies they need to manage structured content. Here’s how the government describe this: We need to treat all content as data turning any unstructured content into structured data and then ensure all structured data are associated with valid metadata. It’s like, ‘Oh, my head hurts.’  Let me simplify this for you, guys: 43% of federal agencies do not use a content management system to publish their content. Duh. That’s going to make it a pain in the ass to go on mobile, isn’t it?  If you don’t actually have any structured content at all, if all your content is embedded in static HTML files, you’re going to have a pretty hard time pulling that out and getting it into flexible chunks that you can use for multi-channel publishing or for flexible reuse. When they’re talking about structured content and data and metadata the real story is you need to be thinking about having your content organized into well-chunked things. Lots of chunks that you can use, rather than having big unstructured blobs of content, which typically which have lots of formatting embedded in them. This means you have to go through the exercise of modelling your content.

A classic example I use is WordPress, historically, traditionally is a blogging platform. They just give you a big blob here; a big text entry field with a WYSIWYG toolbar. You can input whatever it is that you want in there. I know that WordPress gives you the option to add in custom fields but really the magic happens when you figure out what fields your organization needs. What fields do your content creators need?  Tumblr has made that process easier. They have created content models. They have figured out our content creators might want to upload a photo so we want to make that process of uploading a photo as simple as possible. We are going to figure out just the exact fields, the order in which someone wants to see them. The exact same task, if you were trying to do it on WordPress, is not going to be as easy. There are a million different options here for you to be able to upload every media type you want to upload and all kinds of stuff that you don’t need to see. The content modeling process is what makes it possible for you to chunk out your content and give your content creators interfaces that they will know how to use.

Similarly if you want to add a quote…You could do this in WordPress super easily. You could dump your quote text into your big text blob and there: your quote is published on the site.  But in Tumblr, because they have these fielded entries, because they have said, ‘A quote doesn’t need a title but a quote is going to have a source field.’ That means that on the front end if they have a lot more flexibility in terms of how they want to format and display that content, because they now have semantic meaning attached to those fields of content so they can say, ‘Yeah, this is a quote. We’re going to figure out then on the front end how we want to style it.’ You can see pretty easily, right. If we have this quote style baked into our CMS that means we can do one thing with it on the desktop site and perhaps style it differently on mobile sites.  It just gives us more choices, more options, more flexibility and that’s because they’re creating presentation independent content.

Unfortunately, with every successive wave of technology people say, ‘Yes, presentation independence.’ Then we all fall back into what the lovely Lyza Danger says…I’m sorry. We fall back into what the US government says, ‘Instead of thinking primarily about the final presentation we’re thinking about publishing web pages or mobile applications or brochures.’ Government agencies need to take an information-centric approach. What this means is quit thinking that what you are doing is designing and creating for the final presentation. You’re not in the business of making brochures. You’re not in the business of mobile applications. You’re not in the business of making web pages. You are in the business of making content and structuring that content so that it’s presentation independent, so you can get it out onto whatever device or platform you want to.

For the US government’s approach they’ve outlined this idea that you start with this core information layer; that’s where your data and your content lives. Presentation independent: it’s clean, it’s structured, it’s semantic, it’s meaningful.  Then there’s a platform layer that sits on top of it and talks to the content through APIs. And then there’s a presentation layer on the top where things get styled, where things get delivered, where things get published. These three layers separate information creation from information presentation which allows us to create the content and the data once and then use it in different ways. In effect this model represents a fundamental shift from the way our government provides digital services today. You know what? It represents a fundamental shift from the way a lot of organizations deliver services, the way a lot of organizations create content and presentation. The idea that you are thinking about separating content from form and then having an API sit between them to talk to them is the key essence of what we’re trying to do here.

The Centers for Disease Control implemented something like this. They have both a desktop website and a mobile site. It’s not responsive but what they were able to do is say, great. We’ve got one core set of content that we are going to push out to different platforms and we’re going to be able to do that easily. You know why? Because we thought about creating the content once with the intention from the start that we could reuse it in multiple places.

Finally, the government is saying you need to be able to treat content like a service. I think Jonathan Stark and several other people have touched on this. The idea that providing information through web APIs helps us architect for interoperability and openness. It makes data assets freely available for use within agencies, between agencies, in the private sector or by citizens. This allows the government to take content or data that previously has been locked up, that they have been unable to share due to perhaps security and privacy concerns, and make them more freely available because they can put it out through an API and protect that API.  Just look at the fact that the government was able to release GPS and weather data and how that has fuelled billion dollar industries. None of you today would be complaining about the maps app on your phone if it weren’t for the fact that the US government had made the GPS data available. Think about how much other data there is. Think about how many other valuable resources that are technically free right now, technically the public does have access to, it’s just locked up in a format that no one can really get at. But if they made that available through an API they would.

NPR is a great example of how, having invested the effort in taking content from a variety of different providers, they’re content providers, they’re music providers, and then structuring it into an API that way all of these different devices and platforms can talk to that API, pull out just the content or data that they need and display it in a way that’s appropriate for their particular device. Imagine if the US government made all made all of its data and all of its content and all of its services available in the same way. If just releasing one thing like GPS fueled a billion dollar industry imagine what we could do if we had access to all of their research and tools and planning.

The third thing is if you’re going to get your content on mobile the sense is we’ve got to have different content, right? We’ve got to write it and edit it differently. And the answer is no, not really. Well, you probably do. The federal government? They do probably need to write their content differently, but it’s not that they’re writing it differently for mobile. It’s that now federal agencies are required to write all new publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents in a clear, concise and well-organized manner. This is revolutionary. Can you imagine if the government was actually communicating in language that people could understand?

That’s true for your organization too. I wish every organization out there was being held to this exact same mandate. And they might be. If you think that mobile is a catalyst, if you think that mobile is the thing that would help you focus, that would help you edit, that would help you look at your flabby, badly written, jargon filled desktop content and say, ‘What if we were to go in there and clean that up? Make it tighter and make it have more sense.’ That’s what Comcast did. They took a big flabby page called ‘Understanding Your Bill’ and they managed to tweak it and edit it down. Starting right from the start they said, ‘We don’t need any Understanding Your Bill; let’s just call that Understand Your Bill.’ They tightened up all the language. They haven’t changed the meaning of anything that they said here, they just edited it down so that it made more sense and it was more concise. The thing is, if they do this for mobile, if that’s how you want to communicate then you should do that for everybody. Don’t just do this for mobile. You’re not editing your content to make it easier for someone on a mobile screen to read. You’re editing your content because editing it down and making it more concise is better for everybody. You see this all the time: great content transcends platform. You don’t need to go in and rewrite all your content for mobile if your content is good enough to begin with.

The American Cancer Society looked at some of the exact same data that I shared with you today about the number of people who are accessing the internet primarily through their mobile phones. They realized, ‘These underserved populations tend to line up pretty neatly with the same underserved populations that aren’t getting the screenings that they need for cancer.’ Or, ‘These are the same populations who don’t have access to the same healthcare resources.’ So the American Cancer Society concluded that they had a life saving imperative to get all of their content on mobile. So they did that and they did it quickly. They were able to take their entire desktop site and reformat it and restyle it and present it all on mobile. They haven’t dumbed this content down. They haven’t removed content that they decided the mobile user didn’t need.  In fact, this content is frankly fairly dense, it’s fairly long, there’s a lot of it there, but they’ve managed to get it on there in a way that is browsable, it’s navigable, and is readable. Frankly, in my mind, it would be insulting to people to say, ‘Because you’re coming in on mobile you don’t deserve the same access to cancer information as somebody on the desktop does.’ No. Instead what they had was great content that transcended whatever platform it was on. It doesn’t matter whether you’re reading it on the desktop or the mobile device. It’s not that it was written for mobile, it’s just that it was good content. Even if you’re not sure what you could be doing right now to get your content on mobile one of the things you can be doing that would be making a real difference for your organization and for your users would be going in and editing your content. Cleaning it up, making it easier to read, making it more concise. You know what? Do that not thinking about a particular platform, just thinking about what it means to create something that’s easy to read.

Finally, the US government has outlined in their roadmap that government agencies need to have a plan for mobile governance. They need to think ahead to what it’s going to mean to maintain all of this content and all of these services over time. What this means is that they need to have new people and new processes in place. I think many of you probably will recognize this as you start moving towards a more complex organization. I work with companies all the time where it started out that the mobile website was just this weird little satellite run by some guys in the basement. Now they’re realizing, ‘Wait a minute. Mobile traffic is 10%. People are coming to our mobile sites.’  That means you’re going to have new organizational structures, you’re going to have new communication channels, you’re going to have to have new processes in place to manage content as it’s going to appear in different places. You’re going to need new legal review process; think what the lawyers are going to do when they say, ‘Oh, goodness. Now our content is not just going to appear on the desktop. It’s going to appear in all these different places.’ The time to start planning for all of this stuff and thinking about it is right now, because one of these days traffic to your mobile website is going to be so huge, or traffic even to your desktop website from mobile devices is going to be so big that you’re not going to be able to ignore it. If you have to reach the ‘oh shit’ point before you start doing something it’s going to be too late.

But you can start to think, ‘If we are going to have all this content appearing on all these different devices how is our org structure going to change? How is our incentive plan going to change? How are our legal review processes going to change?’ You can plan for that right now and it means saying, ‘What is our plan going to be for making sure that we know if mobile is doing its job for us?’ It means saying, ‘What’s our plan going to be for continually measuring and improving the content that we’re serving across platforms and devices?’

I feel the pain of everybody here who’s talking about how difficult it is to test on mobile devices. I also feel the pain of everybody saying it’s also a real pain in the ass to get accurate tracking on mobile devices. I don’t feel the pain of people saying, “I’ve never done any usability testing on mobile devices.”  You can do that right now. Go out and put a phone in somebody’s hand, grab them on the street corner, ask to come over to their house and watch them suffer through looking through your mobile site on their phone. And have a plan in place for how you are going to do that on regular basis. That kind of process approach to saying, “what do we need to do to make sure that we’re continually evaluating whether mobile is working for us and continually feeding those decisions back into our process.”

What the federal CIO said is that right now we have an opportunity to break free from the inefficient, costly and fragmented practices of the past and build a sound governance structure for digital services, and do mobile right, right from the beginning.  That is an opportunity for every single person in this room. Every single organization out there has this exact same opportunity. We now have the chance to break free of a lot of these inefficient and costly practices we have in place: bad content management systems, fragmented organization structures, unclear lines of reporting, unclear metrics by which we are judging success. We have a chance now to say, ‘The opportunity here isn’t just to build a mobile website or a mobile app, but rather to build a sound foundation, to build a sound strategy for what it is that we’re doing.’ And to say, all these mistakes that we’ve made over the last 10 or 15 years, all the things where we were limping along with a desktop website that wasn’t appropriately managed or measured or maintained, let’s not do that for mobile. Let’s do mobile right.

The core reason for this, the core principle I want everybody to come back to, is there’s nobody in the room here who has the power to decide which device somebody is going to use to access your content. They get to decide that. If you’re saying to yourself, ‘Nobody’s ever going to want to do that on mobile.’ Or, ‘I don’t really know. Is mobile really that big of a deal? I’m sure they can just get it on the desktop.’ You’re wrong. I guarantee you right now there is somebody who wants that from you, they want that content, they need that service and the only device that they have is their mobile device. If your content isn’t available on that mobile device you might as well not exist for those users.

The federal government says there’s no wrong door for accessing government services. All Americans, all citizens have the right, we have a civic responsibility to give all of our citizens access to the same services regardless of what platform or tool or device they want them. There shouldn’t be a wrong door for accessing your content or your services either. If somebody wants it from you it is your responsibility to get it to them in whatever platform or device they want.

We sit here today, everybody’s got their gorgeous laptop and they think, ‘Mobile’s never going to replace this, right?’ But it will. You’ve seen it happen time and time again: disruptive innovations happen. They wipe out entire industries. They wipe out an entire way that something has been done and they do it in the blink of an eye. Five or ten years later and it’s like, ‘I can’t remember us ever lugging around those giant things with their stupid keyboards.’ Even if a disruptive innovation isn’t as good as it could be right this second, they do get good. They eventually get better. The investment in them makes them better. You want to know what’s going to make mobile better? It’s people like you. It’s people like us. We are the ones who are going to go out there and say, ‘No, it is not acceptable for us to just sit back and say they can just go to the desktop for that. I don’t know. It’s fine to just have a couple things on the mobile site.’ No, it’s not. This is a disruptive innovation that is going to change the way that millions of people out there access the internet and we’re going to redefine what it means to make it good.

That’s what the federal government says too. Their strategy aims to be disruptive. It aims to provide a platform that will fundamentally shift how government connects with and provides services to the American people. This is your opportunity to fundamentally shift the way you deliver your services to your customers today and to a whole range of people out there who you might not even be reaching.

That’s why here’s the chance. We’ve got to do mobile right, guys, and we’ve got to do mobile right right from the start. This doesn’t mean just figuring out some of the thorny issues of things that happen in the front end development or our different development methodologies. This means getting right down to the fundamentals of our strategy, our governance, our road map, our people and our process. And every single day we should be sitting out there asking ourselves what are we doing? How are we using technology to make a real difference in people’s lives? That’s the opportunity of mobile. That’s the opportunity we face here. It’s being able to get content and tools and resources and services available to people who previously never would have had them.

With that I will take a moment here to pimp my book which [is available now] from A Book Apart and I will also thank you very much for listening to my little rant.

Related Links

Pew Internet report on “Digital Differences”: The digital divide is real

31% of current mobile internet users mostly go online using their phone. That’s 17% of all mobile phone owners.

Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People

The goal is APIs to connect citizens with data that has previously been public, but nearly inaccessible.