I’d love to see more discussion happening on App.net. 256 characters gives you a bit more room to make a point. It feels more intimate and focused than some other platforms that shall remain nameless. But, unfortunately, there’s not quite a critical mass of people on there now, which is why you should sign up and get the ball rolling by saying hello to me, I’m @karenmcgrane.
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)
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.
I am delighted beyond measure to say that my first book has been published by A Book Apart. Content Strategy for Mobile explains how organizations need to adapt their web content for our crazy, multi-device future.
I am so grateful to all the people at A Book Apart who made this happen. From start to finish, the experience of writing, editing, and publishing this book was a pleasure. This series of books deserves its sterling reputation: they are enjoyable, easy-to-read books on worthwhile topics. And, as with everything in content strategy, the root of good content is good people. Thanks to Mandy, Jason, Jeffrey, Krista, Casson, Max, and Rob, for caring about this book as much as I did, and to Paul Ford for writing the foreword.
I’ve written more
Want to try before you buy? The first chapter of the book has been published as an excerpt on A List Apart.
Your Content, Now Mobile
I took over the whole issue of A List Apart, pairing the book excerpt with another new article. This one looks at the rise of the “mobile-mostly” user, and why the U.S. government has mandated that government agencies deliver key services on mobile devices.
Uncle Sam Wants You (to Optimize Your Content for Mobile)
.net Magazine published my opinion piece about the dangers of content forking and how the problems responsive design is trying to solve are really a problems in your CMS.
A separate mobile website: no forking way
I also did a Twitter Q&A for .net Magazine, answering questions about mobile content strategy, working with clients, and going “mobile first.”
Karen McGrane on content strategy
Last but not least, a little trip down memory lane. In the foreword to my book, Paul Ford says:
There’s a huge lesson in this book: that users have been readers all along. The rise of mobile platforms just makes this fact plain.
The very first piece I ever published on the web, way back in the dark ages of 1996, discussed just that very subject.
Reader as User: Applying interface design techniques to the web
I’m doing interviews
I got to talk about my favorite subjects, content strategy and content management, with one of my most very favorite people, Jeff Eaton, on his podcast from Lullabot.
Insert Content Here Episode 4
The lovely Leah Reich and the occasionally tolerable Mike Montiero were gracious enough to invite me into their studio for an interview on their podcast.
Let’s Make Mistakes Episode 71
I had a great conversation with Tim Kadlec about reusable content, the problem with WYSIWYG, and what the post-screen future means for content strategy. The fantastic people at Breaking Development even provided a transcript of this podcast!
Fresh Squeezed Mobile Podcast Episode 8
Still want more from me? Maybe you should buy my book.
Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about how we need to adapt our content processes and workflow for multi-channel publishing, especially for mobile. This presentation, Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content is one of my favorite talks I’ve ever given.
If you haven’t been able to see it in person, thanks to the good people at Breaking Development, you can watch a video and see the slides from the talk I gave in Orlando this April. Because I’m a big fan of accessible content, I’ve had the talk transcribed, so you can read the text if you prefer. You can even download the slides from Slideshare.
If you liked this talk, then you’ll love my new talk, Uncle Sam Wants You (to Optimize your Content for Mobile) and half-day workshop on Content Strategy for Mobile. I’m giving them at the upcoming BDConf in Dallas, September 24–26. I know you want to attend, so get more information and register! Do it!
If you really liked this talk, then you are going to go apeshit for my book, Content Strategy for Mobile, coming very soon from A Book Apart.
For years, we’ve been telling designers: the web is not print. You can’t have pixel-perfect layouts. You can’t determine how your site will look in every browser, on every platform, on every device. We taught designers to cede control, think in systems, embrace web standards. So why are we still letting content authors plan for where their content will “live” on a web page? Why do we give in when they demand a WYSIWYG text editor that works “just like Microsoft Word”? Worst of all, why do we waste time and money creating and recreating content instead of planning for content reuse? What worked for the desktop web simply won’t work for mobile. As our design and development processes evolve, our content workflow has to keep up. Karen will talk about how we have to adapt to creating more flexible content.
So I do a lot of work with publishers, mainstream publishers. I led the redesign of the New York Times a few years back. I’ve dragged more magazines kicking and screaming onto the Internet that I can count. I’ve done lots of work with Condé Nast. I did the redesigns of the Atlantic and Time Out and National Journal and Fast Company. I’m doing a little bit of work right now with Time-Life. And I really like talking about the challenges that publishers face in relation to broader content strategy challenges that lots of other organizations are going to face. Because I think publishers, they’re like the canary in the coal mine: they face some of these content challenges more acutely, they have to adapt to changes in their environment more quickly.
And so today the poison gas that’s causing birds to fall out of the sky in the publishing houses is mobile, and more specifically this crazy multi-device future that we live in, where they’re trying to figure out how do they get all their stuff out onto all of these different new platforms and screen sizes and devices and different resolutions.
And so it’s intriguing to me that a lot of times when we come to events like this and we talk about the challenges in mobile, we talk about them like they’re design and development problems. We talk about the design challenges and how do we fit things onto a smaller screen size, or how do we deal with touch targets or new gestural interfaces. Or we talk about the development challenges, how are we going to maintain all these different code bases, or how are we going to develop for all these new platforms.
So my role here is to talk about the challenges that we face through the lens of content, because I really think that’s the core of what we’re trying to do. Honestly, a lot of other smart people are addressing that as well.
So the great Ethan Marcotte in his book Responsive Web Design, frames it as a content problem, that the idea that we’re going to fragment our content across all of these different device-optimized experiences. It’s a losing proposition, it’s not something that we can sustain. There’s no way that we have the time and the resources and the budget and the staff to figure out how we’re going to create all these new device-optimized experiences.
The same thing is true for people who are coming out from the content side. So Nic Newman here from the BBC says, “We can’t afford to be thinking about creating content for any one platform. We can’t be thinking about crafting a website. Instead, what we have to do is think about how are we going to put more effort into crafting the description of our content, how are we going to put more effort into explaining all the different bits of our assets. And what that’s going to allow us to do is reuse our content more effectively and get more value out of it.”
So this is what I’m going to talk about today. And I’m going to tell you about it by using case studies from two different publishers. The first is NPR which obviously is America’s National Public Radio, and the second is Condé Nast, which is the major magazine publisher that publishes titles you’ve heard of like Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
So Condé has been investing really heavily in developing custom iPad editions for many of their titles. A lot of other publishers are following this strategy. Condé has been saying, “OK, let’s go. We’re excited about the iPad, so let’s build custom iPad editions for titles like GQ, and Glamour, Wired and Vanity Fair.”
I had a conversation with the great Paul Ford. He writes ftrain.com. He used to work for Harper’s. He and I talk a lot about the publishing industry. I had a conversation with him when the iPad first came out, and I was like, “Paul, what do you think this is going to mean for the magazine publishers? How are they going to adapt to having the ability to have all of their stuff on this tablet size screen?” And he said, “I think we’re about to usher in a golden age of PDFs on the iPad.”
And this is in fact true. This is really the strategy that a lot of these magazine publishers have adopted. You see this. You go into these tablet editions of these sites of these magazines and they are 300 megabytes and you’re swimming around in what’s essentially like a giant picture of a magazine page. The text isn’t searchable. It’s not accessible. You can’t like find anything in it. And it’s because what this organization has said is: “Great! Now, we’ve got our whole digital problem solved. What we can do is just take a picture of the print page and put it on the tablet screen and be like, Wow, great, digital is fixed.”
And, you know, honestly, Condé would be lucky if that was all that they were doing. But no, they’ve gone one better. So what they are doing is they’re having their existing production staffers, existing people working nights and weekends after the magazine goes to bed, they sit up all night and make two different versions of the magazine layout, one for portrait and one for landscape. And this is because apparently for digital, it’s got to be interactive. So you’ve got to be able to change the screen layout and have something happen.
And you just have to imagine — I can really see what’s happening in this organization. You can see that they are so tightly clinging to the values that made them great. They are looking at the iPad as the opportunity for them to say: “Great! Digital hasn’t changed anything. Everything is still exactly the way that we expect it to be. We don’t have to adapt any ways of thinking about how people consume content, or how they want to engage with our publication, or what it actually means to be interactive. All we have to do is take the exact same art direction and layouts and designs and content features, and just shove them onto the iPad exactly the way that we intended it for print.”
It’s like you see them harkening back to this time when advertising rates were at an all-time high, where the editors had limousines to take them to work every day, when every afternoon the guy with a cart filled with cocaine would push his way through the aisles. It’s like you see them saying, “If only we could just take pictures of our magazines and put them on the iPad, then we can go back to the way it was in the 1980s when everything was great for our industry.” And unfortunately, the ‘80s are gone, guys. Having giant PDFs on the iPad isn’t going to bring them back.
So let’s take a look at how another organization has decided to solve this problem. So it’s considerably less sexy than anything you might see coming out of Condé Nast. This is not going to look anything like the Vanity Fair iPad app.
This is NPR’s approach to getting their content out onto a variety of different devices and platforms. They call it COPE – Create Once and Publish Everywhere. So what this means is that they have set up an API that allows them to take content from a variety of different providers. They can take content from content providers; text from a variety of different sources, from all their member stations. They can take music content from a variety of different providers. And what they do is they run that through an API, which allows them to have access to clean, well-structured content that then can be queried by these individual platforms. So what it lets them do is they can get their content out onto a wide variety of different devices and platforms very easily.
So it means you can see the same story in a content object that includes headline, text, images, audio files. You can see it all in a variety of different locations. So you can get it on npr.org; you can see it on the npr.org player. You can see the same story on their iPhone app. You can see the same story on their mobile website. You can see how this story would appear on the NPR Addict iPhone app. Now this isn’t even something that they made. This is a user-generated app that goes out and talks to their API. You can see it on the Public Radio Player. This is a player that pulls content from five hundred public radio stations nationwide. You can see it how it appears here, on member station WBUR in Boston. Here it is on MPR in Minneapolis. Here’s how it appears in iGoogle. So you can set this up yourself at home if you want to get a feed from NPR. Here’s how it lives on the desktop application of iTunes. By god, if you wanted to see this same story on your television set, you could hook your Xbox up and see it there.
And all of this is made possible by the fact that they have a CMS. They have a Content Management System that provides the appropriate amount of structure. It provides the right fields, the right metadata. Presumably it’s easy to use; presumably their content authors understand why it’s important that they provide all of this data. And they have an API that is set up to allow all of these different platforms to easily talk to it, to easily go in and say, okay, show me what you have there. And then I, as the individual platform – I as the iPhone app or the tablet app or the Android website, HTML5 website – I am going to go and figure out which content I’m going to show; how many images I want to show, whether I want to show that audio file, how much text I should show, which summary I show. It means that the choices about how that content is going to look and work can be made to be appropriate for the individual platform, because they have invested in having a clean, well-structured base of content to work from.
So, two very different strategies here. Which one of these do you think has paid off most handsomely for the organization?
Condé Nast, unfortunately, after a brief flurry of excitement around its strategy, has not actually seen its sales for its iPad editions pay off as much as it would have liked. What you see is that over time, these iPad issues have actually declined in sales; let me show you that again, it’s a great animation. What you see, and I want to show this to you again because I want to point this out, Glamour is known as being Conde’s most lucrative title. They sell two million annual subscriptions, they sell 500,000 copies every month on the newsstand. Can you imagine being the beleaguered Glamour staffers who have to sit up nights and weekends making two different versions of the Glamour magazine app so that you can sell fewer than 3000 copies? This just isn’t, you know, it’s not a good investment in time and resources for their organization. They’re not seeing the business results that they expected to get from the amount of effort that they’re putting into this.
Now, NPR on the other hand, has seen a fantastic return on its investment. Their page views have gone up dramatically in both their desktop products and most clearly in their mobile products. In fact, their page views have gone up eighty percent. Eighty percent! And they directly attribute eighty percent page growth to having an API.
Could you imagine if Condé Nast’s strategy had resulted in eighty percent increase in business value for their organization? The guy with the cocaine cart would be back! The real reason that they believe that this organization, that they’ve gotten value from having an API, is directly in the fact that it’s impacted their mobile strategy. What it means is that now they are not dependent on custom development to go and get access to that content. So anytime they want to release a new application, anytime they want to get their content out onto a new platform, whether that’s an iPhone app, iPad, a mobile website, an Android app, they want to build a new HTML5 site, they can do that quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks, because they have put the effort into having a clean, well-structured base of content to work from.
So, Zack Brand here is the Director of Technology for NPR, he is justifiably proud of his strategy. The architect of the Condé Nast strategy is this guy here named Scott Dadich, and he gave an interview to Paid Content last month in which he indicated, and these are quotes in his own words, that they’ve had some challenges with their strategy, the strategy that he has outlined, where they’re building custom iPad additions, portrait and landscape modes. It’s been tough for them. It’s been tough for them to work out a work flow; it’s been a lot more work. And so his goal now is for them to have flexibility. What they want is to take a piece of content that they’ve created and be able to get it out onto 15 different screens really flexibly. He’s calling this, his goal is to Publish Once and Distribute Everywhere—PODE. I like it — it’s catchy. What he’s saying is that instead of them thinking about how they’re going to design their product and then retrofitting a work flow to support it, what they need to do is first think what is their editorial process and work flow going to be to get their content out, and then figure out what the product should look like. And he’s calling this adaptive content.
So, what is this future of adaptive content of which Mr. Dadich and I speak? The first thing I want to let you know about this is that all of the stuff that we’re talking about here, in terms of how you support multi-channel publishing, is just not new. People, especially in the technical communications space, and we are lucky for this, have been talking about this for a decade. Ann Rockley has an approach that she calls “intelligent content.” My friend, Rachel Lovinger published a report for Razorfish a few years back where she called it “nimble content.” The idea that you want to take flexible bits of content and get them out to a variety of places is not something that’s new. What I believe, is that the challenges of mobile are going to make all of this stuff ever more important to organizations. A lot of work that people have done in the tech comm space has been figuring out, you know, how to do you make publishing software manuals more effective, and that just hasn’t really gotten the attention of the CEO. But this mobile thing is, I really believe, going to make a lot of organizations sit up and take notice, because there’s no way that they will be able to support getting their stuff out onto all of these different devices and platforms unless they start investing and thinking about their content this way.
So what I mean is that we need to start thinking about how you have a clean base of content that’s well-structured, it’s designed for re-use. You think about that content and then you think about how you can get it out onto all of these different platforms, whether that’s the desktop web or mobile web, whether that’s mobile apps or tablet apps. You might think about how it’s going to appear in social media or on your microsites or even in your email campaigns and my god, even print.
So, as an example of how somebody has done this in the past, I want you to harken back again to the halcyon days of the 1980s where America had a most popular magazine, gracing coffee tables around the country. What was it? Was it the Atlantic…The New Yorker…you know, maybe one of the popular news weeklies like Newsweek or Time? No…no; better than that. America’s most popular magazine was… yes indeed, the TV Guide.
And so, the TV Guide, they might have sat there from their lofty perch, the most popular magazine in America, and said, “Well, you know, we’ve really got it made. We’re a great magazine business.” But, what they realized is that if they were to have all of their content say, locked up in Quark files or InDesign files, that wouldn’t really actually provide them much value. And so, what they did is they asked all of their writers to start using this green screen mainframe application — like way back in the 1980s. They told them, “Now, for every program description that you write, you are not just going to write one version, you are going to write three different versions. You are going to write a short version, you’re going to write a medium-length version and you’re going to write a long version.” You can imagine how their writers responded to this. It was like, “Oh, you just tripled my workload here.” But, the truth is that TV Guide recognized that they were not in the magazine publishing business. They were in the content business. They realized that they were going to get more value from what they were creating if they had this in a clean base of content that they would be able to re-use in the future. The thing is they didn’t even actually know how it might get re-used in the future. They didn’t know that your cable company was going to give you a digital program guide that you could access, and that maybe that cable company would want to show the short description of the show. They didn’t know that there would be a TIVO that would allow you to control what you watched on TV in advance and that maybe they would want to use the medium description. They didn’t know that, you know, by god! you could have an iPhone app that would allow you to talk to your television set from wherever you were and that, from that, they might want to show even the long description of the show. They had no idea where that content was going to go in the future. But what they did know is if they planned it effectively, if they thought, “How might we set this content up so that it can be flexible and be free and be reused in the future?” then, by god! we’re going to get more value out of it. That has turned out in fact to be the case.
The assets of the magazine publishing company for TV Guide was sold for $1.00 — less than the cost of a single issue — to buy all of the assets of the entire magazine publishing brand. Because there’s no value in publishing a magazine. All of the value, all of the assets were in this content; it was in the data. So now, they have a data service they use to sell all of these program descriptions — and that’s where all the money is. And so, for a lot of organizations, I think that’s how they’re going to have to be thinking about their content.
The idea that you are not in the magazine publishing business, you are not in the web publishing business, you are in the content publishing business, and thinking about how to set up your content so that it can go someplace in the future, means thinking flexibly about reuse. What it means is that you have to create multiple sizes of your content. There has to be meaningful metadata attached to it so that in the future different platforms can query it, and the content has to be written with an eye to reuse.
So, it’s an interesting question to me, when you look across this space and look at who is doing interesting stuff. Why is it that the Boston Globe can launch with this innovative, responsively designed website? Why is it the Guardian can announce that they’re going to go Digital First? Why is it NPR, 5 years ago, they had the presence of mind to say, “Hey, you know what we really need to do is launch an API so that devices we haven’t even thought of yet can hopefully get access to our content?” It’s like, why is it that all of the organizations that are doing really innovative stuff are news organizations? And so, the answer to that is that you go way, way back to journalism school, is that news organizations already have structured content. They are taught from day one that they need to think about their content that way. That they are creating in terms of things like: you have to write a hed, a headline — something that captures the essence of the story. Presumably, they even understand that you might have to write multiple versions of the headlines that might appear in different places, you may not know where. They know that you have to write a dek, which is a short summary that sort of explains what’s going on in the story — it’s like a sub-head. They have this whole concept called “the lede” which means the first paragraph. Everybody’s heard the expression “don’t bury the lede” or “this is burying the lede.” What that means is put the most important ideas in the very first sentences because no one’s gonna read further if you don’t. They have, not one, but two, different words for photo captions. Captions are kind of like the headline, and the cut line is a brief description or longer description that explains what’s going on in the photo. They have my favorite term for a bit of content which is: the nut graf, which means a bullet pointed list that might be set out in a box that highlights the main points of the story. You can look at this and you see that you have an organization of journalists that are all taught and trained to think and write this way, presumably if they are confronted with a content management system that asks them to structure their content, they know how to write that way and they understand why it’s important.
Now, you contrast that with lots of other publications, lots of other magazine publishers for example. Where the connection that they make between the words that they publish or the content that they publish and the way that it looks and the way that it’s styled is so tightly woven that it’s very hard for them to imagine separating what they are creating from the way that it’s going to look on the page.
I had a great conversation with Sarah Chubb, who is the former head of Condé Nast Digital, talking about some of these magazine publishers like Vanity Fair. She said it’s really scary for an organization for whom the connection between what they publish and how it looks and how it’s structured is so tightly connected, it’s scary for those people to think about all of their different content elements de-evolved into different pieces. For them to get to this place, it’s going to take a lot of imagination, it’s going to take a lot of insight and understanding, and, frankly, for a lot of organizations it’s going to take a lot of courage to get there. What this means is that we are getting down into this bedrock connections that I think we make in terms of what content and design mean.
Which is that we have a really hard time separating content from form. We have a really hard time imagining what something says, what its words are, might be disconnected from how it looks — or more important that if you are thinking about multi-channel publishing, how it looks might need to be different for every platform.
I sometimes get flack for saying this. I am not saying that design is not important; I am not saying that it is necessarily possible for you to completely take content away from how it looks or its style. I think that design is every bit as important. Frankly, I think it is even more important as we think about how do you adapt your publishing processes and your brand and your identity to this multi-channel space.
But, what I am saying is that if you believe that design is important, if you want to provide a great experience across platforms, if you want to provide the ideal experience for whatever platform or device you are creating an experience for, you need a clean, well-structured base of content to work from. You cannot go into it thinking that you are going to have content that has already been styled, already been designed, already had all of the decisions made about how it looks and works made for another platform.
The problem here for our space is that these issues, the real root of the problem goes way, way down into the bowels of the system — way down into the content management system. So, what we have today are publishing tools, we have content management systems that force us to think about content management + authoring and content publishing + display as the same thing. Every web content management system out there pretty much forces us to bind those two things together.
What that means then, is that we are always thinking about recycling content. We are always thinking about taking content that was designed for one platform, that was intended to be published on one platform and then trying to figure out how we can retrofit it, how we can recycle it, how we can shove it onto some other platform.
In the future, what I believe is that we are going to have better content management and content publishing tools. We are going to have ways to take well-structured content, well-designed chunks of content that we can then figure out how we want to restructure and publish and display in a way that’s going to be right for the appropriate platform.
Just the way that NPR does it. They say “We are going to have a whole bunch of chunks and then each individual platform can go query that content and say you know what, I want to show the short summary or I want to show images here because, give me all the images, I have a great image experience, or I don’t want the audio file because it would be ridiculous for me to have an audio file in this experience.”
It means that what we are going to be able to do is have all the issues about how it gets displayed, how it looks, how it feels, be made for the platform because we said, “You know what, let’s start by thinking of the content as something that can be used anywhere.” That means that content authoring is not the same thing as content management and content management is not the same thing as content publishing. Right now, most of the tools that we have force us to think about all three of these together. They don’t allow us to break them apart. But, in the future, we are going to have to break them apart if we are ever going to support this crazy multi-channel world.
And so, more than this tight marriage of content and form, what we are really getting at for us in the digital space is something that goes much deeper, and it’s the idea that there is a primary platform for which we are creating something. Shockingly so, given that we are 20 years into this, for so many organizations that platform is still print.
If you don’t believe me, I will tell you a story. The New York Times recently launched a new section. They replaced their Week In Review section with the new Sunday Review. How do you think they came about coming up with these fabulous new designs? Well, the print people went off and they sat in a room and they brainstormed all kinds of things and they are like: “Yeah, you know, on the section front we are going to have like a giant image and then on the inside we are going to lead with a big comic strip and, you know, here’s how all these pages are going to be laid out, here’s all of our content features and the layout of them within the section are going to be really closely intertwined.”
They mock this up and they brainstorm and they get approval. They finally got to a place where they’re happy with it. Then they took it to the digital people and they said: “Here. Put this on the Internet.” So, what you see is an experience that is entirely created for content consumption in print. All of their values, all of their hopes and dreams for the section were all geared around “How do we make the print experience possible.”
Then it was: “Okay, well, you know, you guys, why don’t you figure out what to do with all of our content now that you’ve got it for the web.” And it’s like: “Oh, I don’t know, that giant image you’ve got on the section top, we’ll kinda lose that experience. I guess the comic strip is really important to you so I guess we could lead with that on the section top on the desktop web.”
Then you get to mobile and it’s like Wow! Nobody really thought about this, did they? This isn’t really a mobile experience. It’s like: “Okay, yeah, I am super interested in that comic strip, where is it? There it is way down at the bottom. Wow! This is an entire page of navigation chrome for no actual content at all. I don’t even know where to click. Oh! I have to click on that tiny little link in the middle of the metadata for the slideshow. Okay, let’s check it out. Awww! It’s broken.”
This isn’t a mobile experience. This isn’t an organization that was thinking about their content holistically and trying to figure out what would be a good experience for consuming that content across any platform. That was an organization that was sitting there thinking: “How can we create content for print and then shove it onto the desktop, and then take the content, once we’ve got it shoved onto the desktop, shove that on the mobile site.”
It’s so easy to make fun of these print dinosaurs. We all can sit here looking at this and think, oh, like five years out, ten years out, print is not going to win this war, right? It’s so fun to just look at them and point fingers and say “Man, you guys are making really stupid decisions here. We would never make stupid decisions like that. Right? Right?”
Well, no, of course we are! We are making the exact same stupid decisions. And you know what? We don’t even have several hundred years of history and values and culture and process to draw on. You know what we have? Like 10 or 15 years of using really bad content management tools. Forcing us to think, forcing us into ways of thinking about our content that just aren’t going to adapt.
What we are doing is we are letting people think that what they are creating is content that lives on a web page. We are letting them preview their content on the desktop website and imagine that is the one and only one place that content is going to live. We are making the exact same mistakes that these print dinosaurs are making. Unfortunately, we are doing at a time when we should be a lot more flexible and a lot more adaptable.
Just the same way that TV Guide is not in the magazine publishing business and the New York Times is not in the print newspaper publishing business, we are not in the web page publishing business. We are in the content publishing business.
So, when I say you have to start from basic content, I do not mean that you start with print and then figure out how you are going to shove that content out onto other platforms. I do not mean that you are starting with your desktop website and figuring out how do I shove that content that I wrote for the desktop web out onto my mobile site. I don’t even mean that you start with mobile and say let’s take the mobile content and then figure out how we progressively enhance it for other platforms.
No, what I mean is you start with content. Clean, flexible, reusable content that is designed from the start, is written from the start, with a mindset and a values system that says “I don’t necessarily where this content is going to live. I don’t know how it’s going to be used in the future. But, I do know that I have to create lots of flexible content that has metadata attached to it because I know it’s going to be reused in different places.”
So, what does that mean? How do we get there? I said earlier that to create adaptive content you need to create multiple sizes, you need to have meaningful metadata attached to it, and it needs to be written for reuse.
I want to talk about three things that in turn have to change in the way that we think about our content. So the first thing is that we’ve got to teach people that they have to start writing for the chunk and not for the page. So this means getting away from some of our really deeply held beliefs about content and form and starting to say, “You know what. I have to write flexible chunks for reuse.” It means that we have to demystify metadata for people. We have to start teaching people what metadata means, this is why it’s important. You have to figure out ways to add more value, more description to your content. And then, finally, if we are ever going to support multi-channel publishing, we have to have the tools to do it. We have to have content management systems, content management workflows, that treat content authors like they are users of an enterprise platform. We have to give them the right interfaces, the right workflows, the right experience of managing their content. Otherwise, there’s no way that they’re going to be able to write things the right way or assign the right metadata.
So let me talk about each one of these things in turn. So this first one: writing for the chunk and not the page. I’m going to give you an example here of Amazon.com, maybe you’ve heard of it. So Amazon. This is Amazon’s landing page that you might get to if you were looking for a digital camera. A lot of people tell me, “Amazon is really doing a great job in handling mobile.” And I would agree that they are, at the first couple of layers of the experience. So here’s a fairly dense landing page for digital cameras and I think they did a fantastic job of coalescing that information, crunching it down, making it navigable on a small screen. So if you tap into one of these cameras, you go to Amazon’s product page. Now, I’m sure you guys have all seen this before, but it’s like, damn. Amazon’s product page has a lot of stuff on it. I mean, they’ve got all the product descriptions. They’ve got other products you can buy. What other customers buy. They’ve got technical details and product details and all the stuff from the manufacturer and other related products and customer reviews. It’s like it goes on and on and it’s like “How are they going to get all of this content onto this teeny little screen?” And they do an excellent job here, I think, of taking the top level sections and making them navigable, tappable, regions on a small screen. And that’s because they alrady have structured content. All of these fields are sort of already structured so that you can get at them easily. So when you click into this, I’m going to spend some time going through this.
This is Amazon’s product page on mobile. So first screen here. Okay, first section is product features. I don’t really think that’s how you’re supposed to use a bulleted list. Next section, from the manufacturer. “Make memories and share joy.” Could you imagine if you walked into a Best Buy and you were like, “Hey, salesguy. What camera should I buy?” And he was like, “Make memories and share joy.” Third section, product description. They’re just repeating the name of product over again. There are 73 words on this screen. I have counted them. 23 of them are repeating the exact same words that you can get in the product description. Five of them are “Make memories and share joy.” Next screen here, let’s go into the product description. Yes, it’s that tricky punctuation problem we’ve been trying to solve on the internet for the last 15 years. We’re going to get it right one of these days, guys. Let’s look at what the manufacturer has to say, “Capture life’s best moments. Don’t miss the moment. Birthdays, weddings, baby’s first steps.” That’s like, “Nikon, I want you to sell me a camera. Not on the concept of photography.”
So I’m going to take you back into this screen here. It’s an important point and I want to beat you over the head with it a little bit. This is Amazon’s product page. This is one of the most intensely designed and researched and analyzed and tested pages on the internet. They have AB tested the shit out of this thing. And when they got to mobile, what they did is they told the robots to go into the database and to shovel whatever content they found in there until they ran out of room. What this says is that it’s perfectly okay to just take whatever you find on the desktop and just shove it onto mobile, and then when you run of out of room, you can just drop an ellipsis in there, because that’s going to be more than enough information for someone to make a decision. And the truth is, that no, you have to write content differently. You have to think about writing. It’s like the journalists in the audience would say, don’t bury the lede. Like what Nikon was doing there in their product description is the definition of burying the lede. It’s like, put the most important stuff up front. Think about how you are writing chunks of content, different sized chunks of content. Say you know what, we’re probably going to need a 60 word version of our product description. And we don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go, but at least we know if we’ve got that much space on a mobile app, we’re going to have something that’s going to fit there that isn’t going to be a bulleted list — that isn’t going to be random marketing speak that doesn’t actually tell me anything about the product.
And the root of where this comes from is that we have content management tools that allow people to think about creating giant blobs of text without any fields or structure around them. We have CMSes that allow people to say, “I want it to work just like Microsoft Word.” I want to be able to embed tables and fonts and images, and I want to be able to style and design my content so it’s perfect for the way that I’m imagining it’s going to look and work. I want to have a tool that works just like Microsoft Word so that I can imagine how my content is going to look and work in the one and only one context that I’m imagining it, and that is the desktop website. And so you have people who have the ability to create these giant unstructured blobs of content with formatting and images and whatever else embedded. And that means that they’re not writing chunks.
So I really believe, guys, that we are in a war of Blobs versus Chunks. We are in a war between giant, unstructured blobs of content, and clean, well-structured fields of content that have metadata attached. We are in a war of Blobs versus Chunks. You all are on Team Chunk. We cannot let the blobs win.
So what this means is that you have to have a content management system that has an appropriate number of fields to be entered, and that the workflow for creating those fields makes sense to people. So you look at something like this and presumably everyone from NPR can look at this and say: I know what all of these different headlines are. I know what all these fields are. I know what these teasers are. I know what this metadata is.
And I think so often we have people who are really trying to figure out how the content should be structured, and then the CMS doesn’t actually support that. So in the content strategy world, there’s a lot of work being done on creating content templates. So Erin Kissane wrote a great article for A List Apart in which she explained how you go out to content creators within an organization and give them a Word document, or give them an Excel file that helps them figure out what to write and how to structure what they’re saying. And so, you can imagine somebody being presented with this Word document that says “OK, write these different chunks of text.” And then all of that getting lost when you go to a content management system that says great, we’re just going to dump all of that information into a big, unstructured blob.
And so, I think when I look at the future of adaptive content, what I see is this really interesting interplay between saying, what are the people in content strategy doing when they’re wrangling the content, as they’re going up to business owners and saying, “How do you structure your content?” or “Here’s the chunks of things you need to write.” How does that eventually impact the data model in the CMS? How do you sync up the way that business owners and content strategists think about the structure of the content with how the database architecture or the CMS developers would actually create that data model, or the content model? And then those semantic structures that get stored in fields and metadata in the CMS, what’s the interplay between that and the style sheets? How much information is stored semantically in fields? How much of it is stored semantically in HTML and markup? And I think these decisions, they’re not going to be easy. But I think if we want to be able to create a great experience for every device, for every platform, what we’re going to need is people who are thinking thoughtfully about how do you have the CSS talk to the CMS in really smart ways. How do you have individual platforms be able to go and query the content, query that API, query the content as a service, and then figure out how to take that content back, how to display it in a way that’s appropriate. So, to me, this is what adaptive content is.
So, second thing we’ve got to do is we have to find a way to really demystify the concept of metadata for people. I think the information architecture community has been kind of banging on this problem for 10 or 15 years now, but truthfully, this is the time. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, I don’t really need to worry about that much because I’m only thinking about my content in one context, and that’s the desktop.” But when you start thinking of your content living in dozens of different places, dozens of different platforms, you have to have more description attached to it, because it’s the only way that you are going to be able to answer those questions. Have those platforms be able to go back and query the content and say “What do you have and what can you show me?” It means explaining to people the idea that what metadata does, is it allows you to programmatically build pages.
I do a lot of content management system work and one of the hardest things to explain to people is the idea that you are going away from handcrafting a landing page, handcrafting a page of content. Instead of manually going in and saying “I want this image to appear here and I want this headline and I want this short description,” getting them to say now, instead you are going to be thinking about creating content objects.
You might be writing three different versions of that headline; you might be writing two different short summaries and you are attaching a couple of different images to it, different cut sizes, and then you may not be the person who is in charge of deciding what image or what headline gets displayed on that particular platform. That decision will be made by the metadata. It will be made by the business rules.
We talked earlier about this quote, “Metadata is the new art direction.” It’s one of my favorite ones because I think it reflects a real mindset shift and what it means to design a page, what it means to have control over how something looks or works. It means that we are moving away from this very print-centric mindset where you are going in and you are placing every dot and every image and every piece of typography on that page. That means also that we are moving away from a desktop-centered concept. Where you might say I am going to have some stuff appear here on my article page and I am going to handcraft the landing page to show exactly what I want to show. You don’t have the power to do that anymore or you don’t have the resources to do it.
I go in and I look at some people’s CMSes these days and it’s like okay, yeah, yeah, we go in and write multiple headlines, so, we have the article headline and the SEO headline and the Facebook headline and the Twitter headline. You can see where this is going, right? The iPhone headline and the Android headline. It’s like “Whoa! Guys! Stop! This is a zero sum game here.”
Where you need to be thinking instead, is think about that as a system. Think about that as “How can I create a limited number of pieces of content to work with, and then use business rules to decide what content is going to appear where.” It means that the people who are going to be making the decisions about how something looks or how something works are going to be the people who know how to manipulate that metadata. They are going to be the people who know how to construct those business rules.
It’s not going to be an Art Director saying “I want this to look exactly the way I intended it.” But, rather someone saying “I know how to set up the right rules, the right instructions, the right boundaries, so that the robots will be able to construct a really great looking page even though I may not have control of the way every single element appears.”
The second thing is that we have to explain to people is how metadata can be used to prioritize information. I had a conversation with Ethan Marcotte this summer where he said one of the challenges that they had on the Boston Globe site was figuring out how do you take all of the insight that goes into a layout on the desktop and figure out how you reprioritize that information for a smaller screen. The truth is you are not going to be doing that manually for every single platform. What you have to do is have that metadata already attached to those content objects so that you can then go in and say “Okay, how is that going to work?”
A couple of examples of this from The Guardian. What they have is these automatically generated topic pages. So, they can go out and the robots will pull all the information they can find about Tony Blair. What they found was that when they first launched these, the “Top Story” was not actually the top story. What it was, was the most recent story. So, what you would find is that there would be a lot of information just sitting there, a story sitting there that wouldn’t actually be all that relevant and it would sit there for a few days because nothing more important had come along to knock it off the page. They realized they probably need to start assigning some editorial priority in the metadata on the backend. So that when stories get reused like this there’s a little more subtlety to it.
I find myself thinking, I work with publishers all the time, where they go in and they say okay, we are going to assign this story to our home page or to our section top, and we are going to go in and we say I want this story to appear first, and this story to appear second, and this story to appear third. When they change that, later in the afternoon, they go in and they rearrange their stories, all of that metadata is lost. All of that information about what those editors thought was important on that particular day gets lost. Because they were thinking about it as a display issue. Here’s how I want these stories to appear on this page. They weren’t thinking about it as a metadata issue, meaning “What information is my editorial judgment telling you about how important this story is? And how can I save that for later?”
Instead of saying, “Okay. Show the story first, second, or third.” It’s like apply some metadata that says, “Okay. This story is more important than that story.” And then, by god, save that information, because you might want to use it again in the future. So, Josh mentioned this earlier. I’ll mention it again, because I think it’s a great point. So the Guardian had to solve the same problem again for the iPad and they said, “Great, we’ve got a lot of editorial judgement going into our print edition. Let’s find an algorithm that we can use to suck out that data and use that to drive the layout of the display.” There’s a lot of interesting insight that we’re making that learn about how important things are. What we want to share or say about that story that gets lost if we think of it as purely a display issue and not as a metadata issue.
And then, finally, for me one of the most interesting things is the idea that metadata in the future is going to be used to support real personalization. So people have been talking about personalization on the web for like 15 years now. I remember sitting in a meeting back in like 1999 and some guy is all like, “Oh, the Vignette personalization server will allow you to deliver a personalized experience for all your users.” And I’m like, “Well, of course the database can do that. Like the database part of that is easy. Who is going to write all this content? We can barely get enough people to write all the content for the website to begin with.” And so it’s like 15 years later, you’re the only people who are really actually delivering on the promise of personalization are the ad serving people and, by god, they know more about us than anyone has the right to know. But the truth is it’s a pretty easy link to go from saying, “Wow. If I’m writing all of these different versions of content and I’m thinking about my content in a system. I’m thinking about creating packages of content.” Then it’s a pretty easy leap to go from that to saying, “What if I thought of packages of content that would aimed at different things that I know about my users. Different demographic information, different psychographic information. Wouldn’t it be possible for me to tailor what it is that I want to say for an individual user?” And the only way we’re going to get there, is if we’re thinking about our content in that kind of system.
And so, finally, the only way that we actually are able to do that is if we really start investing in content management technology. We today do not have the tools to support what we need to do. We have clunky interfaces. We have CMSes that look like a database got drunk and vomited all over the screen. What that means is that people don’t want to use these tools. They find workarounds that allow them to get away with creating a big blob of content, with not assigning the right metadata, with not writing all of the versions of the content that they need. And the truth is you look at a lot of these tools and it’s like, “I can see why you hate this interface. I can see why you don’t want to assign all these fields. I can see why you don’t want to edit all of this metadata.” It’s because the workflow is terrible. The interface looks like crap. It’s like your eyes are bouncing around from field to field and it’s like, “oh, enter something over here and then go down here and like enter something else and then take this code and remember to copy and paste it into this other field that’s in this completely not intuitive screen way down in the left-hand nav.” You look at these tools and everything seems so fixable. It’s like this is an enterprise software problem. I know lots of people out there doing UX in the enterprise software space, who could very easily go in and say, “Why yes, we know how to fix these types of problems. You just follow a basic UX practice and treat people like they’re users of the system. Figure out how to redesign those screens and take all the crap off that somebody doesn’t need and the experience will be better for them.”
When I talk to people about this at lot of organizations, it’s like they look at me like this is a luxury. Like I’m doing this just like out of the goodness of my heart. The thing is, if you were running an e-commerce website, you would know everything there was to know about that e-commerce funnel. Every drop off. Every error. Every time somebody made a mistake. Every time you saw friction in that system, you would go in and you’d be looking at all these places where there was red in your funnel and you would go in and you would optimize that. You would figure out: Why are people having problems? How can I fix this form? How can I make this easier for somebody to fill out? Because you would know that every place that there was red in this funnel, every place someone found friction, is lost business value for you. The truth is, for any organization that is in the business of creating content—and in this day and age what organization isn’t in the business of creating content?—if your business is to create content, then your CMS workflow is every bit as important to your business as your e-commerce funnel.
I don’t know anybody out there that has any analytics data at all on how their CMS works. I don’t know anybody out there who is analyzing where people are finding problems, delays, where they’re making mistakes, where there’s friction in the process. Because they’re not treating their employees’ time as if it was valuable. And what that means is that they’re losing money. You are having people who are wasting time fighting with the system, as opposed to taking that time and using it to write better content, to write for the chunk, to assign more metadata, to do a better job of creating more flexible content. You are wasting energy on a bad system, as opposed to harnessing that energy for good.
And so that means that we have got to stop treating CMS decisions as if they’re purely technology decisions. I talk to organizations all the time, major corporations, that are like, “Oh yeah, we’re re-platforming our CMS.” Entirely all the decisions are being made by IT. They are not getting the content creators involved in this process at all. It’s like, this is UX 101, guys. The decisions about a CMS are not entirely based on things like the system requirements and security requirements and support requirements. The system things are important, but you know what else is important? Whether somebody can actually use it.
What it means is that we can’t be thinking of usability in the CMS as having nice interface widgets or a pretty font or a WYSIWYG toolbar. That’s not usability. Usability comes from whether the workflow is actually effective for somebody. Do they have the right fields? Are they prioritized in the right way? Does the sequence of screens that somebody flows through make sense to them?
You know, the truth is there’s a million different user experience techniques that we could use to make this better. We could do contextual inquiry, which is just a fancy way of saying why don’t you go out and treat the content authors like they’re users of the system. Talk to them, watch them, observe them work. Figure out how they do things. Figure out what their mental model of the system is, and then design the structure of the interface around that. Why don’t we do card sorting? For all of the CMS projects that I’ve worked on, there’s very little time allocated for someone like an information architect to go in and just make sure the labeling makes sense. This is not rocket science, guys. This is not an incredibly time-consuming, expensive task. This is one of those things where it’s like, have a smart person go in and do it. It takes a little bit of time, and by god, it offers so much more value for your users. Because then when they go in there, it’s not like somebody is like, oh yeah, that field – that’s not actually what it says. You should use it for something else. Have the labeling make sense. Treat it like it’s an iterative prototyping process.
I’ve seen so many organizations who are like, oh yeah, we spent three years and eleventy billion dollars on this Content Management System and then it didn’t work, and so now no one wants to talk about CMS anymore. It’s like nobody builds any other software that way anymore, why are you wasting time and money on those kind of CMS initiatives?
Start small; prototype; use open source tools; and make it so that you can actually observe someone using it, figure out where the friction is, and then continually invest in your CMS. It’s not a one-off project where you can be like. “Great, now we’ve got that CMS problem solved! We never need to think about it again.” It’s a process. Because you have to think about it as a product. Successful organizations like the Huffington Post, that are really happy with their CMS, are working on it around the clock, 24 hours a day. They are committing eight to ten to twelve different code changes every single day to their Content Management System. And that’s because they’re treating it like it’s core to their business.
And I say this as a user experience person – I want people to be happy. I want there to be happy content creators who have a tool that they like to use. But I don’t say that just because I want happy users. I say that because having happier users means they’re going to create better content and they’re going to create more content. They’re going to have more ability to do all the things I’ve been talking about, where they have to write chunks of content, where they have to think about how content is going to be reused, where they have to assign better metadata.
And what that means is that, frankly, it is not a luxury to think about having a great application for content creators. In fact, it is a requirement. And that’s because if we have better content management tools, we’re going to get better content. That is the only way that we are ever going to be able to support multi-channel publishing. If we ever want to figure out how we’re going to spray our content out onto all of these different devices and platforms, it’s going to require that we have the right tools and the right interfaces and the right workflows to support it.
So, mobile. You are not creating a mobile content strategy. This is not about saying “I am going to figure out now how to publish to mobile channels,” as if it’s this different thing from publishing to desktop or publishing even to print. What I mean when I talk about mobile content strategy is that mobile is a wedge; it’s a catalyst within an organization. It’s going to be the thing that makes people wake up and go, “Oh crap! There’s no way we’re going to be able to support getting our content out on all of these different platforms unless we start planning ahead in advance.”
So what this means is that for all of the fear that organizations have where they freak out, like, “Oh my God, the new devices and platforms, they’re never going to stop!” It’s also an opportunity. It’s also a chance to sweep away bad, outdated desktop content. It’s an opportunity to really wipe away a lot of really bad, clunky, kludgy CMS tools. Let’s start again, guys, and let’s figure out how to do it right this time. Because that’s the only way we’re going to support having flexible content.
And it’s because the more structure – if we have these better tools, we’re going to be able to put more structure into the content. And then by having more structure – paradoxically, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be more constrained at how we use our content. It actually means we’re going to be freer in the future. It means that if we have this metadata, if we have the right fields, if we have the right chunks of content, then, like NPR found, when you want to be able to go out and get your content onto a variety of new platforms, you’ve already put the time into having your content clean and well-structured and a service. Now you can put all of your energy into creating a right experience for that platform. It’s what TV Guide discovered when they said, “You know what? We’re not in the magazine publishing business. We’re in the content and the data business.” And so paradoxically, having more structure, having multiple sizes of our content, is going to mean that we’re going to have more flexibility in the future to get that content onto places and platforms and devices that we didn’t even know would exist when we decided to do this ten years ago.
And the second thing is, it’s really time, guys, that we start thinking about what it means to separate content from form. It’s time to say: “Hey, we can’t be imagining how our content is going to live in one platform, in one context.” We can’t be saying, “Oh, here’s a WYISWG toolbar; why don’t you just go in there and style it however you want. Make it look great for your desktop website.” We can’t be telling people, “Hey, here’s your preview button, I’m going to let you see how that content is going to look on your desktop website.” What if it’s not showing on your desktop website? This is the time where we have to say: what does it mean, not just in our tools, but also in our minds, to separate what we write and what we create from how it looks.
And that’s because, really, if we’re going to have content management tools to support this, we have to make sure that they can capture the content in a clean, presentation-independent way. We’ve got to get all that formatting cruft out of our content. More important — this is a really complicated issue — we have to figure out what’s the right level of semantic markup or semantic encoding that we have. How much of it lives in the CMS? How much of it lives in the HTML? What are the right decisions that we make there in terms of how something looks and works and gets styled?
I’m not saying that this is going to be easy. I think it’s going to be freakishly hard. But if we do it right, it’s going to create a much better system for the future. We’re going to have much better ways to reuse our content more flexibly.
And then finally, I think for all of us, it’s a question of saying “How does this change the way that we work? How does this change our processes?” It’s not enough to say, “Oh great, I’m the designer and I’m going to make all the decisions about what I want to show here and why.” You may have some constraints. You may say, “Hey, you know it would be perfect if I had 75 by 75 image crop here.” And they’re going to come back and say, “You know what? You’ve only got a 90 by 90 image crop and you’re going to have to figure out how to make that work.” You’re going to have more structure and some limitations. But it’s also going to give you more freedom, because you’re going to be able to say, “Okay, great. I know the pieces that I have to work with and now I’m going to make the right decisions for my particular platform.”
And so the truth is, for organizations that have invested in doing this, nobody has ever regretted it. No one has ever regretted saying I want to plan for the future. I want to plan for flexible reuse. I want to imagine ways that I can use my content again in the future. I want to start now in thinking about what I have to do so that I can make my content free for whatever platform or device it needs to go onto.
Just because someone is doing a search from a mobile device doesn’t make it a local search. And just because someone is looking for local content doesn’t imply they’re using a mobile device. Just because many local searches are from mobile devices does not imply that most mobile searches are for local information. If you’re a visual thinker, here’s a Venn diagram that may help:
Why belabor this point? Because too often, when people talk about delivering different content to mobile users, what they really mean is prioritizing content differently in a local context.
But not every mobile user is looking for:
—Darin Wonn, Situational Awareness: A Method for Mobile Content Planning
or a restaurant
—Bryson Meunier, Why Restaurants & Other Local Businesses Need Mobile (Not Responsive) Sites
or a train
—Christiaan Lustig, The case for responsive web content: it’s all about the users
This is one of the most hotly debated issues in content strategy for mobile right now, and I’m pleased to see this topic get so much attention from so many smart people. I don’t deny that I have a strong point of view on this subject — and it’s because I have a clear point of view that I value a healthy debate.
Call it local
If you’re making an argument for delivering different content to mobile users, or prioritizing content differently based on their context of use, stop for a minute and ask yourself if you mean local content. And if you do mean local content, then say that. Claiming that your travel example extends to cover the “mobile use case” leaves out millions of tasks and users.
Just to belabor this point: people use mobile devices in every location, in every context. Just because you know what type of device someone is using or where she is doesn’t tell you anything about her intention.
But it does! you might think. If you’re delivering local content. Fine. Call that what it is. Let’s have a separate debate about how to do that well. Don’t confuse the rest of the people trying to deal with the bigger problem of getting content on mobile devices. Use the narrowly defined local case to figure out how to use real research and data to prioritize your content. Report back — I’m sure you’ll learn some things that will benefit the rest of us.
Local is not the priority
I travel. A lot. I am like, a professional traveler. I personally am the target audience for this idea that content should be tailored and prioritized differently based on my local context. If you do that well, I would benefit.
In my mind, that’s second order business. It’s a fun and interesting problem, the kind designers and developers like to solve. I personally don’t think it’s a problem that merits the focus it’s getting in this debate.
First order business is getting all of our content on mobile, in a format that’s readable, navigable, and searchable. Someone called me out recently for calling that “content strategy,” suggesting that making that happen isn’t really a “strategy.” You know what? It’s not. It’s tactical, it’s wonky, and it’s hard work. It’s also our most important job.
If I could prioritize the efforts of our community over the next 3-5 years, I’d spend 80% of our efforts on the problem of cleaning up our desktop content and getting it all (at least, all the good stuff) onto mobile. Let’s use our 20% experimental time to explore how to prioritize content differently based on what we think we can intuit about user intention based on device and location. And let’s give each of those problems the appropriate weight in our discussions.
More like this
“Let me make a long story short: just make quality, relevant content with appropriate tasks, and offer all of these to all users, unless said content or functionality is dependent upon device capabilities (such as a camera). Then make it easy for the user to decide what it is they want to do.”
—Stephen Hay, Great Works of Fiction Presents: The Mobile Context
“The whole “multiple screens need multiple sites” theory just doesn’t make sense. We have never designed separate TV commercials for 13″ CRT screens and 70″ plasmas – even though people watching them are usually in very different places/situations.”
—Ryan Jones, Mobile SEO is a Myth
A conversation at the magazine.
A. There’s no such thing as photo editing.
B. What are you talking about? Our photo editor is right there. Look at him, he’s working. Whatever it is he does, it’s called photo editing.
A. But can you really say there’s such a thing as photo editing? I’d argue that photos are editorial, not edited.
B. What the hell are you talking about?
A conversation on the movie set.
A. Key grip isn’t a real job.
B. I know it sounds made up, but it’s real. They’re in charge of rigging the dollies and cranes for the cameras and lights.
A. Movies should be the product of a director and a camera person.
B. Are you out of your mind? Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a movie?
Whenever I walk into a client’s office, I marvel at all the desks and cubicles and offices. Look at all the people! It takes concerted human effort to put out a newspaper or a magazine. Making a movie is a complex endeavor, often involving hundreds of people behind the scenes. And don’t even get me started about all the people who work at banks, whole skyscrapers full of them, doing god knows what.
I am reasonably certain that no one sits around the newspaper or the magazine or the bank, calling out coworkers’ job titles and insisting that they don’t exist. I feel totally confident that no one on the movie set says “Hey, you know what would make this process a lot better? If we didn’t have these unnecessary people, hiding behind their made-up job titles.”
Our industry is growing. Which means it’s changing. I believe a certain amount of Defining The Damn Thing (DTDT) is necessary, as it helps us clarify the boundaries of what we do. Sometimes I get frustrated by our inability to settle on a standard set of labels and descriptions for what we do, and I laughed a bit when we were mocked by the US News and World Report Best Careers 2009 report for not being able to agree on a name for ourselves.
But there’s a difference between trying to use more precise language to clarify the boundaries between roles, and declaring that someone else’s job is bullshit. The difference is that DTDT can help move the profession forward, even if it sometimes looks like messy bickering. It is inherently harmful to think you can point at a job title, a profession, a whole class of people, and claim that their work isn’t valid.
Making great digital products takes people. Lots of talented people. Recognizing the various skills and roles that go into our work is a sign of respect. If we want bigger budgets, more time to do it right, and more specialized, skilled people to do it, then we have to stop screwing ourselves over by denying the existence of other people’s jobs. Argue for more specialization, more clarity of roles, because that’s what it takes to do things right.
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
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.
CMS + API
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 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
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)