Content Strategy, Mobile

Content in a Zombie Apocalypse

Here’s my latest talk about why multi-device publishing is important—it’s not about smartphones, it’s about separating content from form.

Talk Description

Friends, a zombie apocalypse is upon us: an onslaught of new mobile devices, platforms, and screen sizes, hordes of them descending every day. We’re outmatched. There aren’t enough designers and developers to battle every platform. There aren’t enough editors and writers to populate every screen size. Defeating the zombies will require flexibility and stamina—in our content. We’ll have to separate our content from its form, so it can adapt appropriately to different contexts and constraints. We’ll have to change our production workflow so we’re not just shoveling content from one output to another. And we’ll have to enhance our content management tools and interfaces so they’re ready for the future. Surviving the zombie apocalypse is possible. In this talk Karen will explain how: by developing a content strategy that treats all our platforms as if they’re equally important.




Hey, you guys want to know what I think is awesome? Beyond Tellerrand, come on! Give it up! I speak at about a million of these things and this is one of the nicest, best organized, and also the most attractive audiences I think I’ve seen.

You want to know what else I think is amazing? Print! Print is a fantastic technology. I mean, you put the words on the paper and they stay there. You don’t have to worry about keeping it updated all the time—man, print was fantastic. When you take a look at the history of human communication and you realize that we’ve had hundreds of years of the printing press and nearly thousands of years of communicating in written documents, that the history and the values and the culture of print and how you get ink on paper is so deeply intertwined with what it means to communicate priority or hierarchy or relationships of information, that those cues are so deeply ingrained in how human beings think about communication that it’s really hard to get away from them.

Then we had to go and invent the web. Which, on balance, I think has been totally worth it. But man, is it a pain in the ass. So, the web, as you all know just turned 25. Twenty-five years of the web. Look, I’m a huge nerd for computing history and I love understanding the underpinnings of our field or the generations that came before us. So when you look at the web, you look at the very foundations of this tool—Hyper Text Markup Language, HTML, and the Uniform Resource Locator, the URL—those technologies were designed with the explicit intent that anyone, anywhere, could create a document that could be updated instantaneously and accessible globally. When you take a step back from the day-to-day stuff that we’re all doing and trying to figure out, and really just appreciate how transformational that is in the history of human communication, just how different that is from everything that has come before, twenty-five years is not nearly enough time for us to have truly wrapped our head around the way that the web is different.

As a result, for the last twenty-five years or so, we’ve been kind of bandaid-ing ourselves along by imagining that “Well, I mean, a web page, it’s really just like a piece of paper, right? It’s not really all that different from a piece of paper.” To me, now with the rise of mobile devices, this is what is forcing us to acknowledge for the first time, to really come to terms with the way that the web is different.

Let me be clear about this: the web has always been different. It’s just that we’ve been able to kind of treat the web page like a crutch. But with the rise of mobile devices and now tablets, we have to give up this shared hallucination that we have all been operating under, that we have any control over the presentation. That we have any control over the size of somebody’s screen or the layout that they have or the input mechanism that they’re going to be using. That’s gone. And it’s not coming back.

This, to me, is the real transformation of mobile. When I talk about content strategy for mobile or publishing to mobile, I don’t mean publishing on smartphones or different devices. I mean how do we, as human beings, wrap our heads around the idea that no longer can we treat whatever we want to publish as if it is locked to any one particular output format?

You might look here at the whole “desktop computer and smartphones and tablets” and kind of go “Well, you know, that’s already a pain in the ass to deal with.” But the problem here is it’s not going to stop. I want to be clear about this: I am not a futurist. I am not here to predict for you what I think the next big thing is going to be. If I could do that, I’d be making a fortune. But what I am here to do is explain that something else is going to come along. There will be some new device, some new platform, some new communication technology. And whatever that is, we’re going to have to find a way to publish to it. We’re going to have to find a way that we can get our content onto it.

So maybe that next new thing is smart TV. A lot of people are hypothesizing is that the next great wave is fighting over the living room. I think when you look at the smart TV interface, I think that really starts to drive away any lingering hope that you might have, that you can make assumptions about the size of somebody’s screen or what type of device they’re using to interact with it. Just the sheer range and diversity of different platforms and different input mechanisms that we have to deal with is so great, that the idea that we’re still trying to design for any particular one—it’s like, at what point do you start to say “Wait a minute, we just can’t do that anymore.” Is it the point where we’re trying to figure out how we can design for the smallest smartphone screen, all the way up through the largest 60–inch giant living room screen? Recognizing that that’s the leap we have to make will make this challenge easier.

Maybe it’s not smart TV. Maybe it’s in-car systems. A lot of automobile manufacturers are already embedding sensors and screens into their automobiles. For me, when I look at this, what I don’t see is people trying to use a touchscreen while they’re driving. What I see is an integrated system in which there will be both a touchscreen and an audio component. When you realize this, it’s like “Oh, right.” The opportunity here is going to be around combined systems where people are interacting both with screens and through audio interfaces.

I know there’s this sense that audio interfaces just aren’t quite ready for prime time yet. You talk to Siri and she makes a bunch of mistakes and it’s not a very great experience. You know what else didn’t work very well for, like, forever? Touchscreens. Touchscreens were terrible. You’d go to the ATM and you’d have to figure out how to angle your finger just exactly right in order to get your button to push. For decades, touchscreens were seen as this also-ran technology that was never really going to quite make the prime time. Then one day, touchscreens worked. They worked perfectly. And it transformed our entire industry in the space of five years.

I don’t know when audio interfaces are really going to become a reality, if it’s 5 years, 15 years, 50 years, but I know that one day the Star Trek computer is going to become a reality. And I gotta tell you, when I go up and I ask the Star Trek computer a question, the last thing I want to hear it read back to me is “http colon slash slash.” When you start peeling back—“Oh right, what does that mean for how we construct relationships between the content and our code?”

I’ve had developers ask me sometimes “Oh, Karen, why do you insist that we even bother trying to parse out the difference between what should be rendered as italics and what should be rendered as emphasis when every major browser since the dawn of time has rendered emphasis as italics?” Not in an audio interface they don’t. One of those things conveys visual styling. The other conveys semantic meaning. In an audio interface, emphasis is going to be rendered as tone of voice. When you start peeling back all those challenges, how they work even at the tiniest little HTML tag, you start to realize that our ability to start encoding the meaning of what we publish in ways that are not entirely dependent on the way that they look is what’s going to help us survive the future. I hope it should also make clear that doing the right thing for the future means doing the right thing for accessibility today.

I don’t know, maybe the next big thing is going to be… Google Glass. I don’t really think Google Glass is going to be the next big thing. I think Google Glass like the Segway of mobile. It’s like a Segway, but for your face. But I will say, I agree with Robert Christopherson, that the idea of wearable technology is a very real prospect. I worked with a client recently that publishes a giant print catalog and the products that they make are industrial products, they are intended to be used in factories. I had a conversation with them where I’m like “Look guys, we all know that a day is going to come, at some point in the future, where you will no longer publish this print catalog.” I don’t know when that’s going to be. I’m not going to say if it’s 5 years or 10 years from now. But at some point you’re going to say “This world that we live in no longer needs a 2-inch thick print catalog of all of our products.” So what happens when that day comes and wearable heads-up displays are a reality on the factory floor? What happens when the type of audience that you want to communicate with, working in these industrial environments, needs the ability to get information in a hands-free environment. What if that’s the next platform that you need to publish to? Is your content going to be ready to go there? Or, maybe a better question is, you need to start acting now to figure out how you’re going to get your content into a format so that it is not locked up, intended to be printed only in this one document, but rather it has the flexibility so that you can get it onto another platform.

So if Google Glass isn’t the next big thing, maybe the next big thing is going to be… watches. Right? Everybody is talking about watches—the Galaxy Gear, the Pebble, maybe an Apple watch. Again, people are sometimes like “Well Karen, why do you care about watches? No one is ever going to want to read a long document on their watch.” And that may be true. But when you think of a watch as existing in a larger ecosystem of devices, when you imagine that that watch is a controller for a smart TV or provides notification from a smartphone or can be a small touchscreen interface that would allow someone to interact with an audio interface that they engage with their headphones, now you start to see—right, it’s not just that my content needs to live on that platform, but it might need to be accessible and navigable on that platform and we might have to find ways to represent it on ever-smaller or different screen sizes.

But you know, okay, watches, so tiny, maybe not the next big thing, right? Maybe the next big thing is going to be stadium scoreboards, woo-hoo! Let’s get our content where everybody can see it guys! This is a joke. I’m funny, aren’t I? I put this in here as a joke, because I thought it would be funny because the watches are so tiny and then the scoreboards are so big and then I turned around and I had a client tell me that the biggest problem that they’re trying to solve right now is digital signage.

I worked with a university and they said “Karen, we have a mobile website, we have an app and we just bought these digital signs that we want to put up all over campus. What we want to do is we want to have one central place where we can manage and maintain all of our content. And then we want to be able to send things like events listings or campus alerts to students or information about what’s going on on campus to these three very different platforms and we want to be able to do it automatically.” I was like “Mm… have you thought about treating the digital signs like they’re a completely separate workflow and just having someone manage those like they’re a silo?” They were like “Karen, ain’t nobody got time for that! No. This is the whole reason we’re talking to you, is we want a way to manage and maintain our content in one place and have the right information go to three very different platforms.” This is not some crazy futuristic dystopia that these people are living in. This is right now, a problem we have to solve today.

And so, if you have to solve digital signage problems in the enterprise, maybe we all will be facing the same problems in our homes. Can’t talk about the future without talking about the internet refrigerator. Again, I don’t really think the internet refrigerator is going to be the technology of the future but the idea that our homes will eventually have a network of connected devices and sensors and maybe smaller screens. Heck, maybe instead of the internet refrigerator, maybe a better idea is that one day your glass cooktop will have a giant iPad screen embedded into it and on the glass you will be able to watch videos or look at recipes or the news while you’re cooking.

Or—and I want to say I do think that this is the biggest problem that we are facing as a society today—what happens when toaster printers become a reality? Is your content ready to be burned onto delicious toast? These are the problems that we’re here to solve together.

Right now, today, organizations already face the challenge of how do they publish to a variety of different platforms and screen sizes. They’ve got content that needs to exist on the web, and it already has to exist in social channels, or in blogs, or in microsites, maybe in email. And now they’re wrestling with “Well, how do we publish to the mobile web? How do we deal with apps on smartphone platforms and on tablets? Heck, is this the opportunity for us to actually wrangle what we’re publishing in print versus what we publish in digital channels?” Tomorrow, there will be an ever-greater number of new devices and platforms and screen sizes. It is a veritable zombie apocalypse of new devices and platforms. There’s too many of them for us to battle by treating every single one of them as if they’re an independent platform. How are we going to protect ourselves from the zombie apocalypse?

Well the answer I think lies deeply in something that I know pretty much everybody on the web has spent some time thinking about, which is: How do we achieve the idea of having true separation of content from form? I feel like this is one of these subjects that everybody who works on the web has an opinion about. I sometimes will ask people “What do you think that means?” and people are like “CSS!” But in reality, what this means—it goes so much deeper than just any one person’s or just any one point of view’s window on what this means. It goes all the way through what every single person who is responsible for the website does.

The idea that we now have so many different output formats that we have to publish to, that we can no longer imagine that any one of those outputs is primary. Or that we can intend the meaning that we’re trying to communicate, to be communicated for only the visual language or the styling of that one platform. Do you have any idea just how transformational that is in the history of communication—just how different that is from everything that’s come before? When you imagine this monk here, sitting, laboriously hand-scribing documents, the very notion that you would say: Let’s think about the meaning of what you are trying to communicate separate from the actual physical form of this document, let’s talk about how you might communicate structure or priority or relationships or hierarchy in this document, separate from any one particular instance of this physical form—it wouldn’t make any sense. Throughout most of human history, there was no reason why we would even talk about this.

And now, with the web and mobile devices and different platforms and the whole zombie apocalypse, I think that this is the real challenge that we are facing. We need new tools, we need new processes in order to make this happen. When Dan Jacobson here—he’s the API guy from Netflix and he’s formerly from NPR—when he says that “the future of content management systems is in their ability to capture the content in a clean, presentation-independent way,” it’s real tempting to reduce that to a problem with markup, to think that we can get rid of this just by getting rid of rich text editors.

I really hate rich text editors on the web and I rail and shake my fist at the limitations of these things that I call “blobs.” Which is this big, messy bucket, where we give a content creator a big field and just tell them “Oh, dump whatever you want in there. If you want to add a table and drop in some custom bullets (which are not using SVG) and you want to take a table of contents box and float that over to the right, you just go right ahead. You just make this look exactly like a Word document.” This even says: The Word-like interface makes content creation easy for business users who know nothing about HTML and want to keep it that way. The challenge here, the problem here, is that the styling information that this content creator embedded in this blob, that has meaning attached to it. Sometimes developers will say “Oh yeah, you’ve got to go in and strip all that out when you want to take it to another platform.” Strip all that out? That content creator intended something when she took that table of contents box and floated it to the right. She wanted that to convey that this was an aside or some sort of information that was set off from the document. But unfortunately the only tools that she had to communicate that came through what she wanted that document to look like rather than what that actually meant. I rail against the idea that we treat publishing on the web as if it’s “just like Microsoft Word” and we give content creators this WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get—toolbar at the top and let them just style that stuff any way they want it.

I’ve gotten the reputation as being the president of the WYSIWYG haters club and I want you guys to know: it’s fun to come and talk to people at meetings like this, but my graffiti crime spree is also going exceptionally well. It’s really getting the message out. When I talk about why I think WYSIWYG is so bad, sometimes people come up to me and it’s like they assume I’m some kind of markdown evangelist. They’re just like “Yeah, markdown all the way!” I’m like, “Well the problem is not the toolbar.” I kind of don’t care if somebody gets a button at the top of their screen that they can use to actually add some truly semantic formatting. No, the problem with WYSIWYG is that we are giving content creators an antiquated metaphor from the desktop publishing era to communicate to them what it means to publish on the web.

Do you guys know where WYSIWYG came from? It came from Xerox, the research group, Xerox PARC. Because they invented the laser printer. Think about that for a minute. Up until this point, a Xerox machine could only make a copy of a document that already existed. Xerox invented a way that you could print out whatever you wanted. Except they needed a way for you to be able to actually create that document. And so they invented the entire concept of what you see is what you get, invented the entire concept of the graphical user interface, so that they could sell laser printers. Arguably, the laser printer is the most important component of the entire personal computing revolution. Demand for laser printers, demand for desktop publishing, is what drove people to start buying Apple computers and to start buying PCs, and to buy laser printers, and to print out really badly formatted newsletters and to use too many fonts. As a result, directly coming out of that personal computer revolution, it led directly to the web and the demand for personal computers to run the web.

I think all of us here actually probably have jobs today because of the personal computing revolution that was sparked by the laser printer. I think it’s with a great deal of respect for the history of how we have been using these tools over the last thirty years or so when I tell you that the web is not a laser printer. There is nothing about the web that is anything like a laser printer. The very notion that we are using this metaphor of a printed page or “what you see is what you get” to communicate to content creators what it means to publish on the web is an outdated mental model where we’re basically giving them a crutch and saying “think of this just like a Word document.”

Ted Nelson says that “imitating paper on a computer screen is like tearing the wings off a 747 and using it as a bus on the highway.” The web is better than print. The web can do so much more than print. The idea that we have dynamically published information that can be sent, can be targeted, can be sent all over the globe—that is why I say that we are fighting a war, a war between blobs and chunks. Blobs are these messy formatting rich globs of stuff where we’ve dumped content and markup and everything and the kitchen sink into one big messy blob of a field. When it comes time to take that information to another platform or target little bits of that information, you can’t do it. Chunks are clean, well-formatted, presentation-independent bits of content that are intended, from the start, that they can and will live on a variety of different platforms, in a variety of different ways. We are fighting a war, people. We cannot let the blobs win.

What this means—if we talk about what it really means to truly separate content from form, I think the real limitation here, the thing that we all just stumble back into, no matter that you might say yes, the page is dead, but we are still, as an industry and as humanity, rife with what I think of as “container-first thinking.” Our goal is to say “Okay, first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to figure out what the box is that I’m going to fill and then afterwards I’ll figure out what I’ll put in it.” You see it over and over again. What does Photoshop do the first time you open it up? The first thing it asks you is how big do you want that canvas to be. Sure, you can change it, but it’s like the primary decision that you are making is how big do I want my thing to be?

The great Ethan Marcotte describes his initial process for doing the Boston Globe redesign. He says “We began by identifying some common breakpoints.” By saying “Okay, well let’s figure out what the different containers are that we’re going to fill.” To his credit, he also will tell you “Don’t do this.”

Or, lately we’ve been told that cards are the future of the web. Cards. They’re like pages, but tiny. This certainly is a principle that comes from a design perspective. I can very easily see how, if you’re a designer, it is very hard to imagine what it is that you’re going to be designing unless you put some kind—you want to draw a box around something, right? Maybe ever-smaller little boxes of things but you’re still trying to bound that in some way.

But this isn’t just a problem for design. It is also a problem in the very architectures of our systems. I’m working with a client right now and… I get to see a lot of companies’ content management underpants. So I’m like rooting around in their system, they’ve given me a list of all of the content types that they publish and this is what it says. And I’m like “Oh… oh, that’s interesting. Some of these things are not like the others.” Even baked into the very architecture of the content management system, they are saying “Oh, here are some of the actual pieces of content that we publish. We publish articles and press releases and FAQs. But we also have this notion that the container of the content—a carousel or a wrapper or an accordion—those are content types too.” But they’re not.

This idea that we are still struggling with: How do we make choices about what we do and what we design, how we publish separate from what it should look like or what the little box should be around it? The technique that we use to do this is something called content modeling. Content modeling is essentially the process of starting with your content and figuring out from the start what are all the little bits and pieces that you’re working with. Content modeling is what makes lots of things possible. It makes possible the NPR Create Once Publish Everywhere (COPE) model. This is a very much talked about case study, I’ve talked about it many times in my talks. But what it means is that they have a flexible set of content that then they can dynamically target to whatever platform or screen size or device they want to. Because they know the underlying content structure before they start designing, they are more able to make good decisions about how they should style and interact with that content for any given platform.

It’s also what makes possible this digital signage project that I’ve talked about. I teach at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. They have these digital signs, they also have a website. I could look at a webpage like this and see that it was entirely published as one big blob. Everything on that page could just be one big WordPress field. And somebody is like “I’ll put a picture in there and then I’ll put in all of the text about the event.” The problem is if that event listing isn’t properly structured, there’s not underlying chunks of data behind it, then their ability to target the right bits of that content for their digital screens wouldn’t be possible. They need that image, they need that overview paragraph, they need the date and time of the event all separated out as separate fields so that they can target them dynamically.

And it’s even what makes possible I think some of the things we’re going to be able to do in responsive design. This is an example of The Guardian’s beta site and you can see, okay, here’s a block of headlines that have an image. At a smaller breakpoint, they’ve decided to drop the image out. Similarly, headlines and images, and at a smaller breakpoint, only for the priority stories. Only for the first, most popular stories, the hierarchy of stories, do they include the image, for the stories that drop the image out. Now, this is a pretty simple example, right? We could do this today. But when you start thinking: Oh right, our job should be to have the right granularity in our content so that, as we are thinking about “what’s the most important or appropriate presentation at different breakpoints?” we can actually target the content at more and more fine grains of granularity. The ability to do that is going to be content modeling.

Content modeling essentially means that you sit down and the first thing you figure out is: What type of content do you have? It might be an article or a product spec or a recipe or maybe it’s a medical condition. You sit down and you figure out: What are these things?

I’m going to tell you something. Doing this, for many people, is actually very easy. I worked with a hospital this summer and we sat down and in a half-day brainstorming session, we went through and we listed out every content type that they thought they could publish. And you know what? They did it. They did it really quickly and easily. They understood their content. In fact, they were actually really excited about the opportunity to talk about what their content was separate from what template it should run in. They were tired of doing web redesigns where people would come in and be like “Okay, well here’s the six templates you’re going to get.” What they wanted to do is they wanted to sit down and say “What do these content types mean to us? What do we think they consist of?” For example, they had something called a Patient Story. What they were able to do is break down that patient story, so instead of being a big blob, they said “Oh, well it’s going to have the information about the condition, and the doctor who treated the patient, and how old the patient was, and where the patient came from.” And so having all of that information structured allowed them to do more with those patient stories. They were able to target them and search them and present them in more fluid ways because they weren’t treating a patient story as if it were just one big article blob.

What that is, that process that I’m talking about, is that we are trying to figure out what the attributes of the content are. When I talk about chunks, sometimes I call them “Fields” or “Content Objects.” I say “Fields” in quotes because I want to be real clear, I don’t necessarily always mean that an attribute of the content is going to be stored as a separate field in the CMS—that way lies madness—it’s a combination of fields and markup that allow us to truly communicate the semantic meaning of what these attributes are.

But the content attributes are things that… a recipe is a super-easy one to explain. I worked on a product called Food and Wine this past year. They’re a big recipe site and magazine based in New York. We sat down and we did a massive content modeling of their recipe content type. I think sometimes people are like “Well recipes, that’s pretty simple right? The name of the recipe and a picture of the recipe and the steps and the ingredients.” Well, it’s true. Recipe is the core content type and, yes, there are ingredients and steps that come off of that. But honestly, to make it actually useful, there’s so much more. For Food and Wine, their primary organizing schemas were the category and the chef. They focus really heavily on people for their recipes, so having the chef as a major organizing principle worked for them. Off of that, there were a whole bunch of facets that we would use to categorize the recipes. So, we had cuisine, and culture, and diet, and equipment, and holiday. All of those things were things that they could encode to say: “This is great for a brunch, this is great for people who eat gluten-free, this is German food.” That process of defining what that taxonomy was, what that model was and what all those facets were, made it possible for them to do more with their recipes.

You might think “Well, okay, great Karen! You’ve figured it out. That’s what recipes are.” But it’s not. The thing is, this content modeling exercise is different for everybody. Even a format that you might think is as codified as a recipe. My friend Jeff Eaton has a case study of the Lark Cookbook. This is a Kickstarter-funded campaign that has a website, it has a variety of mobile apps and—not only that—it has a print cookbook. If you’re the kind of nerd that I am, the super-interesting thing about this is that all of these platforms, even the print cookbook, are all being sourced from the same Drupal CMS. So they had Drupal outputting to the print version as well.

So they also had to go through a process of content modeling. You guess “Yes, okay, great. Well they started with a recipe, right?” And you might say “Well Karen, at least recipes and steps, those are the most important thing.” But no. For this product their primary organizing principle was a plate. They didn’t want to just have recipes. What they wanted to have was a plate of recipes that you would serve together as part of a meal. The chef had very well-considered opinions about what he thought those plates should be. They were categorized by season, so what would be fresh during that time. Interestingly enough, the chef also had a point of view that there were only three seasons, so right there that’s a content modeling issue. And there were different varietals of wine that you would serve with that plate. Then beyond that, step was actually the way they primarily hung both ingredients and then techniques. What they wanted to do for this product was they wanted to store a whole bunch of examples of how you would perform a particular cooking technique and they had a whole media library of videos of the chef actually doing those particular techniques. So if you didn’t know how to whip or you didn’t know how to bread, you could watch a little video of the chef doing that. Two very different products, two very different content models.

This is top of mind for me right now because recently, just within the last couple of days, The New York Times Innovation Report about their digital strategy on the web was leaked. If you have any interest in publishing or how people communicate on the web, get your hands on this. This version was actually like a faxed copy that somebody leaked to BuzzFeed. For me, this was like Deep Throat. In this innovation report, one of the things that they said was “Here’s the ugly truth about this kind of structured data. There are substantial costs to waiting.” They go on to say: “For example, because our recipes were never properly tagged by ingredients and cooking time, we floundered for about 15 years trying to figure out how to create a useful recipe database. We can do it now, but only after spending a huge sum to retroactively structure the data.”

There is a huge cost associated to this. I want to give you a little bit of an example from what I think of as the blobbiest blob that we have ever blobbed onto the web. Oh yes, the PDF. Sorry Adobe. But honestly, I feel like there’s going to come a point in the history of the web where we’re all going to look back on the fact that we let ourselves band-aid along on the web using a piece of paper. It’s literally a piece of paper. It’s because we still haven’t worked out how to support a true print to digital publishing model. Instead, we’re letting people get by by treating the web like it’s paper.

Please, allow me to make one thing clear before I go on: Nobody is reading your PDF. The World Bank recently did a study in which they looked from 2008 to 2012 at all of the PDFs that they have put online and what they found was 33 percent of them, a third of them, never downloaded at all. What’s worse: 40 percent of them were downloaded fewer than 100 times. I’ll be fair, this is the World Bank. They’re not BuzzFeed, they’re not going viral. But the fact is PDFs lock valuable content up in a format that makes it inaccessible for most people. Most people just don’t go through the trouble of downloading a printed document so that they can read it on their screen.

Ethan and I just recently went and talked to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, so that’s the United States Central Bank. This place is like a PDF farm. They’re just harvesting PDFs, planting and growing and harvesting them. When you look at the kind of document that the World Bank or a Central Bank might publish—what sticks out to me when I look at a document like this is all of the different charts and tables and equations and graphs that need to get embedded inside of a larger narrative flow.

The challenge that an organization like the bank faces is that their ability to do the kind of content modeling that I’m describing is extremely limited. What they are doing is they are publishing things that aren’t truly digital. They’re not digital-native texts. These things aren’t responsive.

Watch me go talk to a bank about the number of things that they are publishing in PDFs that just aren’t going to be really appropriately rendered on any size screen other than the desktop. They’re not really searchable. They can be, but a lot of times they’re not. They’re not searchable in the same way that web pages are. Similarly, they’re not really accessible. They can be. I think there’s people doing some interesting work in PDF accessibility but this is—come on guys, there’s got to be a better way. Why are we doing this? Why are we still relying on what is clearly a completely antiquated model of how we publish to the web?

Well, I’ll tell you. It’s because it’s a familiar tool. It’s because the tools that we have for publishing simply aren’t sufficient for the kind of people who work at a central bank to go in and actually mock up their articles. Like these bankers, they can use Microsoft Word, they can go in and they can make their charts and their graphs and they can put in their equations. Ask them to do that in any HTML editor, any content management system today, it’s just not good enough. It also gives them a very simple workflow. The publishing process for these organizations is: write something in word, export it as a PDF, put the PDF on the web. The publishing process for how you would take that on if you actually wanted this to be properly structured and modeled digital content would likely require three or four people to do it. So this enables them to get their charts and tables in. But I think most important, what the real challenge here is, that it allows them to support what is a truly unstructured flow in the document. They’re not publishing recipes or product specifications or documents that inherently have a very regular structure to them. They are publishing documents that by their very definition, do not have a structure.

My friend Jeff Eaton published an article on A List Apart called The Battle for the Body Field, where he talks about what he calls “responsible blobbing.” So what do we need to do as an industry to support content creators who need the tools and the flexibility to embed some content types inside of other content types to support a truly unstructured narrative flow without getting caught up in a thicket of fields in the CMS or markup that then starts to introduce presentation-dependent cruft into the field. What he says is: “Standard HTML is rich enough for a designer to represent complex content. It isn’t precise enough to describe and store that content in a presentation-independent format.”

And so as we are wrestling with this, I think the challenge that we all have to try to solve here is: How do we figure out, how do we get all those blobs of stuff that are stored in PDFs or stored in big blobby WordPress fields, and how do we pull all of that out and actually make it properly structured?

Well let me give you a little example of what’s required for that. So I talked to a large professional services organization in New York. They just went through a mobile first responsive redesign where they went through and they said: Let’s dig into the massive PDF farm that we have and figure out what valuable content we want in there, that we can then publish to the web. They found 6,250 PDFs that they wanted to go and properly model and structure so they could have true digital native text. So here’s what it took. They did a modeling exercise, which is basically what I described earlier. So they had people like me go in, figure out what their content types were, what the attributes of those content types were. It took four people three weeks to do this, and they paid those four people about 130 euro. They paid them in U.S dollars but I did the math for you. So it was about 175 dollars an hour, which is a pretty good mid-senior hourly rate. So this task cost about 62,000 euro for them to complete.

And then second, they did a pilot project that took a week. So what they did is, based on the model that they created, they went in and got new PDFs and they piloted those new PDFs to make sure that the model actually accounted for all the things that those PDFs had in store. So that took a week, cost them 20,000 euro.

Then, they did a process that I call “copy and pasting.” So this was the restructuring process where human beings had to actually sit there, go through all of those PDFs, copy and paste and restructure that content into a content management system. That took them five months to do. Now the people who did it, it took them three people, those people were paid a little bit less, so they made 55 euro. It still cost them 150,000 euro to do it. So as a result, for them to get the value out of these six thousand PDFs: six months, eight people, cost them 230,000 euro.

In contrast, they had 25,000 PDFs that they said: Just punt on it, let’s just migrate those over and if anyone really wants them they can get at them. That process, that I call “shoveling,” took one week, took one developer, they paid him 130 euro, cost 2,000 euro to do it. As a result they now have a giant dumpster of documents that are technically on the web but yet the true value of them can’t be realized because they are all in fact locked up in those PDFs.

I make this point, I want to leave you with this. Our future depends on us being able to get away from blobs. I pick on PDFs because they’re such an obvious case, but the truth is our content on the web is pretty blobby. Most web pages today suffer from the fact that the content is not appropriately structured—I mean structured from the modeling perspective that I take on it—that we have appropriate content types and appropriate attributes attached to that content.

We have to get away from this if we’re actually going to be able to truly be platform-agnostic. Our future is going to depend on having the kind of structured content that will allow us to target content to different platforms or devices, to know what the actual semantic meaning of that content is. Our future depends on fighting off the zombies. We are, today, living in this veritable zombie apocalypse of new devices and platforms and screen sizes and resolutions and input mechanisms and they just keep coming and they’re never going to stop.

The organizations that take this as their inflection point—that take the opportunity of mobile—to not just figure out how to publish to a mobile app, but rather figure out what happens if tomorrow I have to publish to a watch or a smartphone screen or a smart TV or an audio interface, the organizations that take that as their challenge and make their content future-friendly, accessible, clean and presentation-independent, and start doing that now, those are the ones that are going to survive the zombie apocalypse. Thank you.


The Immobile Web

Google is preparing for screenless computers

Google Glass UI Guidelines

The Ultimate Internet Toaster

Make your selfie the perfect breakfast!

WCM is for Losers

Creation Myth

Ted Nelson’s Computer Paradigm, Expressed as One-Liners

Why cards are the future of the web

Jared Stoneberg and The Lark Cookbook

The leaked NY Times Innovation Report

The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads

The Battle for the Body Field

Content Modelling: A Master Skill

Content Modeling Series by Cleve Gibbon

Deblobbing your chunks: Building a flexible content model

Content Strategy, Mobile

Podcast Behind The Scenes

One of the best things I’ve worked on lately is a new podcast series with Ethan Marcotte, fittingly titled a Responsive Web Design Podcast. Ethan blogs about the podcast on his site too.

We offer a two-day workshop to companies that want some guidance as they embark on a responsive redesign. I will let you in on a secret—I learn as much from these workshops as the participants do. Hearing questions and stories from people at our workshops gives me a better understanding of the challenges that go into a responsive redesign.

The podcast really came out of our desire to tell more stories from people who have been through a large-scale redesign. We talk to the people who led the process—who can explain how they convinced their stakeholders, dealt with setbacks, and defined what success would look like.

It Takes A Village

The allure of a podcast is that you record a conversation and put it on the internet for instant radio show! This is, in fact, not how it works. Doing this podcast required the help of many people:

The good team at Campaign Monitor agreed to be the launch sponsor of our first four episodes. They have a new email builder called Canvas that has some nifty features, like styles and drag-and-drop layouts.

None of this would have happened without the help of my assistant, Selina Andersson, who is both gracious and enviably organized. She handled all the details of coordinating interviews and ensuring guests felt comfortable.

We’re working with an audio editor, Aaron Schroeder, who was referred to me by my UX designer friend Diana Turner. Having suffered through listening to my own recorded voice on these things, I can confirm that Aaron works magic.

The many anonymous transcribers working with Mechanical Turk have made it possible to offer a full transcription of every episode. Accessibility is important to me, and I think people should be able to choose if they want to read or listen to the podcast.

And finally, last but certainly first in my heart, my most genuine thanks go to Ethan Marcotte for working on these events and podcasts with me. Ethan spent the past couple of weeks building a new website at and I can confirm that making websites is really hard. As with any craft, it’s a delight to watch someone who makes it look easy.

Coming Soon to a Player Near You

The podcast will come out weekly on Mondays. Our first episode, an interview with Miranda Mulligan about the landmark Boston Globe responsive redesign, is already live.

Subscribe to the podcast or our newsletter so you don’t miss any of the great episodes to come:

02: Marriott, August 25
03: Fidelity, September 1
04: Capital One Part 1, September 8
05: Capital One Part 2, September 15
06: Virgin America, September 22
07: LA Times, September 29
08: Harvard University, October 6
09: Condé Nast, October 13
10: Weil, Gotshal & Manges, October 20
11: Code For America, October 27
12: Starbucks, November 3
13: Celebrity Cruises, November 10
14: The Guardian, November 17
15: Nationwide, November 24

Finally, if you’ve led a responsive redesign and you’d like to be on our podcast, we’d love to talk to you.

Content Strategy, Mobile

New workshop on responsive web design

I received an email from a prospective client the other day that said:

“We recognize that responsive design should be the foundation of our thought processes for requirements gathering through design and development. This way of thinking is new to us; we would like an expert to educate our team on how to add responsive design into our process. I am looking for an on-site “workshop” that will provide our team with a basic education on responsive design, input on how we should evolve our design and development processes, what are the common pros/cons/pitfalls that can happen when you start responsive design, etc.”

I’ve received a lot of messages like this recently. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the majority of companies on the web are right now trying to figure out their mobile strategy and how best to implement responsive design. The challenges companies face go well beyond new design and development techniques — doing responsive design right also requires a new way of thinking about project goals, roles and responsibilities, review and approval processes, and, yes, content strategy. I believe that fitting responsive design into existing digital processes, teams, and infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing companies today.

I am thrilled to announce that Ethan Marcotte and I are launching a workshop offering to help companies solve just that problem. Together, we know a thing or two about responsive web design and content strategy for mobile. In a day or two, we’ll provide a foundation of what to do (and what not to do) that will set a responsive redesign up for success.

If you, or a company you love, needs help doing responsive design right, more information is available at Responsive Design Workshops. We’d love to hear from you.

Content Strategy, Mobile, Presentations

The Mobile Content Mandate

Putting together the pieces of this talk changed the whole way I think about mobile. I mean, sure, I knew mobile was important (I wrote a book about it!) But, let’s face it: I’m writing this on my laptop right now.

I’ve had a home internet connection for the past twenty years. I own three or four computers (and that doesn’t even count all the mobile devices I own.) As much as I love my mobile phone, it’s not the primary way I go online.

Mobile isn’t about making things slightly more convenient for people like me. Mobile is about the 2 to 3 billion people globally who will come online over the next decade for the first time, from their mobile phone. Mobile is what will erase the digital divide.

It’s easy to look at those numbers and think that the digital divide is a problem just in the developing world. But today, millions of Americans don’t have internet access at home. Applying for jobs, applying for school, managing personal finances, researching health conditions, accessing government services — all of these are increasingly difficult for people without an internet connection.

Think about how much you rely on the internet, how much pleasure and power it gives you, how much easier it makes your life. Think about the millions of Americans — the billions of people worldwide — who are about to come online for the first time on a mobile device. Let’s make mobile better for them.



Talk Description

You don’t get to decide which device people use to access the internet: they do. By 2015, more people will go online via mobile devices than on traditional computers. In the US today, one-third of people who browse the internet on their mobile phone say that’s the primary way they go online — half of teens and young adults say they rely on their phone for internet access. It’s time to stop avoiding the issue by saying “no one will ever want to do that on mobile.” Chances are, someone already wants to. In this session, Karen will discuss why you need to deliver content wherever your customer wants to consume it — and what the risks are when you don’t make 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.


Back in the late 1980s, Digital Equipment Corporation, DEC, was the world’s second largest computer manufacturer, behind only the 500-pound gorilla of the industry, IBM. See, back in those days, if you wanted to use a computer, you first would have to clean out your basement. You would have to install this giant monolithic machine. You would have to hire this team of acolytes to run it for you. And if you wanted to use the computer, you would have to get in line behind all of the other people who have more important business tasks to do. You’d have to get in line with the people who are running payroll and calculating insurance premiums. You’d have to come in the middle of the night to run your job. Back in those days computing power was really expensive, it was really scarce, so it was reserved for only the most high-value of business tasks.

DEC made its mark on the field with what it called minicomputers. So instead of being the size of your basement they would be the size of a large refrigerator. So with the successful line of PDP minicomputers, DEC was able to bring the power of computing to people who had never had access to it before. They innovated this throughout the 60s and 70s before coming out with their wildly successful PDP-8. Look at this sexy bad ass right here. The PDP-8 was at the time the world’s most popular computer. What it meant was that people, say, in an engineering department or say, in an individual academic department, maybe even a theatre troupe might be able to buy one of these things and use it to run the lights for their shows. I have this fantastic photograph—it’s a super grainy black and white photo in a book that wouldn’t reproduce very well or I would show it to you, but it shows a picture of a farmer who has loaded one of these things onto the back of his tractor so that he can do computerized operations of his potato picking. Which is insane. But as far as I am concerned what that says, is the PDP-8 here is the world’s first mobile computer.

This is Ken Olsen. He’s their CEO. Look at how happy he is, doesn’t he look happy? Why wouldn’t he be happy? He is the CEO of the world’s second largest computer manufacturer. He has a track record of research and innovation. He has his finger on the pulse of the marketplace. He knows what it is that his customers want and are looking for. And he feels confident that there is no reason why anyone would need a computer in their home. I mean why would you want that? It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t square with anything that Ken Olsen knows about the computing industry and Ken knows a lot about the computing industry. This isn’t how people use computers. This isn’t why people use computers. He has done research and innovation and testing and this doesn’t make any sense.

I’m pretty sure that there is somebody in your organization that is saying “There is no reason why someone is going to need to do that on mobile.” I mean why would you do that on mobile? That doesn’t make any sense. That doesn’t square with anything you know about how people use mobile devices. It doesn’t make any sense as to how people use computers. There’s just no good reason why people would want to do that.

Let me take you ahead. It is 1988, DEC is the world’s second largest computer manufacturer. They have moved on from their wildly successful PDP line of mini-computers to their even more wildly successful of VAX mini-computers. I bet some of you are still running these things today. This is the VAX11. It is the first mini computer with a 32-bit architecture. They sold 400,000 of these things when they came out. These were the most popular computer DEC had ever made. They were also selling the VT125 integrated graphics terminal and this thing, this thing was the most powerful terminal on the market. They were selling this thing like hotcakes, not just to people who were buying their own mainframes but to people who were buying mainframes from every other manufacturer. This terminal was so great. It could do charts and graphs. It had custom fonts. It could show the text in reverse. Rainbows shoot out of these things.

Look how happy this guy is here. Doesn’t he look happy? Okay, you can’t actually tell how happy he is because of the big Magnum PI mustache but I can assure you that this guy is completely satisfied with his use of the VT125 integrated graphics terminal. DEC is at the top of their game. This is the peak of their business. They are selling more computers than they have ever sold before. They have successfully met demand. They have successfully innovated. These products, they know, are completely what the industry wants.

And they have no reason to believe that their entire industry is going to be destroyed by one of these cheap pieces of crap. I mean look at them. This is not the VAX11 32-bit mainframe architecture. This is a cassette tape. It stores its memory on a cassette tape. This is not the VT125 integrated graphics terminal. This is a black and white television set from Radio Shack. It’s only got the one dumb little rainbow on it. Rainbows don’t even shoot out of these things.

It’s 1988. DEC is the world’s second largest computer manufacturer. They are the second largest employer in the state of Massachusetts, behind only the state government. 1990, just two years later, they post their first quarterly loss and they start laying people off. 1991, the year after that, they post their first full year loss. They would lose money in five out of the next seven years. And in 1998, just a decade later, DEC is gone. Out of business. Acquired by the manufacturer of one of those cheap pieces of crap.

This has got to be some kind of crazy fluke, right? This has got to be something so unprecedented in the history of American business that there’s just no way that Ken Olsen could have ever anticipated that something like this could happen. I mean no one could ever imagine something like this happening. Right?

Wrong. In industry after industry, the new technologies that brought the big established companies to their knees, they weren’t better. They weren’t more advanced. They were actually worse. The new products were low end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. Almost.

Clayton Christiansen had a theory and he called it disruptive innovation. What this theory states is that disruption happens from the low end. New products come on the marketplace and even though they’re not better, even though they don’t work as well as their high-end predecessors, even though they are made of cheaper materials  and they are, pound for pound, more expensive in a sense for what you get, they do one thing and they do that one thing really well. They do that one thing better than anything else on the marketplace. They create an entirely new market for that technology, for people who could never have had access to it before. Because there are so many more of these people who now have access to this technology, eventually, the technology gets good enough, and it disrupts the market for the higher-end products. It wipes away their larger competitors.

And this has happened time and time again. Imagine it’s the 1930s or 40s, and you’ve invested in one of these gorgeous furniture radios. It’s a piece of craftsmanship. Rich, hand-tooled wood. It has rich resonant sound. You imagine that you’re going to gather the family around it in the evenings and you’re going to listen to music or radio programs. It’s something you’re going to lovingly maintain. You’re going to send it for repairs because you want it to be an heirloom that you will pass down to one of your children. Except, your teenager buys one of these cheap pieces of plastic so she can take it to the beach. Transistor radios weren’t better. They were cheap. They were plastic. The sound was tinny. You couldn’t tune them. But transistor radios created an entirely new market for access to radios. Teenagers in the 1950s and 60s, these were people who, previously, could never have had access to a radio, and the power for them of having music or sports programs of their very own, it made it worth it. It made it so worth it that they were willing to sacrifice sound quality. I mean, isn’t that the whole point of a radio? Isn’t that why you have a radio, is that it will sound good? Isn’t that the primary reason why you would choose to buy a radio? No. It’s not. For these teenagers, the power of having a radio of their very own was so meaningful that, eventually, within a decade or so, transistor radios got good enough that nobody needed to buy one of those big, bulky, furniture radios any more. The names of the people, the craftsmen, the companies that constructed those furniture radios, they’re lost to time. We don’t know who they are. The name of the company that made the first transistor radio? They were called Sony.

What about printers? Think about having an offset printer in your office. Doesn’t that sound great? Doesn’t everybody want to have an offset printer? Why, offset printers are better! You get a higher-quality printout at a lower cost. It’s more expensive to buy up front, but then, once you have the offset printer, you can produce a printout that works much better than anything else on the market. Isn’t that a great reason for you to have an offset printer? Well, apparently not, because all of you people went out and bought these cheap inkjet printers that made really crappy printouts. The ink is really expensive. The per-unit cost for these things is really high. The only value that you get out of that inkjet is that you can be like “MINE, MY PRINTER, IT’S MINE, YOU CAN’T USE IT. IT’S MINE.” You don’t want to walk down the hall and have to stand and talk to your co-workers while waiting in line to use the printer, and so you are willing to sacrifice printout quality, you are willing to pay more for a less-good printout, so that you can have a printer of your very own.

And, we’ve all seen this happen with photography, right? So, the market, everybody knew when digital technology, when digital film came on the marketplace, everybody knew that digital photography was going to disrupt the market for film. Okay? Everybody saw that coming. What people didn’t recognize was that digital photography was going to disrupt the market for cameras themselves. Nobody buys a point-and-shoot camera anymore. Why would you? You are willing to satisfice with the camera that you have with you all of the time, which is your mobile phone. Are the prints as good, are the images as good, does it work as well as a higher-end camera? No, probably not. But you’re willing to make do. Kodak is bankrupt. Instagram is worth a billion dollars. That is disruptive innovation.

So, you can kind of see where I’m going with this one, right? In the same way that DEC minicomputers disrupted the market for larger mainframes, and in the same way that personal computers disrupted the market for DEC minicomputers, today, we are witnessing the latest wave of disruptive innovation, and it is coming for the form of mobile devices that put the power of the internet into the hands of people who previously could not access it. And, like with all of these technology innovations and waves that have come before it, mobile will disrupt the market for personal computers. There will come a point at which no one will need to ask “Why would somebody want to do that on mobile?” It will simply be assumed that that’s how everybody wants to do it. And the people who will make that happen are the people who are adopting mobile devices to use as their primary way of accessing the internet because they do not have access to a personal computer.

The digital divide in this country is real. It is easy to assume that the digital divide is limited to people in the developing world. Millions of Americans do not have access to a personal computer at all. And, so, they are the ones who are adopting mobile devices at a fast clip.

Right now, in America, 20% of people don’t have internet access at all. That’s an interesting number, but it’s not nearly as interesting to me as the second number, which is that 35% of people, more than a third, don’t have internet connectivity at home. Think about all the things that you do on your personal computer, in the privacy of your own home, that you might not want the prying eyes of a boss or a co-worker or some stranger in the library watching you while you’re doing it. I don’t know what you’re thinking about, but I’m thinking about: Checking your bank statements. Maybe researching a personal medical condition. Applying for a new job. Heck, even shopping for Christmas presents. These are all things that we take for granted, that we can do from the power of a personal internet connection, in our homes, that we can do whatever we want with, whenever we want.

For more than a third of Americans, they don’t have that luxury. And, so these numbers look at all Americans. As you might imagine, the populations of people who are less likely to have internet connectivity at home, are much higher for groups that you might consider to be traditionally-disadvantaged. If you’re a black American, almost a third have no internet access at all, and a whopping 51%, more than half, don’t have a connection at home. Numbers are about the same for Hispanic Americans, about a third with no connectivity at all and about half without a connection at home.

If you’re a low-income American, you make less than $30k a year, nearly 40% have no internet access at all and almost 60% don’t have a broadband connection. Now, the problem here is, if you’re a low-income American and you’re struggling to put food on the table, pay the rent, put gas in the car, pay your insurance, the internet might seem like a far-off luxury. But low-income Americans without internet access are finding the tools for escaping poverty increasingly out of reach. 80% of Fortune 500 companies only advertise their job listings online. And, you might ask yourselves, “What percentage of universities allow potential low-income students to apply for school from their mobile device?”

For people who have a disability, 46% have no internet access at all, and again, almost 60% don’t have connectivity at home. Think of how much bigger your world would be if you had a disability, if you had a hearing loss or a motion disability or were blind, and could connect with a community and the resources and the services that are only available through the internet. For way too many of these people, the internet is cut off from them.

And, if you’re an American without a high school diploma, 57% have no internet access and a whopping 88% don’t have internet access at home. 88%! I mean, think about it. You don’t have a high school diploma, so that means you don’t have a job, so that means you don’t have any money, so that means you don’t have any internet. And that leaves… crystal meth! You guys laugh now. If I took your home internet connection away you would be stockpiling cold medicine in two weeks. You know, it would be like an episode of Breaking Bad in here.

Okay, so not everybody has internet at home. You want to know what everybody has? Everybody has a phone. Everybody has a phone. Mobile phone ownership in this country is not seen as a luxury. It is seen as a basic staple of human life. 91% of Americans have a mobile device. That number, I believe, you will see that tick up by small percentage points in the next few years, until it hits something like 95%, 97% penetration, and then, that will never go down for the rest of our lives. Mobile phone ownership in this country, right now, is a basic staple, not a luxury, the way that a landline used to be back in the day, or a television set is today. There is no sense that anyone out there will not have a phone.

Here’s what number is interesting: the number of people, the percentage of people who say that they have ever accessed the internet from a mobile device. That number has skyrocketed in the last four years, to what is now 63% of Americans who say that they have gone online using their phone. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why this is, right? It’s smartphones. Smartphones make it possible for people to use the internet on their phone, and so they go do that.

We are at a moment, an inflection point, where there is a gap between these two numbers, and it is tempting to look at these numbers and say “okay, well, that represents smartphone penetration.” But, in the same way that there was a point in history where some people had black and white television sets and other people had color television sets, it’s not that there was a market for black and white television sets. It wasn’t that there was a competition to see whether black and white television sets or color television sets would win out. Everybody realized that, as people replaced their television sets, they would get color TVs. As these people replace their feature phones, they will get smartphones. And, at a certain point, there will be no distinction between these two numbers. Everyone in the country will have a phone, and everyone’s phone will be a smartphone that they can use to access the internet.

And so, what that means is that we are seeing now and we will continue to see the rise of what I like to call The Mobile-Only User. So, the mobile-only user is the population of people who say that they rely on their mobile device for access. They say that they only or mostly go online using their phone. So, of that 63% of people who have ever gone online using their phones in the US today, 34% of them, more than a third, say that that’s the way they only or mostly use the internet. This is millions of people. Tens of millions of people. How many conversations have you had about how to provide a good experience for the users who are browsing on IE? How many conversations have you had about how to provide a good experience for the 2% of users who browse with Javascript turned off? How many conversations have you had about how to reach the population of people who will never, ever, see your website except through the window of their tiny, little mobile phone?

So right now, this number is 34% of people, who say that they only or mostly use their mobile device to access the internet. If you combine that number, that 34%, with the 11% of people who say that they use their mobile device at least half the time, you now have 45% of Americans saying that they use the internet on mobile at least half the time. When is this number going to be big enough for you to move? If it’s not half, when will it be?

So, going back to people who said that they only or mostly use the internet on mobile, as you might imagine, that population of people maps pretty neatly to the people who don’t have a broadband connection at home. So, 45% of low-income Americans say that they only or mostly use the internet on mobile. If education is a powerful tool for helping people to escape poverty, then connecting with these people on their mobile devices should be your top priority. Again, 45% of people with only a high school education say that they rely on their mobile devices for access. These are the people who you want to reach, and even if this isn’t high school students, it may be less-educated parents  who you most need to connect with on a device that they are comfortable with.

The number is 43% of black Americans—now, I’ve put an asterisk here simply because… This data comes from Pew Internet. They reported 43% of black Americans this year. Last year, they reported it was 51% of black Americans. That number did not go down. I think sometimes survey data gets a little wonky. I think this number is low, and I’m going to predict that when they come out with this number next year, it’s going to be a lot higher. I’m pretty sure that this number maps more closely to the 60% of Hispanic-Americans who say that they rely on their mobile device for access. You think that you are an equal-opportunity university that is making connections to students equally? You’re not, if you’re not connecting with them where they are. Which is mobile.

Beyond these populations of people who have been historically and traditionally disadvantaged. The kids these days and their phones, right? 50% of teens, 12 to 17, that’s your target right there, they say they only or mostly use the internet on mobile. Same deal with older teens: 50% again of young adults, 18 to 29, say that their mobile device is the primary way that they access the internet. If you aren’t reaching these students on the device that is most powerful, most personal, most intensely “theirs” you’re not reaching them.

Mobile was the final frontier in the access revolution. Mobile is what has erased the digital divide. A mobile device is the internet for many people. Which is why it’s great we’re doing such a great job on mobile guys, right? No, sadly we are not.

44% of the Fortune 100—and I’ll let you do the math on that one yourself—44% say that they do not have a mobile website; this data also showed that only six companies, six companies in the Fortune 100 actually met all of Google’s best practice standards for mobile websites. Six of them are doing a good job according to Google on mobile. Same deal, 84% of consumer brands say they don’t have a mobile strategy in place at all. Presumably that’s why only 14% of them they say that they’re actually happy with the results that they’re seeing on mobile. The numbers are about the same for B2B brands; 80% of B2B brands don’t have a mobile strategy.  If I can hypothesize here, I don’t have any data to back this up, but I’m going to say these numbers are probably about the same for universities. I’m going to say 80% don’t even have a mobile strategy in place, much less a plan for how they’re going to get there.

So what does this mean? It means we provide experiences for people on mobile that are subpar. We tell them, Hey! Look at these nice, big tappable buttons here. Don’t they look great? Oh, snap, I’m sorry. You actually wanted to do something on our mobile website? You can’t actually do that. If you want to do something you’re going to have to tap on this link that says “go to the real website,” and then you’re going to have to pinch and zoom your way around this screen that was designed for a monitor that’s five times the size. It’s like trying to read the newspaper through a toilet paper tube.

Or we say, Hey! You want to buy some cigarettes? Cigarettes are delicious. You should totally try cigarettes. We’re going to make it super easy for you as an adult smoker to try some cigarettes by giving you nice, big Fisher Price buttons; it’s going to be super easy for you to fill out this form. Just sign up. It takes three taps and then we’re just going to start sending you cigarette marketing. Except I’m sorry, there’s the one thing, and it’s that cigarettes might kill you. We’re kind of mandated by law to tell you that. But we don’t really have to make that quite as easy for you, right?  Sure, okay, if you want to find the information about quitting smoking or the dangers of smoking you can squint and tap on that link and…yeah. You can read that, right? Sure. I think sending users to the desktop website to get valuable information about the fact that cigarettes will kill you is probably the best indication of what an organization values that I’ve ever seen.

Or have you ever tried to search for anything on Google on your phone? Of course you have. You type in what you want and then you see a link and it’s the story that you’re looking for, it’s the article you want. You tap on that link and go. What? How did I end up here? I don’t understand. That wasn’t the page I was looking for. Should I go back and tap on it again? Will it give me something different? What do I do now?  Do I go tapping around on this site looking for the content I wanted? Do I have to click the full site link? But then I’ll just wind up on the homepage of the desktop site. That’s not the article I wanted. Something that should take one tap from the search results in Google becomes a frustrating hunt and peck through two separate websites trying to find an article, a piece of content that you know exists, Google can see it, it’s there. And yet you can’t get it. We broke Google for these people.

Or we tell them: We’ve got awesome resources for you. If you’re a current student. If you’re a current student we’ve got library hours and what’s on the lunch menus and you can find out about the parking garages. But if you’re a prospective student, sorry. You might want to go swimming around on the desktop site for that.

With all of these interactions we are telling mobile only users that they are second class citizens. They don’t deserve access to the same content that everybody else gets access to. They don’t deserve access to a website where they can find what they are looking for, where they can search on Google and get access to it. We tell them that they should really be using the real website. I mean if they would just go to the real website where we wanted them to look then everything would be okay. But if they are relying on their mobile device to provide access to the internet, they are out of luck.

What are we gonna do? I gotta tell you I am extraordinarily sympathetic to these challenges. All of this rhetoric aside there is probably no one out there who is more sympathetic than I am to the difficulty that organizations face in figuring out how they are going to restructure their content, adapt their workflow, change their technology, in order to solve this problem. I say that because my entire job right now is spending all of my time talking to organizations wrestling with these problems. I know it’s hard. I don’t want anybody to walk out of here and say “Oh, Karen said we’ve got to rush out of here right now and throw something up on the mobile web.” No, hold on, because this is so hard. Because this will require changes to our content, to our processes, to our people, to our technology. I don’t want anybody rushing off without a plan in place. I don’t want anybody making fast moves without actually thinking through what they are going to do.

What I want everyone to put in place, is I want everybody to have a content strategy for mobile. And it’s super random how these things happen, some kind of weird coincidence, I just happen to have a book by that title, it came out last year and you can buy it from A Book Apart.

So I want to leave you with something you can do right now, in your schools, in your organizations, to help think about what your vision, your plan, your strategy is going to be on mobile. I’m going to talk through three things that I think you can do right now that you can get started.

So the first one,  is you need to understand what the content workflow is in your organization. Most organizations, I will come in and I will say Hey! What if we were to talk through the publishing process? Like what happens the moment somebody gets a  good idea, like “Let’s post something to the internet!” all the way through to the point where that gets published, all the way through when that gets taken off the web. And people laugh and they say, Oh, Karen, we don’t know when people can publish content to the internet. We have no idea what that publishing process is. I genuinely believe that universities have the most challenging problem with decentralized publishing, fragmented tools, and a real difficult time getting their arms around the organization. The challenges that you are facing, along with everybody else, is the risk is that you will treat mobile like it is yet another silo. That you will allow fragmentation to happen now not just on the website, but with individual groups going off and spinning off their own apps and publishing processes, and you will double or triple or exponentially increase the workload with it. I see this happen all the time.

Look at an example here: Comcast. Comcast has a page on the desktop called Understanding Your Bill. Comcast realized Oh! People are looking at our website on mobile, we should develop a mobile website! So presumably there is not enough room on mobile, so mobile users instead of “understanding their bills” now just “understand their bills.” And so what they did was they cleaned up their text. They took two long flabby paragraphs on the desktop and they tightened it up to one short succinct sentence. They made the mobile website easier to use, easier to read, easier to navigate. The mobile website is better. But if the mobile website is better, why isn’t that just the website? Why are they maintaining two separate versions of this content so that now they have to update them both every time there is a change? You can tell that this is happening. The mobile website was last updated July of 2011. The desktop was last updated March of 2012. They forked their website into separate desktop and mobile versions. So now that means that every time they want to make a change, edit something, fix a typo, they have to do it in two separate places. There’s no way that’s going to be sustainable. And, so, understanding what the publishing workflow is, understanding what roles and responsibilities are involved in content, particularly means understanding what are the challenges of mobile.

And, my job here, if I leave you with anything, is to say “It’s not a strategy if you can’t maintain it.” The enthusiasm that people often have for leaping in, saying “Oh, let’s make a mobile app!” is often offset by the fact that they are simply not prepared to maintain that content and maintain that app or mobile website or whatever it is, over time. And, understanding that people are already operating with shoestring budgets and limited teams, my job here is to say, anything that you put in place needs to be something that you can manage and maintain over the long term.

So, the second thing that you can do, starting now, to build a content strategy for mobile, you could write better. Yeah. You could do what Comcast did and actually clean up some of the text and make it easier to read. One of my least favorite, one of my pet peeves on the internet, is all of these little tropes that are like “Here’s 4 tips for writing mobile website text.” “Here’s How to Write for Mobile, Top 10 Tips.” “Here’s How to Write Content for Mobile Sites”—illustrated by a picture of a man using his laptop outside. I think this one best sums up my opinion on this whole “Here’s how you write for mobile websites” theme.

And, the root all of this is based in this notion that mobile users are always rushed and distracted and they can’t concentrate long enough to pay attention to anything so they can actually read the website. It’s a myth. The idea that mobile users won’t focus, can’t concentrate, aren’t willing to read something, it’s not true.

See, there’s no such thing as “How to write for mobile.” There’s just good writing. And the same principles that these articles are telling you about tips to write for mobile, those are the exact same tips we gave to people to tell them how to write for the web, and they are the exact same tips that we have been telling people for decades about how to write good, professional communication. See, your users have always been rushed and distracted and more focused on their own needs than what you want to say. And so the same principles about writing short sentences, putting the most important ideas up front, breaking up the text with headings and bullet points, all of those principles, they work just as well on mobile as they do on every other platform. And if you have content that is good, that’s valuable, that’s well-written, you don’t need to change it just because it’s going to be read on a different-sized screen.

American Cancer Society asked themselves these questions as they were thinking about what their mobile strategy should be. Should they edit their content down and deliver only a subset of what they offer? Should they shorten their articles to the fun-sized candy bar version? Should they focus on the needs of the on-the-go cancer patient? Nope. American Cancer Society, when they looked at the data, found the people who were more likely to be looking at their data on a mobile device, showed that those populations of mobile-only users matched up pretty neatly with the populations of people who were less-likely to get the preventive care and cancer screenings they needed to catch cancer in time. And so, they concluded that they had a life-saving imperative to get all of their content on mobile. All of it. And you know what? They did. This website is, I think, a beautiful example of how it is possible to take something that is a fairly complex website—it has multiple categories, it has multiple levels of hierarchy, the sections are fairly complex, this is serious content, it requires a certain level of engagement—and to make all of that available, on a mobile device, without removing or changing a single word. The mobile website is browsable, it is readable, it is navigable. I might even go so far as to say the mobile website is better. It provides a more focused reading experience to guide somebody who is wrestling with a cancer diagnosis for themselves or for a family member. It allows them to actually deeply and fully engage with that reading experience in a way that they can’t do on the desktop.

There’s no reason to take good content and edit it down to some shorter form just because you think that’s all a mobile user would read. Frankly, I think it would be disrespectful to these people to say “Oh, you don’t get the same information about cancer because you have a different device.” Instead, I think we should take a lesson from David Balcom, who is the director of digital for the American Cancer Society where he says, “It’s not that this was designed and written for mobile. It’s just good content.” So, if you have good content, you should feel confident that you can deliver it regardless of device or platform. Good content transcends platform.

And, if you don’t have good content, here’s your chance to clean it up. The opportunity for you, now, to say “let’s go in and edit our content; let’s clean it up; let’s make sure it’s adding value.” If mobile is the catalyst that will allow you to do this, and if it helps you in your negotiations with various stakeholders and various special interests to go up to them and wave a tiny little smartphone screen in their face and be like “Oh no, so tiny, can’t possibly fit all your crappy content on there. Must clean it up.” If that facilitates those conversations, then by all means, be my guest. Use mobile as the catalyst that will help you do that. But you’re not just cleaning up your content for mobile users, you’re cleaning it up to provide a better experience for everyone.

And so, what this implies, then, is that you do have to do something different with your content for mobile, okay? I don’t want to leave you with the impression that you can just take everything that you have and just kind of shove it on a smaller screen. No. It is likely that you will need to put more structure into that content, to make it appropriate for mobile devices. You will have to take your flabby, gloppy blobs of content in which you have one big blob of stuff that’s all mixed in with presentation formatting and whatnot, and provide additional structures that will be appropriate to appear on different devices.

I teach at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and they came to me to talk about mobile strategy. They said that one of the primary challenges that they were facing is that they had a desktop website, they had a mobile app, and they had just purchased these new digital signs that they were going to put up all over campus. They came to me and said “Karen, we need a way where we can manage and maintain all of our content in one place and publish that content to these three very different form factors.” And I was like, “Ummm. Have you thought about treating the digital signage like it’s just a completely different separate siloed workflow?” And they were like “Ain’t nobody got time for that! What are you talking about, Karen? That’s the whole reason we’re talking to you! We need one way that we can manage and maintain all of this content in one place and send it to our desktop website, our mobile app, and these new digital signs.” Three very different form factors. This is not some kind of crazy, futuristic dystopia that these people are living in. This is happening right now, today.

And so, the content that they are publishing to these digital signs, it is, in one sense, the same content that is going to the desktop. But, in another sense, it is not. It is differently-structured content that needs, they need to have different structures, different sizes of the content, different ways of guiding people to use it, because the digital signage form factor is completely different from the desktop form factor.

And what this means, when you start looking at it, is you realize, Okay, I’m looking at my desktop website and saying “How do I think about restructuring this content for other platforms, whether that platform is a mobile website, a mobile app, a digital sign, whatever, Google Glass, whatever the next big thing will be?” Some of the questions you’re going to have to ask are things like “Is this content any good? Do I want to keep it?” Should I, if I’m thinking like, okay, I have my desktop website and I have my digital signs, which content am I going to send where? The ethos is that you should send all of the same stuff between desktop and mobile, but there may be scenarios, I mean, I live in the real world, where I’ve got a client who says “No, I only want to send a subset of that content to my digital signage. How do I do that?”

So, if I have one long page on the desktop, am I going to want to break that down into smaller pages? So, if you’re thinking, like in this Amazon example here, okay, Amazon desktop page, super long, I don’t want to send that one page to a mobile device. I want to break that into four or five shorter pages. Okay, great, well that’s cool. I’ll just break it up at these headings, here. So, Product Features, From the Manufacturer, Product Description, great, those will all be separate, smaller subpages on mobile.

So, let’s say I’m coming here and I want to know how much this camera weighs, because I’m going to have to carry it around all day. I want to know how heavy is it? Which one of these sections am I going to find that information in? I don’t know! Product Features, From the Manufacturer, Product Description, none of those labels is sufficiently descriptive enough to answer that question for me. I have no idea what to tap on in order to find that answer.

Well, that’s cool because hey, there’s this whole big long navigation summary here. Surely that information will communicate to me which one of those sections I should tap on. When you look at those three lines of summary that’s under each one of those links, you discover something: there’s actually no new information communicated on that page at all. All they do is repeat, over and over and over again, the name of the product and how many megapixels it has. The only unique content on that page is “Make memories and share joy.” Is it going to work, then, to have this desktop content? Am I going to be able to provide fallbacks for some of this stuff, like, what happens if my desktop content simply won’t work on my digital signage or in my mobile app. Now, what am I going to do?

So, I gave this talk awhile back at a company, and I kind of walked through all of these challenges that they would be facing as they tried to restructure their content for mobile, and a woman in the audience raised her hand and she said “Well, we’re going to use responsive web design.” And I’m like, “Responsive web design won’t fix your content problem.” Responsive design isn’t going to answer any of these questions that you have about how you want to structure your content differently so that it’s appropriate for the mobile device, the mobile app, the in-store kiosk, the digital signage, the Google Glass. It’s not going to answer any of these questions for you about what you need to do to create different structures and different sizes of content.

So, as Kristina mentioned, I led the redesign of the New York Times a few years back. One of the things you learn from working with publishers is that they cut a standard set of image sizes, so for every image that they are producing, their production team goes in and they cut the same exact image crops for every single one. You, as a designer, do not get to go in and be like “You know, on this page, I think what would really work well isa a 400×300 image and on this page, I’ve decided that a 200×300 image would fit just nicely.” They’re like “These are the sizes that we cut. We cut these sizes. You pick one of these sizes and you make it work.” I worked on the redesign of People Magazine’s mobile web and mobile apps this past year, and one of the things we learned from that process: People cuts nine different sizes of image crops. One of the things we learned is that People didn’t have a large enough size for mobile. We wanted one big image that would fill the entire screen of a Retina display iPhone, and the biggest image crop that they cut wasn’t big enough. And so we went to the production team, and we were like “Hey, could you cut us a bigger image size?” And they laughed and they laughed and they said no and we made do with the image sizes that we had.

So, if you can wrap your head around that. If you can wrap your head around the idea that, back in 2005, we came with a set of image sizes for the New York Times, and the New York Times is using those image sizes today as they make the leap to mobile. They’re using the exact same crop sizes. Did we design those crop sizes for mobile? No, not at all. In fact, those devices didn’t even exist yet. Would I possibly have cut different sizes if I knew then what I know now? Eh, sure, probably. But the fact that, by creating a flexible system of image sizes, they were able to make the leap to mobile without having to create a whole bunch of new content or new image sizes for mobile, if you can kind of wrap your head around the fact that that’s possible in that context, then you can wrap your head around the fact that that’s true for other things.

Like, say, headlines. One of the things that amuses me most about mobile is the number of publications that truncate their headlines. I mean, Daily Beast here, it’s like, you have to imagine the editorial discussions that they’re having. They’re like, “Well, we can’t possibly allocate enough room so that somebody can read the entire headline, because that might take away from our ability to have a giant glob of white space in the middle of the page, which is really important to us.”  NPR, NPR, my go-to example of how you do structured content right, even NPR truncates their headlines on their mobile app. The Guardian has an entire Tumblr that is dedicated to celebrating the work of the tireless men and women who shorten headlines so they’ll fit on your phone. This doesn’t make any sense, guys, okay? You look at this and it’s like, why would you ever, as a publication, truncate your headlines? Do you not understand what business you are in? You are in the business of having people read headlines, decide that they want to read the story, and then tapping on that link to go read it. That’s it. That’s your whole business model right there, and you’re kind of like, “Oh, right, we can’t possibly allocate enough space so that somebody can read the entire thing. That would be lunacy!” So that’s one solution. Just allocate enough room for it. You want to know what another solution is? Why don’t you cut another version of the headline? Why don’t you cut two different forms of that? Have a short form and a long form so that then you can send different versions to different platforms as needed.

Slate just announced that they have started cutting two separate versions of their headlines: one shorter form that was sixty, seventy characters, that they could use on mobile and use in things like Twitter. They said they got 100% increase in clickthrough on having those shorter forms in contexts when they were appropriate. Gawker also recently mandated that all of their headlines had to be fewer than 70 characters because they were running into this exact same problem. Now, I’m not that draconian. I say “Hey, why don’t you just cut two forms?” Have a short form that is appropriate for the context in which you need a space constraint, and then, on the desktop or in your email subject lines, you can have a longer form to take advantage of the capabilities of that medium. Think about your content like this is a system. A system of reusable pieces, is what’s going to help you survive the leap to other platforms. Same thing is true for things like summaries.

So, Blockbuster, here, you might not know what the goal of this page is for Blockbuster, but I will tell you. The goal of the page is that you will read the description of a movie and decide whether or not you want to rent it. Except, Blockbuster was like, “Oh, we can’t possibly allocate enough space for you to read the entire description of a movie at once, because look at all the other stuff we want you to do on this page. So, we’re going to give you three lines of text here on the desktop. We’ll give you two lines on mobile. And then, if you want to actually read the full description of the movie, you can click or tap to see more.” Except, sometimes, when you do that, you get like four more words. Blockbuster is bankrupt. They just announced that they’re closing all of their stores. You know why? Digital native business Netflix.

So, Netflix. Netflix is on literally every device known to mankind. Netflix is on something like 400 unique device types. You can watch Netflix on your phone, on your tablet, on your computer, on your TV, on your game box, you can watch it on your toaster. Netflix handled this problem in a different way. They write a short form of the description and they write a long form of the description, and they use those versions every single place they need to appear. They can go to their designers and say  “Hey, you pick whether you have enough room to use the short form or the long form or not, and you use that wherever you can, and you never truncate the description.” That’s how a digital business thinks about this. They say: How can we think about creating flexible sizes of this content that we can use in a bunch of different places?

And that, we’re going to need that, because the challenges of mobile mean, or the challenges of getting our content onto all these different devices mean, that we’re just going to need new structures, new sizes of things. I’m pretty sure that there’s somebody at Verizon who knows the difference between Backup Assistant, Backup Assistant Plus and Backup Assistant SM. I do not. So, if my job here, today, is that I want to back up my phone, I have to do this frustrating tap and back out and tap and back out. I’ve got to look at each page of content, read it, figure out if it’s what I want. If it’s not what I want, I’ve got to back up and start over. Jared Spool calls this “pogo-sticking” and he says it’s a sign that the website isn’t very well-designed, because users don’t have enough context to know what they’re going to get when they tap.

So, Comcast, faced with a similar problem, writes a short little navigation summary that explains to people what they’re going to get when they tap. So, if my job here, today, is that I want to change my PIN, could I figure out that that lives under Accounts and Identification? Yeah, sure, probably, but the fact that they wrote a little summary that has the magic keyword PIN in it makes me feel 100% confident that I know what I’m going to get when I tap.

Thing is, these little summaries, they don’t write themselves. You can’t just take the first hundred words of your body text and cram it in there and go “Well, that’ll explain to people what they’re going to get.” No. The first hundred words of your body text wasn’t designed to be used that way. Doesn’t have the right trigger words in it. You’re going to need to create additional structures of content, additional structures of text. But, I don’t want you to sit here, listening to me and think “Oh, Karen’s saying, now I’ve got to go out and write special headlines for mobile and iPhone and tablet and Twitter and I’ve got to have a whole bunch of different little navigation summaries that will live in my mobile app.” No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying don’t create content for a specific context. I’m not saying go out and make an iPhone headline and a Twitter headline and an iOS summary and an Android summary and an Xbox summary. That way lies madness. In the same way that a publisher might think about creating a flexible set of different sizes of images that they can use in a variety of contexts, and that those sizes would be basically okay, would work essentially all right, as they make the leap to other platforms, that, too, can work for text. You might do a survey of all the places that your content needs to appear, and try to develop a flexible set of reusable sizes that will give you the best chance of meeting the needs of what you need to do across the whole web.

Let me leave you with this. You don’t get to decide what device somebody uses to access the internet. They get to decide that. It’s our mission, it is our responsibility, to provide a great experience to them, whatever platform or device or screen size or input mechanism they choose to use to go online. And, for so many people today, mobile-only usage is real. These people, whether it’s because they have no other way to go online or whether it’s their preferred device to use, they are increasingly choosing their mobile device as the primary way that they go online. If you want to reach students, teens 12-17, if you want to reach black or Hispanic Americans, if you want to reach low-income Americans or Americans whose parents only have a high school education, those people are predominantly and increasingly relying on their mobile devices for access. You don’t get to tell those people “Oh, well, why don’t you go to our real website, the one we care about, the one we put all our work into?” You don’t get to decide that for them. They get to decide what device they use to go online.

And what this means, what’s so exciting about this, is that this disruption, this disruption is what’s going to make mobile great. These people, these people who are relying on their mobile devices for access, they are the ones that are going to usher in this great new wave of innovation on mobile. And we get to help them get there. See, if the history of disruptive technologies lets you know anything, it’s that eventually, mobile’s going to get good enough. It’s going to get so good that nobody’s ever going to ask the question “Why would somebody want to apply for college on their mobile phone?” It will be assumed that that is something you can do, because the mobile experience will be great.

And, the thing is, the mobile experience is going to be great in its own way. It’s not going to be competing with the desktop to say “Oh, well, the desktop does this better so it should work like the desktop.” No, it’s going to redefine what good experiences are. And they won’t be the same as the desktop. They’ll be better. And, we’re the ones who are going to help them get there.

So that, that’s what is so exciting about this, is that we have a chance, right now, to do mobile right. I believe that, for many of us, this will be the last great wave of technology innovation that we see in our careers. This is going to be a decade, two-decade long wave that sweeps away the way we’ve always done things, and allows us to usher in an entirely new way of doing things. We have a chance, right now, to clean up our crappy, outdated, useless content. We have a chance, right now, to fix our workflow, to fix our publishing processes, to more clearly define roles and responsibilities within our organization. We have a chance, right now, to fix our underlying technology, to stop band-aiding along with tools that just don’t work the way they are supposed to. We have a chance, right now, to do mobile right. Do it right, right from the start, and that, that, I think, is the opportunity. I know this is hard. I mean, I know you can just look at mobile and see it as this terrible, frightening thing. Or, you can see it as a huge opportunity, a big chance, to really do things right. And I hope you all take it. Thank you.


I’m not ashamed of my fetish for mainframes and you shouldn’t be either. Brochures from @computerhistory: Selling the Computer Revolution

We love it when we can find examples of prominent people who failed to see the obvious in their lines of endeavor. Ken Olsen

More on the rise and fall of DEC and more gorgeous photos of vintage computers. DEC Timeline

Christensen calls low-end products “disruptive technologies” because they disrupt progress toward better performance. The New Yorker: When Giants Fail

A new set of consumers gets access to a product or service previously only accessible to those with money or skill.
Disruptive Innovation

Transistor radios disrupted the market for furniture radios even though the sound quality was much worse. Jealous of her transistor radio

Kodak fell victim to disruptive technology. It was not just film but the camera itself was swept away. Kodak fell victim to disruptive innovation

In 2007 Christensen said the probability of success for the iPhone was limited because it wasn’t truly disruptive. Clayton Christensen’s Innovation Brain

The digital divide is real: differences in access exist across demographic groups and income levels. Pew Internet Digital Differences

Chelsea Clinton tackles the digital divide. Most minority students do not have the internet at home. America’s Dangerous Tech Gap

Customers lost in disruption are unprofitable, so big companies are happy to lose them. The Truth About Disruption

iPhone is the most revolutionary thing to happen to the blind for the last ten years says @AustinSeraphin:  My First Week with iPhone

Think less about the digital divide, and more about digital fluency. Smartphones help bridge the gap. There is no Digital Divide

Mobile internet access in 2009: Pew Internet Online Access in a Multiplatform World
And mobile access in 2013: Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

34% of current mobile internet users mostly go online using their phone. That’s 21% of all mobile phone owners. 11% of mobile internet users say they use their phone and other devices equally. Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

63% of mobile phone owners say they use their phone to access the internet—74% of Black Americans, 68% of Hispanic Americans, and 85% of young adults aged 18-29 say they use the internet on a smartphone: Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

Black, Hispanic, low-income, and high-school-educated Americans are more likely to be mobile-only users. Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

50% of teen smartphone owners aged 12-17 and 50% of young adults aged 18-29 say they use the internet mostly on their mobile phone.
Pew Internet Teens and Tech 2013
Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

44 of the Fortune 100 don’t have a mobile website AT ALL. Only 6 comply with Google’s mobile SEO requirements. Search Engine Land

Google reports that only 21% of large advertisers have a mobile-optimized website. The Time for Mobile is Now

Only 16% of brands have a mobile strategy, so it’s no surprise that only 14% are happy with the results. Brands Struggle in Mobile

80% of B2B media companies take an ad hoc approach to mobile, only 33% have a mobile-optimized site. Biz Sector Cautious About Mobile

People without internet access are finding the basic tools for escaping poverty increasingly out of reach. Urban Poor Fear Being Left Behind

People start a task on one device and complete it on another. Declare the end of the separate mobile website. Windows on the Web

The challenge for most organizations in the long run will be maintaining variations of duplicate content. A Separate Mobile Website? No Forking Way

Celebrating the tireless men and women who shorten headlines so they’ll fit on your phone. Guardian Truncation Team

Take a long hard look at itty bitty microcontent with @eaton: Planning Reusable Microcopy

Content Strategy, Mobile

State of the mobile web — sources

These are my favorite data points about how we’re using the mobile web today. I get asked for these sources a lot, so I’ve aggregated them all here.

91% of American adults own a mobile phone.

56% of American adults are now smartphone owners—79% of Americans 18-24, 81% aged 25-34, and 69% aged 35-44 own a smartphone.

63% of mobile phone owners say they use their phone to access the internet—74% of Black Americans, 68% of Hispanic Americans, and 85% of young adults aged 18-29 say they use the internet on a smartphone:

34% of current mobile internet users mostly go online using their phone. That’s 21% of all mobile phone owners. 11% of mobile internet users say they use their phone and other devices equally.

Blacks, Hispanics, low-income Americans, less-educated Americans, and young adults are more likely to be mobile-only users.

50% of teen smartphone owners aged 12-17 and 50% of young adults aged 18-29 say they use the internet mostly on their mobile phone.

Amazon, Wikipedia, and Facebook all see about 20% of their traffic from mobile-only users, according to comScore.

46% of shoppers reported they exclusively use their mobile device to conduct pre-purchase research for local products and services.

77% of mobile searches take place at home or work, only 17% on-the-go, according to Google.

90% of people start a task on one device, then complete it on another, according to Google. It’s especially high in  categories like retail (67%), financial services (46%), and travel (43%).

86% of mobile internet users (and 92% of mobile internet users aged 13-24) say they use their mobile devices while watching television.

44 of the Fortune 100 don’t have a mobile website AT ALL. Only 6 comply with Google’s mobile SEO requirements.

Google reports that only 21% of large advertisers have a mobile-optimized website.

Only 16% of consumer brands have a mobile strategy, so it’s no surprise that only 14% are happy with the results.

80% of B2B media companies take an ad hoc approach to mobile, only 33% have a mobile-optimized site.

McKinsey estimates that 2 to 3 billion people will come online globally through the mobile internet over the next decade, generating annual economic impact of $3.7 trillion to $10.8 trillion globally by 2025.

More from me

Don’t just take my word for it, take my word for it in these publications:

Don’t Let Paper Paradigms Drive Your Digital Strategy, Harvard Business Review

The rise of the mobile only user, Harvard Business Review

The alternative is nothing, A List Apart

Windows on the web, A List Apart

Your content, now mobile, A List Apart

Uncle Sam wants you (to optimize your content for mobile), A List Apart

Buy my book! Content Strategy for Mobile

Content Strategy, Drupal, Mobile, Presentations

Drupalcon Keynote

I gave a keynote at Drupalcon Portland, and here is the video, my slides, and my speaking notes, which I formatted using the convenient WYSIWYG toolbar at the top of my editing blob. My talk starts around minute 24 of the video.

I owe a lot of my success to Drupal. Let me be clear, I’ve  never installed Drupal, I don’t know my Drupal username, if I find myself on the command line it means something has gone terribly wrong. I’m not a Drupal developer. But understanding Drupal—how it thinks about content, how users interact with it—has deeply informed and inspired a lot of my thinking around the future of content. I wouldn’t be where I am today without this community. I’m not just saying this to flatter you. I’m really humbled and grateful and super excited to talk with you about the future of content today.

It’s impossible to talk about the future of content without talking about where it all got started, which was print. Print was awesome. You put the words on the paper and they stayed there. You didn’t have to worry about it changing and keeping it updated all the time. We know how print works, the techniques and cues that we use to communicate meaning, and everyone understands them at a glance.

But then we had to go and invent the web. Which, I think we’ll all admit has been totally worth it, but man is it a pain in the ass. I’m a huge computer history buff, and the web just turned 20, and reading about what happened at CERN drives home the point that the very foundation of the web: hypertext markup language and the uniform resource locator, were created for the explicit purpose of allowing anyone, anywhere, to publish documents that can be instantly updated and accessible globally. And when you take a step back from the work we do everyday to appreciate  how transformational that is in the history of communication, 20 years just isn’t even close to enough time to adapt to that monumental change. We opened Pandora’s box.

The desktop web was just the start. For the last 20 years we’ve been able to imagine that a web page is just a glorified print document.

But now the explosion of people accessing the web through mobile devices has forced us to come to terms with the ways that the web is different. Our shared hallucination that we have control over layout and presentation, that most users on the desktop had essentially the same screen size, the same input devices—that’s gone.

Now we have to adapt our content for smartphones and tablets. We don’t have the luxury of making assumptions about the user’s device type, screen size, or input device anymore. And that, more than anything, gets to the real transformation that we’re making in content. And it’s not going to stop! I’m not a futurist, I’m not here to predict what will capture the public’s imagination next. But I do know, whatever platform comes next, we’re going to have to get our content onto it.

Maybe it’s smart TV. The thought of publishing your content to a TV screen really drives home the fallacy of assuming we know anything about the user’s screen size or input device. It also starts to suggest some of the limitations of trying to handle this on the front-end. Expecting the exact same content, the exact same page, to serve a smartphone and a smart TV screen might prove limiting. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I’m also saying this might be the point where we have to consider back-end alternatives.

I guarantee we’re going to have to think differently about content when we finally have speech-based interfaces, like in-car audio systems. It’s easy to mock audio interfaces, to laugh at Siri’s mistakes. You know what else didn’t work quite right for a long time? Touchscreens. Remember how crappy touchscreens used to be? You’d go to the ATM and you’d have to angle your finger just right to try and make it read the button press. And then one day, touchscreens worked. They worked perfectly. And it changed everything about our industry and the way we interact with these machines, in ways we haven’t even comprehended yet. I don’t know when it will happen: 5 years? 15 years? 50 years? But at some point we’re going to make audio interfaces work, and they’re going to transform human society.

And our content has to be ready to go there. Think about something as simple as the difference between the emphasis tag and the italics tag. Developers ask, what’s the point of trying to parse out when to use italics and when to use emphasis, when every major browser since the dawn of time has rendered emphasis as italics? Not in an audio interface, they don’t. One conveys styling, one conveys meaning. So, if we have that problem of separating what something looks like from what it means at the level of the most basic, fundamental tag, think about all the other issues we’re going to have getting content ready for audio interfaces—and how much better off we’ll be if we start making our content future-friendly now. It should also drive home the fact that the problem of future-friendly content and the problem of accessibility are the same problem, and doing the right thing now for accessibility will help make a better experience for everyone in the long run.

Maybe the future is Google Glass! I don’t think so, I think Google Glass will be the Segway of mobile. But it does speak to the problem of getting our content onto incredibly diverse form factors. Google released their UI specs for Google Glass specifying the HTML templates they want you to use—if you designed your content around your presentation, will it be appropriate for their presentation?

Maybe you’ve heard the next big thing is watches. This isn’t a real product, it’s an artist’s rendition, but both Apple and Samsung are rumored to be developing watches. Maybe you don’t want to read a long document on your watch screen, but maybe a combination of an accessible wrist touchscreen and a wireless audio interface would work really well, If you have content that’s structured to support both reading and listening. Watches are tiny, maybe they’re not the next big thing, maybe it’s…

Stadium scoreboards! Get your content where everyone can see it! I put this in here as a joke, just to contrast the size of the watch with the size of the scoreboard, and then I turned around and I had a client tell me that one of their biggest problems right now is…

Digital signage. A university I’m working with told me they’d just purchased a bunch of digital screens they want to put up all over campus, and they need a way to manage and publish content to them. I asked “Are you just going to treat them like a separate workflow and manage the publishing process manually?” And they said “No way! We don’t have time for that! We need a way to publish events listings and campus alerts automatically to the website , our mobile app, and the digital signage.” They need a way to manage content in one place and have it publish to three very different platforms automatically, and they need to do this right now, today. This isn’t some crazy futuristic dystopia, this is real.

Maybe you’ll want the same thing some day in your home. Seems like whenever we talk about the future, we talk about the internet refrigerator, as if not being able to check email or Twitter during the 30 seconds it takes to grab a Diet Coke is the biggest problem we face as a civilization. But what about if your entire cooktop was a giant iPad screen? Would your text, video, recipes be ready to go there? What about the problem that I do think is one of the biggest challenges facing us as a society, which is…

What happens when toaster printers become reality? Will your content be adaptable enough to appear on delicious toast? These are the problems we are here to solve together.

Today, our content already has to live on many different devices and form factors and screen sizes. Tomorrow, there will be even more new devices, some we haven’t even dreamed up yet.

This isn’t just a front-end problem. It’s a CMS problem. I want to be careful about how I say this, because people get religious, but responsive design is just one technique in our arsenal for how to survive this zombie apocalypse of new devices and form factors. The future of content means changing the way CMS works. We need both front-end and back-end solutions.

True separation of content from form

Because future-friendly content requires true separation of content from presentation. We have to support too many different outputs for content to assume that we can couple content with presentation. Do you have any idea what a huge shift this is in the way we think about content? For most of human history, it was impossible to produce a document without considering meaning and appearance together. All of our semantic cues as to priority, weight, relationships in content come through visual styling. But now we need new tools, new processes to achieve that.

It’s easy to think when I say “separate content from presentation” I mean “get your HTML out of my content,” like “get your chocolate out of my peanut butter.” That’s a part of it, but it’s really only the tip of the iceberg.

When Dan Jacobson, the API guy from Netflix and formerly NPR says “The future of content management systems is in their ability to capture the content in a clean, presentation-independent way,” it’s really tempting to reduce that to a problem with markup, to think that we can solve the problem just by getting rid of rich text editors.

Personally, I talk all the time about the limitations of what I call blobs, of giving content creators a big bucket into which they can dump whatever they want, style their content with tools that work “just like Microsoft Word,” add tables and custom bullets and make the text purple Comic Sans and float it to the right. Blobs are limiting, because all of this formatting, all of this meaning doesn’t translate when you try to take it to another platform.

I’ve gotten the reputation of being the president of the WYSIWYG Haters Club, which is true, and if you don’t buy into my rationale here today…

I’m going have to continue my graffiti crime spree. People assume I must be some kind of markdown evangelist. The problem isn’t the toolbar. Truth is, I don’t care if users make headings and bulleted lists with a toolbar or markdown codes. The problem with WYSIWYG is that we are allowing content creators to treat the web like it’s print.

Where do you think WYSIWYG came from?

It came from XEROX. Xerox PARC. Because they invented the laser printer. Think about that for a moment. Before the laser printer, Xerox machines could only make copies of an existing document. They invented a way that you could print out anything you wanted. But they needed a way for you to actually create that document. They didn’t invent the laser printer because they figured out WYSIWYG. They invented the graphical user interface and the concept of “what you see is what you get” because they invented the laser printer.

The laser printer was arguably the most important component of the desktop publishing revolution, and a lot of work went into ensuring that the bitmap rendering and printer drivers were in sync. The tools for content creation and the tools for content output were tightly coupled. You can directly peg the adoption of graphical interfaces and thus the personal computing revolution to the demand for laser printers.

Guess what. The web’s not a laser printer. The problem with WYSIWYG isn’t that we have a toolbar on the top of the screen. The problem is that we are using an antiquated metaphor from the desktop publishing era to communicate to content creators what it means to publish on the web. That model was okay — like training wheels — when all we had was the desktop. But now it’s the future.

Chunks of content get remixed on the fly. Different content chunks appear on different pages, on different platforms. Which chunks appear where is subject to a complex set of metadata-driven business rules. The job of the content creator in this environment is changing, needs to change. Our job is to build new tools, new interfaces, new metaphors that help them understand that. This is tough fight. It’s a battle. It’s a war.

It’s a war of blobs versus chunks: sloppy blobs of where there’s no distinction between content and form versus clean, flexible, presentation-independent chunks. But this war isn’t about markup. It’s about mental models. It’s a fight between the old, outdated processes and metaphors of content publishing derived from print versus the new approaches we have to start inventing now if we’re going to survive the future. This is why I’m so excited to talk to you all. You guys are Chunk Army. It is time to go to war against the blobs.

Here’s our battle plan, Team Chunk:

  • Content has to be structured. No more relying on a giant field that says “content goes here.” We have to work with content owners to model their content types and define the structures needed to deliver content, especially if it’s going to different platforms.
  • Find ways to communicate meaning that’s encoded in visual styles. Presentation and formatting has to be replaced with semantic metadata.
  • Authors need to be able to maintain all the content objects and metadata associated with a content type in one package, not attached to individual pages. Then, those objects must be able to be targeted by platform.
  • All of this means we have to create a different kind of author experience, a new user experience for content creators.

Structured content

You guys know how structured content works. I know Drupal isn’t a blob CMS. The challenge is breaking out of the page-based mindset to figure out the right level of granularity so different content structures can adapt to different platforms.

Here’s an example from Amazon. Now, Amazon already has a pretty well-structured content model for their products, that’s not their problem. The problem is figuring out whether the existing content structures will support new platforms, and what to do if they won’t work. Even just looking between the desktop and the smartphone form factor you see the questions that arise:

  • Not every object from the desktop should be used on every platform. How do we decide what to keep and what to exclude? If we exclude it on one platform, does that mean it should be excluded from others? If not, how do we target content by platform?
  • If you handle this transformation on the front-end, there must be a one-to-one mapping between a page on the desktop and a page on mobile. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. The page is a container, and how much you should put in that container might vary by platform. Amazon decided to break a long product page into a series of shorter pages on smartphones.
  • That means that text that was previously used as headings on the desktop are now used as navigation links. The headings Product Features, From The Manufacturer, and Product Description aren’t sufficiently differentiated. If I have a question about the product, I can’t tell from those three options which one to tap on to get the answer.
  • Same thing with the body text that gets truncated for the teaser. Each summary just repeats the product name and the zoom and megapixel features listed in the title over and over. They don’t convey any new information and they don’t tell me what I’m going to get when I tap. Pretty much every word on this screen is wasted.
  • Cross-platform images is a whole nightmare unto itself I’m not even going to talk about.
  • What happens with giant tables, giant infographics, Flash videos, content in hover states?

I gave a talk recently where I outlined these challenges and a woman raised her hand and said “We’re going to use responsive design.”

Responsive design is not gonna fix your content problem! Responsive design doesn’t answer these questions for you. Another way to put that is, whether your solution is client side, server side, or a combination, you still have to make the underlying choices about how content is structured.

Semantic metadata

The second problem we have to solve is figuring out how to replace presentation and styling information that describe what something should look like with semantic metadata that describes what something means. LIke everything else I’m telling you, this isn’t a technology problem, it’s a human problem. We’re going against centuries of history where people relied on visual cues to communicate meaning. We have to replace styling choices with something more adaptive so that the author’s intent can make the leap to different platforms.

Back in the 1980s TV Guide was the most popular magazine in America. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Americans don’t read. If TV Guide had thought of themselves as a just a magazine , they might have been okay with just publishing program descriptions on paper. In print, data like the program name, genre, length, network, even the actors was encoded solely through visual styling, making text bold or all caps. But if all that data were locked up in Quark files with only visual cues to tell you what it meant, it doesn’t have any value. TV Guide realized they weren’t in the magazine publishing business, they were in the content publishing business. So way back in the 1980s they built a green screen mainframe application to capture all of this content with appropriate semantic metadata, which means that their content has stood the test of time. If you see a program description on your cable box or your TIVO or your iPhone for a show that originally aired the 1980s, it’s the exact same content that was published in the magazine decades ago.

The Guardian faced a similar challenge when they launched these things called Topic Pages. All the content that matches a particular taxonomy term or proper noun, like Tony Blair, gets automatically aggregated. They’re great for SEO. When they first launched these pages, they had a prominent box for Top Story. Problem was, they realized they had no way of knowing whether one story was more important than another. When the content from the print edition hit the CMS, there was no priority metadata attached to it. For this output, they decided to handle it by asking their editors to do more work. The editorial team had to manually assign a priority rating to to each story, 1 to 5.

Thing is, they have a ton of information about editorial priority. It’s all conveyed through the layout of the print edition. You can discern editorial judgement at a glance by looking at this page, picking up on cues like the size and styling of the headlines, the number of columns and column inches dedicated to the story, the size of the image, the layout and placement on the page. When it came time for them to publish an iPad app, they did something different. They wrote an algorithm to read the layout of the print edition, derive editorial priority metadata, and then use that data to determine hierarchy and placement of stories in the iPad app.

I want to be clear— I do not think the future is artificial intelligence backed Dreamweaver, where content authors can apply whatever styling they want and then robots will figure out semantic metadata on the backend. Newspapers have a clearly defined visual language and hierarchy, so it’s possible to make inferences about meaning from styling; small business owners or government employees sometimes make random styling choices for their websites that can’t be accurately parsed. I tell this story to just to illustrate what it means to make the leap across platforms, and how we can’t rely on styling decisions made for one platform to communicate meaning on a different platform.

I love these two quotes: “Metadata is the new art direction” and “Metadata is a love note to the future.” The first reminds us that the approach we used in print, where an art director made layout choices for every page, has to be replaced by a new, dynamic approach that works for the web. The second tells us that the effort we put into adding metadata to our content today is what will give us a head start when we need to get it onto a new platform in the future.

Content packages

Third problem we need to figure out is how to support content authors who will need to create and manage content chunks that will be dynamically published to different platforms. Authors must stop thinking about making web pages and start thinking about managing content packages. They need interfaces that allow them to create and maintain the content elements associated with a particular content type in one place.

NPR “COPE: Create Once Publish Everywhere” gets talked about in regards to their API strategy, but I like to use it as an example of a content package.

Each “article” content type has all these different elements associated with it. It has a headline and body text, but it also has an audio file, it has two different sizes of teasers, it’s got multiple images.

The content producer gets a single interface to create and manage all those content objects in one place. Each individual platform can make its own choices about which content elements to display. Too often, we have content that is attached to particular pages, like a marketing headline and product tout that “lives” only on a landing page. Content can’t live on pages anymore. Instead, we need to manage content packages.

Author experience

This is the kind of author experience we need to create: one that encourages content creators to add the appropriate structure, use semantic metadata rather than visual styling, and manage packages of content elements that can be dynamically published to multiple different places.

I know what you’re thinking: content creators hate all this! They beg for a blob with a WYSIWYG on it, they want it to work just like Microsoft Word. You’re trying to do right by your users by giving them what they say they want. Thing is, UX doesn’t work that way.

All these people are driving buggies, and we’re building cars. When you ask them what they want, they say they want it to work they way they’re familiar with, they want faster horses. This is a quote popularly attributed to Henry Ford, he didn’t actually say it, and I don’t care. It gets quoted frequently because it captures the challenge  we face getting people to adapt to new technology. We have to give them what they need, not what they say they want. We have to give them new tools, a new mental model, of how publishing works on the web.

You know who else had to change their mental model based on how the web works? Graphic designers.  Classically trained print designers had to radically change their tools, their process, and most important, their underlying values system to adapt to the web. I have watched them succeed. They gave up pixel-perfect layouts in favor of embracing the fluid, flexible nature of the web. If graphic designers can do it, content creators can too. But we have to help them. We have to stop building them faster horses, and instead embrace the multi-device future.

And this brings me to the subject of: In-place editing. You guys didn’t think you were going to get through the entire talk without me mentioning this, right? I want to preface this by saying I’m not categorically opposed to this as an editing interface. There are specific albeit limited scenarios where this can benefit content creators. But it’s not a usability panacea.

The problem is, at the very moment when we need a new metaphor, a new mental model to convey to users that their content will appear in a variety of different contexts, you’re encouraging them — forcing them — to imagine that the “real” version of their content is the desktop website. I’m delighted that you’ve made the Drupal admin interface responsive, but allowing users to do in-place editing from a mobile phone is not the solution to this problem.

I can tell just by looking at it that in-place editing was an idea ginned up by someone in marketing as a way to make Drupal seem easy to use. Which isn’t the same as actually being easy to use. I’m sure it looks great in sales demos, but when your shiny new feature has its collision with the real world, you’re going to discover it doesn’t necessarily solve usability problems. In some cases it’s going to make them worse. It will make the author experience even more confusing, particularly for users who need to understand the underlying content structure and metadata.

The future of Drupal UX

So, if that’s not the solution, then what is? If there’s one thing I am thoroughly convinced of, from all the work I have done in this space, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to content management. There is no perfect author experience that will work for every content model, every company’s workflow. And that means that the future of Drupal UX…

Is you. You were hoping I was going to say robots, right? No, you are the ones making decisions about how your content creators interact with the admin interface you create. You are the ones making choices about the content model and metadata. And you are the ones who will invent the future.

This isn’t a problem that gets solved in Drupal Core. There’s a lot of great work being done to make the framework better, but the real magic is in the decisions that you make about how to customize the interface and workflow for content creators. Drupal gives you unparalleled flexibility. It’s your job to use your power wisely.

The theme of this conference is “building bridges, connecting communities” which is why you invite someone like me from an outside community like content strategy and user experience to give a keynote. There’s maybe some fear that I’m going to use my time like an hour-long informercial for my discipline, and lecture you about how you need to hire UX people.

I’m going to do just the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, many of you would benefit from partnering with UX and content strategy people, they’re great, but I’m here to help you help yourselves. I’m here because I want to show you the bridge TO my communities, if you want to take advantage of what we can offer you.

You are a content strategist. I guarantee you are doing content modeling, even if you don’t call it that. Maybe you should. Maybe you could charge more money for it. The content strategy community has lots of people from the content management space participating. They have all kinds of resources that can help you get better at structuring content and planning the content lifecycle. If you want advice on getting better at doing this work, they will welcome you.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book Content Everywhere and Ann Rockley’s book Managing Enterprise Content are two indispensable resources for people trying to solve the problems I’m talking about. If you wanted to buy my book Content Strategy for Mobile that would be very nice of you but I promised no informercial

You are an information architect. You are making decisions about categories, taxonomy, navigation, and labeling on your projects. There are lots of resources out there to help you do a better job at that.

Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville’s book Information Architecture is a classic in the field. Donna Maurer’s book on Card Sorting is a short, straightforward book that will teach you a simple research technique to figure out the right categories and labeling for your interfaces. You can do this. It is not time consuming or expensive, and it will make a better author experience.

The information architecture community wants to reach out to people like you. Lou Rosenfeld, the author of the seminal book on the subject and the publisher of most of the other books I’m sharing here — his stature in the IA community, he’s like our Dries — threw down a challenge to the IA community recently that we need to focus on the 95% of people who don’t call themselves information architects. That’s you.

You are a UX designer. You are, right now, designing the interfaces that people have to use to do their jobs. I don’t necessarily mean that you’re an amazing visual designer or interaction designer for the front-end. (Or maybe you are. I don’t know your life.) But I do know that the choices that you make in how the Drupal admin interface works means you design user experiences. You design the experience for the most important user, the content author.

You actually have two things that make you incredibly powerful as a UX designer. My user experience peers all wish they had what you have. First, you have access to real users. They’re your clients and co-workers! They’re the people you work with! That may not always be the case, but I would assume the average Drupal developer gets way more time with the  people who will be using the system you create than the average UX designer does. Which leads me to number two, Drupal is a powerful prototyping tool. I have seen it in action. You can create real, functional interfaces, possibly even working with real content, in less time than I can make a wireframe.

So start teaching yourself how to be a better UX designer. Learn the techniques that make interfaces easy to use. Learn how to prototype and test and iterate. The world needs you to have these skills. They’re not just for my community to have. I’m going to tell you a little secret. I’m convinced that some really innovative ideas for how to model and manage future-friendly content are going to come from the Drupal community. You have a fantastic platform to build on, you just need to frame the right problems.

Let me leave you with this.

The web isn’t print. We’ve got millennia of history creating print documents where there’s no distinction between content and form, and only about 20 years of web publishing experience. This is a Gutenberg level transition we’re going through here.

The tools, interfaces, and processes we use to create content must evolve. We can’t rely on print-based metaphors that tie our content to pages anymore, whether those are sheets in our laser printer or web pages on our desktop. Our content can and will live on lots of different platforms, and it’s our job to help content creators understand how that works.

This community is so well positioned to tackle this problem. You have a powerful, flexible framework. You have an innovative community of people. And you have access to real users so you can prototype and test new interfaces. You are designing the user experience for the content creators. Start thinking like a UX designer, start thinking like a content strategist, and invent the future.

Content Strategy, Mobile, Presentations

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

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

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

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

Talk Description

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Links

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

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

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

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