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


I Suck! And So Do You!

Programming note: This talk has been nominated as Best Conference Talk of 2013 in the .net Magazine Awards. If you like it, please vote for it here.

This was not a talk I ever expected to transcribe and post here.

Dare Conference in September 2013 was a wonderful, meaningful event. It benefited from its intimate space and warm, friendly community. In a space like that, this was a talk I really wanted to share. The videos from the event were posted and I encourage you to go watch them (and give a donation, if you are so inclined.)

Corey Caitlin came up to me at an event recently and said “I wanted to thank you because a talk of yours really changed my life.” And I thought, “Yeah, yeah, adaptive content, I should really just start a religion.” When she said “Dare Conference” it was like a record scratch. “You actually watched that?” This talk is pretty personal, and the idea that it might help other people genuinely means a lot to me. Her comment gave me the courage to send the video of my talk off for transcription.

Dare Conference is back for more, and I hope you will consider participating—I cannot recommend this event highly enough.

I don’t normally include the slides along with these transcripts, but there are a few places where my commentary really needs the associated visuals.

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Hi, I’m Karen McGrane. And I’m better than you.

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No, what are you laughing at me for? I’m the one standing on here on stage, right? Like, can’t you tell that makes me better than you? I mean, I wrote a hit play! I had a fantastically successful book come out this year.

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I have more Twitter followers than you do.

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My enviable Klout score entitles me to fantastic perks on things like McDonald’s and Lean Cuisine.

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TripIt tells me that I am number one, I am in first place for number of days spent on the road this year. I am beating you in a competition that you didn’t even know you were playing!

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I think that all of these external measures of what it makes for a life well lived, I mean I think that this kind of stuff really is a marker of how I am better than you.

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So where I come from, Minnesota, the author Garrison Keillor, he writes about the fictional town of Lake Woebegon. It’s a place where all the women are strong, all of the men are good looking and all of the children are above average. This term has actually been formed into a phrase called the Lake Woebegon Effect.

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What it means is that we have this deep-seated need to believe that we are better than other people. We have this deep-seated need to assume that we are above average, that we are more talented, more qualified. That in order to deal with our own insecurities, we have to put ourselves above other people.

And, you know, I have to confess to you guys, like, I don’t really think I’m better than you. In fact, the only thing I’m actually better at than you is telling myself that I suck.

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And at this I am fantastic, okay? I swear to god, this is like my finest skill in life, telling myself that I’m not good enough. And you might think, well, god, Karen, these skills that you have—having really deep-seated insecurities about whether or not you’re good enough, and then projecting that out onto other people by having to believe that you’re better than them and putting them down so that you feel better about yourself, like, what good are those skills going to do you in the modern world? And in fact, you might not think that this would qualify me for many jobs, but in fact, these skills are perfect if you want to get a job in consulting.

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I genuinely believe that the ability to be anxious about your skills and desperately maintain this facade of perfection, meanwhile secretly questioning the merits of your continued existence—I mean, that’s client services in a nut shell. And, you know, this guy? Hates himself.

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And so I think this is really sort of at the heart of the push-pull of client services where on the one hand we’re constantly having to go out into the world, particularly in the digital space and be like, “You’re wrong!” “You don’t know what you’re doing!” “Your ideas are bad” “You’re making mistakes.” “You shouldn’t do it this way!” and at the same time it’s like, “But, you like me, right?” “You think my ideas are good, you want to believe me and trust me?” You have to go out into the world and be like, “But I’m smarter than you! I’m better than you! I have better ideas, my ideas are right and you have to listen to me.” But also, “I’m still desperately seeking validation from these people whose opinions I don’t really respect.”

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I call this The Loop.

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So The Loop is where you only believe that you are worthy if you get it right. The Loop is where you only believe that your value to the world is that you have the right ideas. And the problem is that you can’t live with that insecurity in yourself. You can’t live by constantly judging yourself that way all the time. So you project it out on to other people. You’re kind of like, “oh god get this off of me, I can’t take this anymore!” I’m going to judge you and you’re not going to be good enough. I’m going to blame you and you’re doing it wrong. And so instead of judging yourself all the time you start judging other people. Instead of validating yourself you look for validation from other people.

The problem with The Loop is that it always comes back to haunt you. It always comes back around. The Loop is a no win situation.

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You will never be able to be right enough. You will never be able to get the validation from the external world that you need. And paradoxically, the only way out of The Loop is by going inside and instead realizing that the solution is by being kinder to yourself, is by having compassion for yourself in the same way that you would want to have compassion for other people.

This is a really famous quote, I think that a lot of people who are active in social media have seen this. “The reason that we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everybody else’s highlights reel.”

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And, you know, Facebook, Instagram, all of these social channels, it’s like we finally now have a broadcast medium for The Loop.

And I think if you were to look at my life over the last year, if you saw only my highlights reel, you would say, you’d be like, Wow. You know, I published an awesome book, it was very well received, people seemed to like it. My career has totally taken off as a result. I’m doing better work and more interesting work than before. I’ve travelled all over the world, I’ve gotten to meet amazing and interesting people and from the outside, my last year, it looked fantastic.

On the inside, though, I had some spectacular project failures. I had one two-week period where literally $500,000 of sure-thing business all evaporated like that. You know, these were projects that weren’t competitive, I had clients calling me up and saying yes, we love you, we want to work with you, money that I had counted on and it was just gone. And there was nothing I could do about it. I turned around and had to talk to the team of people that I had been working with literally for years and say, “Hey. I can’t do this anymore.” Like, I don’t have the work coming in to keep you busy. I actually don’t really even want to go on doing this. It’s like, I want to do something different with my life right now, and I ended my relationships with my team. Very amicably, but it was a hard loss for me to have to say I’m not going to be able to keep these people employed anymore. And in the middle of all of this I went through the kind of relationship disaster that I think would bring pretty much anybody to their knees.

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It’s the kind of thing that looks funny when you describe it like this, but it wasn’t funny.

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There’s no good way for someone to cheat on their girlfriend with her best friend. But having lived through it I can tell you that there are things that could be done to steer the ship toward more awful or less awful and in this situation it seemed like phasers were clearly set on more awful. And it was one of the most profoundly dehumanizing experiences of my life, to realize that the two people who I loved and trusted and spent the most time with literally didn’t care enough about me, or have enough respect for me at all, to have empathy for what I might be going through, or even to tell me the truth. And so as noted vulnerability and shame researcher Brené Brown might say,

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Brené Brown: “This led to a little breakdown. Which actually looked more like this. Um, and it did. It led to, I call it a breakdown, my therapist calls it a spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening sounds better than a breakdown, but I assure you it was a breakdown.”

I had a little breakdown. I’m not even going to give you the courtesy of trying to put it into a small font. This was an all caps, full-fledged breakdown.

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Brené, as I’m sure you know, she describes her breakdown in this talk as something that emerged from her insights about the intellectual crisis of her research, and what it actually meant to have a life well-lived. I had a completely humiliating breakdown perpetuated by one of like, the oldest stories in the book, the Love Triangle. And, you know, literally, I didn’t do anything for months. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. People had to come over to my house in order to make sure that I was eating. I think that you guys are really going to enjoy my next book called, Heartbreak and Betrayal: The Secrets to Weight Loss. And, you know, standing up here on stage like this, there is no more true statement than the one that is going to come out of my mouth right now. Which is, I really question whether I should talk to you about this. Or, as Brené would say:

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Brené Brown: “I had a slide that said breakdown. At what point did I think that was a good idea?”

See, this is too personal, right? This is like, too shameful. It’s too humiliating to talk about. I mean, even at an event where people really want you to tell your story, for me to stand up here and acknowledge, yeah, this particularly painful and humiliating thing happened to me. I even sat there looking at my slides last night going “Well, you know, there’s still time to snip this whole center bit out.” Like, I don’t really need to talk about this.

But the thing is for me to stand up here and acknowledge that this happened and how badly it affected me. For me to pretend that this didn’t happen, for me to pretend that everything that I’m talking about in this talk didn’t come as a direct result of having a breakdown, in a sense that’s just getting sucked back into The Loop. It’s just again, me trying to pretend that everything is okay, I have a great facade that makes everything look good and all of these insights that I have are things that I just kind of figured out without having to go through the fire.

And, you know, what it really came down to is that if I didn’t stand up here and admit to this, then you’re going to know that I’m human. I mean, how am I going to keep pretending that I’m better than you if you know that I’m like, an actual human being?

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And so I’m actually really proud of everything that has happened to me over the last year, pretty much as a result of this and, you know it’s like, it’s one of these things where I took a look at the situation and I said I have a choice here. This is the kind of thing that could make my life worse or it’s the kind of thing that could make my life better. And I picked better.

And so really everything that I’m here talking about today comes as a direct result of things that I have learned as a result of kind of going through this. I talked a little bit about this last year in a piece that I wrote for A List Apart and the good people there were kind enough to let me publish it.

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I talked a little bit about how a personal crisis had really affected my work and how I got pushed to a place where I simply couldn’t judge myself. I simply I had to just stand up and do because I didn’t have the energy to obsess over whether I was good enough. It was essentially like The Loop collapsed around me.

As a result of publishing this, one of the nicest things that has happened to me is how many people then felt like it was okay to reach out to me and talk about their own struggles. Their own crisis. Their own vulnerability. And it all of a sudden, it was like I walked through a door where by being willing to admit to my own struggles and my own vulnerability, somehow I left the Muggles who were trying to pretend that everything was great behind, and I moved into a world where all of a sudden it was okay to talk to me. And so people felt more comfortable sharing what they were going through, thanking me for having the courage to speak up for it.

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And what really kind of broke my heart was how many people said that they were struggling. And they were afraid to talk about it. They didn’t feel like they could share it. They felt like people would, if people knew that they were going through something like a divorce or an illness that was affecting their work, that they didn’t feel like that was something that they could talk about. And you know what I realized, what comes through so clearly when you start thinking about this, is that everybody’s got something. I mean everyone. We are all just doing the best we can. We are all just kind of trying to hide the fact that we’re struggling.

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We’re all kind of trying to put out this great-looking highlights reel, but on the inside we all know that we’re not perfect. We have messy lives in which we’re really struggling to keep it together and that, that is what brings us together. Like, it is that experience of acknowledging when things aren’t right, when we feel weak, that’s what makes us human. I mean that’s what you would say to somebody, right? Like if they were, if they’d made a mistake, if something had gone wrong. You know, you’d give them a hug and you’d say, well, that’s only human.

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And so that, that willingness to be vulnerable, that willingness to be imperfect, if that is the very thing that actually makes us a part of the broader community, then that’s the compassion that we have to give to ourselves. It is that compassion that you would be willing to extend to a friend or someone in need, that in fact is the exact thing that you have to be willing to give to yourself.

You know, I feel like I so desperately want there to be some kind of manual for what it means to be a human being.

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You know, some instructions for, it’s like, well if you just do these things, then you’ll get it right. I can just remember even as a child wanting to look at lists of dos and don’ts to say: Okay well, do it this way and don’t do it that way. And there is just a never-ending source of life hacks, of instructions about how you’re supposed to wash your bowl out and you know, write 750 words before breakfast. Don’t use your iPhone as an alarm clock and get to inbox zero and you should get more sleep and you should really call your mother.

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And for all of these instructions about what it takes to do it right, then there’s somebody right there to jump on you, they’re like, no, sorry, you’re doing it wrong.

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You’re doing it wrong. Could you think of a better meme for our time than someone pointing and laughing at you and being like, “Nah, you’re doing it wrong.” And then on top of that, you know, and for all of our efforts to do it right, for all of the laughing and pointing that we get from people when we’re doing it wrong, then there’s always someone there to say, you know what you’re actually really sucking at is taking feedback. You know, you should actually get really a lot better at taking negative feedback because you know, negative feedback is super important and you know, why aren’t you good at that?

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And after all of this we tell ourselves, why are you being so hard on yourself?

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Let me give you an example here of my process for how I write a talk. So when I sit down to write a talk, my expectations are usually, you know they usually start ratcheting up, to where I’m like okay, so, I’m going to get a standing ovation, and then they’re going to turn it into a TED Talk, and a child is going to be conceived during my talk and then they’re going to name it after me.

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And so, you know I just start getting wound up. But at the same time, all of my anxiety is also getting ratcheted up, where I’m like, okay, but nobody’s going to laugh at the right places, and then they’re going to laugh at the wrong places, and then no one’s going to cry, and then it’s going to become painfully obvious that I’m just no Barry White.

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And so, as my expectations and my anxiety like sort of ratchet up in sequence I reach this magical point that I call: The Fuck-It Point.

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It happens every time I write a talk. I’ve even wanted to explain this in the past where it’s like, okay, what happens at the fuck it point? And it’s literally the point where I put my expectations aside, I ratchet my anxiety back down, and I say, “You know what? This can just be okay.”

I think my career as a motivational speaker is getting off to an excellent start here with my talk called I Suck and So Do You and the theme of Aim for Okay-ness. The thing is, I realized that when I hit the fuck-it point I am not actually aiming for okay-ness. When I hit the fuck-it point, the thing is that I get to the point where I stop focusing on all of this external validation, all of the signs that somebody else is going to give me that the talk is good enough, and I allow myself simply to focus on doing what I do best. Which is writing a good talk. I allow myself to get to the point where it’s like, this just has to be good by my standards. It doesn’t matter if I get a standing ovation at the end of it as long as I let myself think it’s good. You have permission to think that you’re good enough.

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And I think that is the thing that none of us are very good at giving to ourselves. We are never good at allowing ourselves to say, You know what? You’re okay. You’re doing a good enough job. It’s okay if you’re not constantly striving. It’s okay if you’re not constantly telling yourself you’re not good enough. It’s okay if you just let yourself say, “You know what, I actually think I might be pretty good!” You have permission to be kind to yourself.

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You have permission to look around and say—the kindness, the friendliness, the compassion, the warmth that I would extend to a friend or a colleague who is struggling, the desire that I would have to try to comfort them or put my arms around them and give them what they need? You can extend that to yourself. And in fact, that right there? That is the only thing that will actually allow you to move past your feelings of judgment and defensiveness and fear and actually get to a place where you can extend that true compassion to other people.

Recently I was in Malmö Sweden and I was going to meet a colleague there, he came over from Copenhagen and he said let’s meet at the train station. So he sent me a text and he’s like, I’ll meet you at the main entrance of the train station.

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And I was like, “Great, okay!” Except then I got into the train station and I realized that virtually every door looked the exact same. And so I’m like wandering around the train station, ratcheting up my feelings of anxiety and, and my feeling is basically like “Oh my god, I suck, I’m terrible, like I don’t know where I’m supposed to meet him and I’m going to be late and he’s going to be annoyed with me and he’s going to be angry with me that I wasted his valuable time, he came all the way over here to see me.” And this is The Loop, right? So it’s like I can’t keep this on myself. So as I’m racing through the train station trying to find the right door I find myself rehearsing this little speech that I’m going to give him. Like, “Well, I didn’t know which door was the main entrance and you should have been more clear about where that was and I’m really sorry but you can’t possibly blame me for this because, you know, really, it was kind of your fault.” And then I just stopped myself and I’m like, “Why would I do that? Why?

This is kind of a tour of what it’s like inside my brain. Why, why would I do that to him? Why would I do that to myself? He’s not mad at me. He’s not sitting there tapping his foot anxiously wondering why it’s taking me two or three minutes longer to find him in the train station. Why would I set our relationship off on such a negative note by blaming him for something that he’s not even doing?

And so it’s like you start to peel that loop back, and realize that the solution here isn’t for me to keep judging myself either. The root of that problem is that I’m beating myself up about: “Oh, I should have done a better job of figuring out where the main entrance was, or I should have asked him to be more clear, or I should have been more clear about where I wanted to meet him.” No! The solution there is that I just start being kinder to myself. I say: “You’re in a foreign city, you don’t know where you’re going, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay.” It’s okay to just acknowledge that maybe you were lost or confused, but you can be nice to yourself about it.

And so, you see this sense that we bring to all of our human relationships—and I guarantee that we bring it to our work—which is that we are defensive, we are fearful, we don’t trust ourselves, we want to be right, but we’re afraid maybe we’re not. We are anxious about our recommendations and you know, you just see people, and they’re getting tense, and so they start projecting.

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And they start putting that onto other people. They start blaming other people. They start assuming that other people have negative intentions or belief systems that they simply don’t have. And that defensiveness is what actually prevents people from being able to have the compassion that they need to do great work. You can’t feel compassion if you feel defensive.

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If your barriers are up, you know? If your hackles are up, if you’re protecting yourself against a slew of imagined insults and a fear-based system of belief, you’re never going to be able to feel the kind of compassion that you need to feel in order to actually see the kind of change that you want to see in the world.

Back when I first started at Razorfish, and they had this tag line which said Everything that can be digital will be which I thought was a beautiful expression of the kind of work that we do and why it’s so important. That yes, right, everything in the world that can be digital eventually will be, and we’re the people who are going to help us get there. So I found that very inspiring.

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And this tag line was in support of a positioning that they called Digital Change Management which I thought was a load of crap. It seemed fake and management consulting-y. It’s like, Digital Change Management, what is that? That’s not a thing. We don’t “manage digital change,” we make websites. We make websites. That is our job. We make websites, somebody calls us up, they say we need a website, we build them a website. We try to build them the best website that we possibly can. That is what we do is make websites.

So over the years, as I’ve been doing this, I have come to realize that everything we do is change management.

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Everything we do is not about making a website or making a mobile app, or figuring out the content management system, or, you know, any of the other specific, tangible project-based things that we do. I mean those things are important, don’t get me wrong, but the real work that all of us are doing, the hard, difficult work is in helping organizations adapt to digital change. It’s helping these companies figure out how they are going to make decisions differently, how their products are going to change, how their relationships with their customers are going to change, and really how their jobs are going to change.

I love this quote from Douglas Coupland. He says, “21st Century life is karaoke. A never-ending attempt to maintain dignity while a jumble of data uncontrollably blips across the screen.”

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The people that we work with are trying to maintain their dignity. The people that we work with, our clients, our stakeholders, our co-workers. They are sick of the internet. They are sick of the pace of digital change. They are sick of having to make decisions about things that they don’t fully understand. They are sick of having to constantly jump at the next new thing and they are sick of the fact that every time that someone comes in to tell them here’s what’s going on, it’s like: Why haven’t you built a mobile website yet? How come you don’t understand how important this CMS is? Why don’t you get responsive design? We’re judging them because we’re defensive and we’re making them feel stupid rather than helping them actually understand what digital change means.

Change management means having compassion for the people that we work with.

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And again, we’re never going to be able to feel that kind of compassion for them, we’re never going to be able see the pace of digital change from their perspective, and we’re never going to be able to sort of guide them through the process of this long-term generational shift, we’re never going to be able to help them make those decisions, if we don’t feel genuine compassion for what they’re going through.

And instead so much of our energy as a discipline is caught up in being defensive. It is caught up in being fearful that we don’t feel valid. That we don’t feel like the work that we do is necessarily worthy. That even amongst our own community, we have people saying, UX is bullshit. It’s not a real job title.

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And why do we really need front-end developers? We’ll just have web designers do it.

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And content strategy? Does that even really exist? I don’t think it does.

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And our fear about our own ability to validate our own work comes across then in our defensiveness when we talk to our clients or when we talk to our stakeholders. And we are so caught up in being anxious about whether our own work actually has meaning that we’re forgetting about the fact that our job is to get past our own defensiveness, give ourselves the validation that we need so that we can help guide them through the transitions that they’re going through.

When you look at the kind of skills that people have, I think it’s helpful to divide them into Technical Skills, which are: Are you a good designer? Are you a good developer? Are you a good researcher? External Skills which are: Skills in managing, persuading, coaching, guiding other people. And then Internal Skills which are: Skills essentially in being kind to yourself and helping to validate your own work. Helping to calm yourself down, helping to make you feel good in situations where you might be nervous.

So people who work in the kind of space that we work in, in the design, development, digital space, tend to be very good on the technical skills. They tend to rate themselves very high. It’s like if you’re a developer, yeah, I’m an awesome developer, I’m great at being a developer. And they rank themselves lower on external and internal skills. So you think to yourself: I might, I kind of have some people skills but man, I suck at telling myself I’m doing a good job. I’m terrible at being kind to myself.

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And so when faced with a crisis, when faced with a problem, what people do when they don’t know what to do is they go to what they’re good at. So they say, great, I’m an awesome designer and so when I feel afraid, when my ideas aren’t getting traction, when I don’t think that I’m getting the trust or the respect that I need, I’m going to go my technical skills. I’m going to hit those technical skills as hard as possible. I’m going to be right. I’m going to be more right than you. I’m going to explain to you again how my ideas are right and your ideas are wrong and I’m going to be more right than you and my god, you’re going to listen to me because I know what I’m talking about because I am an expert in this technical space. But the problem is, maxing out on your technical skills there isn’t going to solve the problem. Those are exactly the situations where instead of beating your strong suit, you need to build up your weak suit.

People in these kind of areas they would do much better to do exactly what you guys are doing here, which is focus on building their external skills, managing and persuading and coaching other people. And even more so, working on building their internal skills. Working on building the ability to tell themselves, Hey, you know what? If my ideas aren’t getting traction here, I’m still worthwhile. My ideas are still right. I don’t have to beat somebody over the head with it. Instead I’m going to tell myself that. I’m going to tell myself that I’m right, and then I’m going to figure out how do I coach other people to figure it out.

People who are leaders, people who are executives, people who are sales people, people who are managers tend to rate themselves much more highly on external and internal skills and they tend to rate themselves much lower on technical skills.

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And it makes sense, right? I mean, you would think: What’s going to make me a great CEO? Is it being the best designer in the world? Is it being the best developer in the world? What’s going to make me the fantastic salesperson? Is maxing out my technical capabilities? No. In fact these people, they know they’re not the best at what they do. They know they’re not the best writer in the world, but it’s okay, because they’ve chosen to invest more in other dimensions. They’ve chosen to say: Hey, if I spend more time building my external skills and if I spend more time building my internal skills, I’m going to have a greater effect on the world.

And so, so often these kind of things, they get derided as being “soft skills.” I think particularly to somebody who’s focused on their technical capabilities, it’s easy to sort of, pooh-pooh that stuff and be like: Ah, that’s just that hand-wavy, fluffy, namby-pamby soft skills kind of thing. They’re not. They are in fact the most important skills that people can build.

And so, when looking at the kind of things that you all are here to learn how to do and to give yourselves, I want to caution against saying the point of this, the point of standing up here, sharing our stories, writing the confessional blog posts, talking about the fact that: yes we all feel vulnerable, yes we all feel shame. The point isn’t for us to take our shame and run around with it like a cape and show everybody, like, “Look! Shame! We all have it!” The point of it isn’t to look around and try to find that kind of external validation from the people here.

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All that is, is The Loop, okay? All that is is getting back into a sense that: I am looking for other people to validate me. I want my shame validated and I want everybody to clap me on the back saying: Oh it’s great that you feel vulnerable. The point of this isn’t to get external validation for that. The point of this, the point of being here, of talking to other people, of sharing these kind of stories and hearing other people share these stories is for you to recognize that you’re not alone. It’s for you to build your skills in giving yourself that kind of internal validation.

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It’s for you to recognize that it is okay for you to give yourself the same love and compassion that you would want extended to anybody here, and to recognize that it is only through giving yourself that kind of support and that caring that you will be able to give it to the people who need it the most, who are your friends, your colleagues, your co-workers, your loved ones, anybody who is struggling with the change of human life.

Let me leave you with this, it’s a quote from Marianne Williamson, she says,

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Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about you shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine like children do. We were born to make manifest the glory that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

So I hope that you, here, over the next couple of days will understand that it is your right and your responsibility to shine. You guys are awesome. Thank you.

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IA Summit Closing Plenary

I’m about as proud of this talk as I am of anything I’ve done in recent memory. I hope you’ll read and/or listen to it.


The full transcript and audio track, thanks to UIE, is available on the IA Summit website.

Transcript for IA Summit Closing Plenary


The slides (and the audio as well) are on Slideshare.


References I tweeted out during the talk.

The Sunday comic “Closer Than We Think” ran from 1958-63, via @paleofuture:

A disturbing trend in UX books, from @a2slbailey: no mention of information architecture.

Two photos of St. Peter’s Square: one taken two years before the iPhone was released, and one today.

Where no UX professional has gone before: Developer experience and the UX of APIs.

Application programming Interfaces (APIs) are the life blood of the modern web.

Why I don’t wireframe much, from @Cennydd:

How do you communicate a complex content model? You use wireframes. (And a spreadsheet.)!searchin/contentstrategy/wireframe/contentstrategy/la9UTEW84AE/Tc824ZEKvEIJ

You care about structured content for multi-channel publishing, buy Content Everywhere by @sara_ann_marie.

Content strategists AND designers are our friends, but Edward Tufte is right about IA:

Apparently user-centered design isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

If you’re considering graduate school, check out the MFA in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts:

We need to change business, not become it, said @Cennydd at IA Summit 2011.

Maxing out on technical skills doesn’t get you as far as developing soft skills.

Competent jerks, lovable fools, and the formation of social networks, from Harvard Business Review:

It’s the reward system, stupid. On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B:

Cognitive empathy means you can see someone’s perspective. Compassion means you’re moved to help.

We’ve a long way to go in developing empathy towards our clients, says @Mike_FTW in a video you must watch:

Here’s how we work. Somebody calls up with a project; we do some stuff; and the money follows.

We killed our supply chain for new digital talent.

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.

Content Strategy, Mobile, Presentations

Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about how we need to adapt our content processes and workflow for multi-channel publishing, especially for mobile. This presentation, Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content is one of my favorite talks I’ve ever given.

If you haven’t been able to see it in person, thanks to the good people at Breaking Development, you can watch a video and see the slides from the talk I gave in Orlando this April. Because I’m a big fan of accessible content, I’ve had the talk transcribed, so you can read the text if you prefer. You can even download the slides from Slideshare.

If you liked this talk, then you’ll love my new talk, Uncle Sam Wants You (to Optimize your Content for Mobile) and half-day workshop on Content Strategy for Mobile. I’m giving them at the upcoming BDConf in Dallas, September 24–26. I know you want to attend, so get more information and register! Do it!

If you really liked this talk, then you are going to go apeshit for my book, Content Strategy for Mobile, coming very soon from A Book Apart.

Talk description

For years, we’ve been telling designers: the web is not print. You can’t have pixel-perfect layouts. You can’t determine how your site will look in every browser, on every platform, on every device. We taught designers to cede control, think in systems, embrace web standards. So why are we still letting content authors plan for where their content will “live” on a web page? Why do we give in when they demand a WYSIWYG text editor that works “just like Microsoft Word”? Worst of all, why do we waste time and money creating and recreating content instead of planning for content reuse? What worked for the desktop web simply won’t work for mobile. As our design and development processes evolve, our content workflow has to keep up. Karen will talk about how we have to adapt to creating more flexible content.


So I do a lot of work with publishers, mainstream publishers. I led the redesign of the New York Times a few years back. I’ve dragged more magazines kicking and screaming onto the Internet that I can count. I’ve done lots of work with Condé Nast. I did the redesigns of the Atlantic and Time Out and National Journal and Fast Company. I’m doing a little bit of work right now with Time-Life. And I really like talking about the challenges that publishers face in relation to broader content strategy challenges that lots of other organizations are going to face. Because I think publishers, they’re like the canary in the coal mine: they face some of these content challenges more acutely, they have to adapt to changes in their environment more quickly.

And so today the poison gas that’s causing birds to fall out of the sky in the publishing houses is mobile, and more specifically this crazy multi-device future that we live in, where they’re trying to figure out how do they get all their stuff out onto all of these different new platforms and screen sizes and devices and different resolutions.

And so it’s intriguing to me that a lot of times when we come to events like this and we talk about the challenges in mobile, we talk about them like they’re design and development problems. We talk about the design challenges and how do we fit things onto a smaller screen size, or how do we deal with touch targets or new gestural interfaces. Or we talk about the development challenges, how are we going to maintain all these different code bases, or how are we going to develop for all these new platforms.

So my role here is to talk about the challenges that we face through the lens of content, because I really think that’s the core of what we’re trying to do. Honestly, a lot of other smart people are addressing that as well.

So the great Ethan Marcotte in his book Responsive Web Design, frames it as a content problem, that the idea that we’re going to fragment our content across all of these different device-optimized experiences. It’s a losing proposition, it’s not something that we can sustain. There’s no way that we have the time and the resources and the budget and the staff to figure out how we’re going to create all these new device-optimized experiences.

The same thing is true for people who are coming out from the content side. So Nic Newman here from the BBC says, “We can’t afford to be thinking about creating content for any one platform. We can’t be thinking about crafting a website. Instead, what we have to do is think about how are we going to put more effort into crafting the description of our content, how are we going to put more effort into explaining all the different bits of our assets. And what that’s going to allow us to do is reuse our content more effectively and get more value out of it.”

So this is what I’m going to talk about today. And I’m going to tell you about it by using case studies from two different publishers. The first is NPR which obviously is America’s National Public Radio, and the second is Condé Nast, which is the major magazine publisher that publishes titles you’ve heard of like Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

So Condé has been investing really heavily in developing custom iPad editions for many of their titles. A lot of other publishers are following this strategy. Condé has been saying, “OK, let’s go. We’re excited about the iPad, so let’s build custom iPad editions for titles like GQ, and Glamour, Wired and Vanity Fair.”

I had a conversation with the great Paul Ford. He writes He used to work for Harper’s. He and I talk a lot about the publishing industry. I had a conversation with him when the iPad first came out, and I was like, “Paul, what do you think this is going to mean for the magazine publishers? How are they going to adapt to having the ability to have all of their stuff on this tablet size screen?” And he said, “I think we’re about to usher in a golden age of PDFs on the iPad.”

And this is in fact true. This is really the strategy that a lot of these magazine publishers have adopted. You see this. You go into these tablet editions of these sites of these magazines and they are 300 megabytes and you’re swimming around in what’s essentially like a giant picture of a magazine page. The text isn’t searchable. It’s not accessible. You can’t like find anything in it. And it’s because what this organization has said is: “Great! Now, we’ve got our whole digital problem solved. What we can do is just take a picture of the print page and put it on the tablet screen and be like, Wow, great, digital is fixed.”

And, you know, honestly, Condé would be lucky if that was all that they were doing. But no, they’ve gone one better. So what they are doing is they’re having their existing production staffers, existing people working nights and weekends after the magazine goes to bed, they sit up all night and make two different versions of the magazine layout, one for portrait and one for landscape. And this is because apparently for digital, it’s got to be interactive. So you’ve got to be able to change the screen layout and have something happen.

And you just have to imagine — I can really see what’s happening in this organization. You can see that they are so tightly clinging to the values that made them great. They are looking at the iPad as the opportunity for them to say: “Great! Digital hasn’t changed anything. Everything is still exactly the way that we expect it to be. We don’t have to adapt any ways of thinking about how people consume content, or how they want to engage with our publication, or what it actually means to be interactive. All we have to do is take the exact same art direction and layouts and designs and content features, and just shove them onto the iPad exactly the way that we intended it for print.”

It’s like you see them harkening back to this time when advertising rates were at an all-time high, where the editors had limousines to take them to work every day, when every afternoon the guy with a cart filled with cocaine would push his way through the aisles. It’s like you see them saying, “If only we could just take pictures of our magazines and put them on the iPad, then we can go back to the way it was in the 1980s when everything was great for our industry.” And unfortunately, the ‘80s are gone, guys. Having giant PDFs on the iPad isn’t going to bring them back.

So let’s take a look at how another organization has decided to solve this problem. So it’s considerably less sexy than anything you might see coming out of Condé Nast. This is not going to look anything like the Vanity Fair iPad app.

This is NPR’s approach to getting their content out onto a variety of different devices and platforms. They call it COPE – Create Once and Publish Everywhere. So what this means is that they have set up an API that allows them to take content from a variety of different providers. They can take content from content providers; text from a variety of different sources, from all their member stations. They can take music content from a variety of different providers. And what they do is they run that through an API, which allows them to have access to clean, well-structured content that then can be queried by these individual platforms. So what it lets them do is they can get their content out onto a wide variety of different devices and platforms very easily.

So it means you can see the same story in a content object that includes headline, text, images, audio files. You can see it all in a variety of different locations. So you can get it on; you can see it on the player. You can see the same story on their iPhone app. You can see the same story on their mobile website. You can see how this story would appear on the NPR Addict iPhone app. Now this isn’t even something that they made. This is a user-generated app that goes out and talks to their API. You can see it on the Public Radio Player. This is a player that pulls content from five hundred public radio stations nationwide. You can see it how it appears here, on member station WBUR in Boston. Here it is on MPR in Minneapolis. Here’s how it appears in iGoogle. So you can set this up yourself at home if you want to get a feed from NPR. Here’s how it lives on the desktop application of iTunes. By god, if you wanted to see this same story on your television set, you could hook your Xbox up and see it there.

And all of this is made possible by the fact that they have a CMS. They have a Content Management System that provides the appropriate amount of structure. It provides the right fields, the right metadata. Presumably it’s easy to use; presumably their content authors understand why it’s important that they provide all of this data. And they have an API that is set up to allow all of these different platforms to easily talk to it, to easily go in and say, okay, show me what you have there. And then I, as the individual platform – I as the iPhone app or the tablet app or the Android website, HTML5 website – I am going to go and figure out which content I’m going to show; how many images I want to show, whether I want to show that audio file, how much text I should show, which summary I show. It means that the choices about how that content is going to look and work can be made to be appropriate for the individual platform, because they have invested in having a clean, well-structured base of content to work from.

So, two very different strategies here. Which one of these do you think has paid off most handsomely for the organization?

Condé Nast, unfortunately, after a brief flurry of excitement around its strategy, has not actually seen its sales for its iPad editions pay off as much as it would have liked. What you see is that over time, these iPad issues have actually declined in sales; let me show you that again, it’s a great animation.  What you see, and I want to show this to you again because I want to point this out, Glamour is known as being Conde’s most lucrative title.  They sell two million annual subscriptions, they sell 500,000 copies every month on the newsstand.  Can you imagine being the beleaguered Glamour staffers who have to sit up nights and weekends making two different versions of the Glamour magazine app so that you can sell fewer than 3000 copies?  This just isn’t, you know, it’s not a good investment in time and resources for their organization.  They’re not seeing the business results that they expected to get from the amount of effort that they’re putting into this.

Now, NPR on the other hand, has seen a fantastic return on its investment.  Their page views have gone up dramatically in both their desktop products and most clearly in their mobile products.  In fact, their page views have gone up eighty percent. Eighty percent! And they directly attribute eighty percent page growth to having an API.

Could you imagine if Condé Nast’s strategy had resulted in eighty percent increase in business value for their organization?  The guy with the cocaine cart would be back! The real reason that they believe that this organization, that they’ve gotten value from having an API, is directly in the fact that it’s impacted their mobile strategy.  What it means is that now they are not dependent on custom development to go and get access to that content. So anytime they want to release a new application, anytime they want to get their content out onto a new platform, whether that’s an iPhone app, iPad, a mobile website, an Android app, they want to build a new HTML5 site, they can do that quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks, because they have put the effort into having a clean, well-structured base of content to work from.

So, Zack Brand here is the Director of Technology for NPR, he is justifiably proud of his strategy. The architect of the Condé Nast strategy is this guy here named Scott Dadich, and he gave an interview to Paid Content last month in which he indicated, and these are quotes in his own words, that they’ve had some challenges with their strategy, the strategy that he has outlined, where they’re building custom iPad additions, portrait and landscape modes. It’s been tough for them.  It’s been tough for them to work out a work flow; it’s been a lot more work. And so his goal now is for them to have flexibility.  What they want is to take a piece of content that they’ve created and be able to get it out onto 15 different screens really flexibly.  He’s calling this, his goal is to Publish Once and Distribute Everywhere—PODE.  I like it — it’s catchy.  What he’s saying is that instead of them thinking about how they’re going to design their product and then retrofitting a work flow to support it, what they need to do is first think what is their editorial process and work flow going to be to get their content out, and then figure out what the product should look like. And he’s calling this adaptive content.

So, what is this future of adaptive content of which Mr. Dadich and I speak?  The first thing I want to let you know about this is that all of the stuff that we’re talking about here, in terms of how you support multi-channel publishing, is just not new.  People, especially in the technical communications space, and we are lucky for this, have been talking about this for a decade.  Ann Rockley has an approach that she calls “intelligent content.”  My friend, Rachel Lovinger published a report for Razorfish  a few years back where she called it “nimble content.” The idea that you want to take flexible bits of content and get them out to a variety of places is not something that’s new. What I believe, is that the challenges of mobile are going to make all of this stuff ever more important to organizations.  A lot of work that people have done in the tech comm space has been figuring out, you know, how to do you make publishing software manuals more effective, and that just hasn’t really gotten the attention of the CEO. But this mobile thing is, I really believe, going to make a lot of organizations sit up and take notice, because there’s no way that they will be able to support getting their stuff out onto all of these different devices and platforms unless they start investing and thinking about their content this way.

So what I mean is that we need to start thinking about how you have a clean base of content that’s well-structured, it’s designed for re-use.  You think about that content and then you think about how you can get it out onto all of these different platforms, whether that’s the desktop web or mobile web, whether that’s mobile apps or tablet apps.  You might think about how it’s going to appear in social media or on your microsites or even in your email campaigns and my god, even print.

So, as an example of how somebody has done this in the past, I want you to harken back again to the halcyon days of the 1980s where America had a most popular magazine, gracing coffee tables around the country. What was it? Was it the Atlantic…The New Yorker…you know, maybe one of the popular news weeklies like Newsweek or Time? No…no; better than that. America’s most popular magazine was… yes indeed, the TV Guide.

And so, the TV Guide, they might have sat there from their lofty perch, the most popular magazine in America, and said, “Well, you know, we’ve really got it made. We’re a great magazine business.” But, what they realized is that if they were to have all of their content say, locked up in Quark files or InDesign files, that wouldn’t really actually provide them much value. And so, what they did is they asked all of their writers to start using this green screen mainframe application — like way back in the 1980s. They told them, “Now, for every program description that you write, you are not just going to write one version, you are going to write three different versions. You are going to write a short version, you’re going to write a medium-length version and you’re going to write a long version.” You can imagine how their writers responded to this. It was like, “Oh, you just tripled my workload here.” But, the truth is that TV Guide recognized that they were not in the magazine publishing business. They were in the content business. They realized that they were going to get more value from what they were creating if they had this in a clean base of content that they would be able to re-use in the future. The thing is they didn’t even actually know how it might get re-used in the future. They didn’t know that your cable company was going to give you a digital program guide that you could access, and that maybe that cable company would want to show the short description of the show. They didn’t know that there would be a TIVO that would allow you to control what you watched on TV in advance and that maybe they would want to use the medium description. They didn’t know that, you know, by god! you could have an iPhone app that would allow you to talk to your television set from wherever you were and that, from that, they might want to show even the long description of the show. They had no idea where that content was going to go in the future. But what they did know is if they planned it effectively, if they thought, “How might we set this content up so that it can be flexible and be free and be reused in the future?” then, by god! we’re going to get more value out of it. That has turned out in fact to be the case.

The assets of the magazine publishing company for TV Guide was sold for $1.00 — less than the cost of a single issue — to buy all of the assets of the entire magazine publishing brand. Because there’s no value in publishing a magazine. All of the value, all of the assets were in this content; it was in the data. So now, they have a data service they use to sell all of these program descriptions — and that’s where all the money is. And so, for a lot of organizations, I think that’s how they’re going to have to be thinking about their content.

The idea that you are not in the magazine publishing business, you are not in the web publishing business, you are in the content publishing business, and thinking about how to set up your content so that it can go someplace in the future, means thinking flexibly about reuse. What it means is that you have to create multiple sizes of your content. There has to be meaningful metadata attached to it so that in the future different platforms can query it, and the content has to be written with an eye to reuse.

So, it’s an interesting question to me, when you look across this space and look at who is doing interesting stuff. Why is it that the Boston Globe can launch with this innovative, responsively designed website? Why is it the Guardian can announce that they’re going to go Digital First? Why is it NPR, 5 years ago, they had the presence of mind to say, “Hey, you know what we really need to do is launch an API so that devices we haven’t even thought of yet can hopefully get access to our content?” It’s like, why is it that all of the organizations that are doing really innovative stuff are news organizations? And so, the answer to that is that you go way, way back to journalism school, is that news organizations already have structured content. They are taught from day one that they need to think about their content that way. That they are creating in terms of things like: you have to write a hed, a headline — something that captures the essence of the story. Presumably, they even understand that you might have to write multiple versions of the headlines that might appear in different places, you may not know where. They know that you have to write a dek, which is a short summary that sort of explains what’s going on in the story — it’s like a sub-head. They have this whole concept called “the lede” which means the first paragraph. Everybody’s heard the expression “don’t bury the lede” or “this is burying the lede.” What that means is put the most important ideas in the very first sentences because no one’s gonna read further if you don’t. They have, not one, but two, different words for photo captions. Captions are kind of like the headline, and the cut line is a brief description or longer description that explains what’s going on in the photo. They have my favorite term for a bit of content which is: the nut graf, which means a bullet pointed list that might be set out in a box that highlights the main points of the story. You can look at this and you see that you have an organization of journalists that are all taught and trained to think and write this way, presumably if they are confronted with a content management system that asks them to structure their content, they know how to write that way and they understand why it’s important.

Now, you contrast that with lots of other publications, lots of other magazine publishers for example. Where the connection that they make between the words that they publish or the content that they publish and the way that it looks and the way that it’s styled is so tightly woven that it’s very hard for them to imagine separating what they are creating from the way that it’s going to look on the page.

I had a great conversation with Sarah Chubb, who is the former head of Condé Nast Digital, talking about some of these magazine publishers like Vanity Fair. She said it’s really scary for an organization for whom the connection between what they publish and how it looks and how it’s structured is so tightly connected, it’s scary for those people  to think about all of their different content elements de-evolved into different pieces. For them to get to this place, it’s going to take a lot of imagination, it’s going to take a lot of insight and understanding, and, frankly, for a lot of organizations it’s going to take a lot of courage to get there. What this means is that we are getting down into this bedrock connections that I think we make in terms of what content and design mean.

Which is that we have a really hard time separating content from form. We have a really hard time imagining what something says, what its words are, might be disconnected from how it looks — or more important that if you are thinking about multi-channel publishing, how it looks might need to be different for every platform.

I sometimes get flack for saying this. I am not saying that design is not important; I am not saying that it is necessarily possible for you to completely take content away from how it looks or its style. I think that design is every bit as important. Frankly, I think it is even more important as we think about how do you adapt your publishing processes and your brand and your identity to this multi-channel space.

But, what I am saying is that if you believe that design is important, if you want to provide a great experience across platforms, if you want to provide the ideal experience for whatever platform or device you are creating an experience for, you need a clean, well-structured base of content to work from. You cannot go into it thinking that you are going to have content that has already been styled, already been designed, already had all of the decisions made about how it looks and works made for another platform.

The problem here for our space is that these issues, the real root of the problem goes way, way down into the bowels of the system — way down into the content management system. So, what we have today are publishing tools, we have content management systems that force us to think about content management + authoring and content publishing + display as the same thing. Every web content management system out there pretty much forces us to bind those two things together.

What that means then, is that we are always thinking about recycling content. We are always thinking about taking content that was designed for one platform, that was intended to be published on one platform and then trying to figure out how we can retrofit it, how we can recycle it, how we can shove it onto some other platform.

In the future, what I believe is that we are going to have better content management and content publishing tools. We are going to have ways to take well-structured content, well-designed chunks of content that we can then figure out how we want to restructure and publish and display in a way that’s going to be right for the appropriate platform.

Just the way that NPR does it. They say “We are going to have a whole bunch of chunks and then each individual platform can go query that content and say you know what, I want to show the short summary or I want to show images here because, give me all the images, I have a great image experience, or I don’t want the audio file because it would be ridiculous for me to have an audio file in this experience.”

It means that what we are going to be able to do is have all the issues about how it gets displayed, how it looks, how it feels, be made for the platform because we said, “You know what, let’s start by thinking of the content as something that can be used anywhere.” That means that content authoring is not the same thing as content management and content management is not the same thing as content publishing. Right now, most of the tools that we have force us to think about all three of these together. They don’t allow us to break them apart. But, in the future, we are going to have to break them apart if we are ever going to support this crazy multi-channel world.

And so, more than this tight marriage of content and form, what we are really getting at for us in the digital space is something that goes much deeper, and it’s the idea that there is a primary platform for which we are creating something. Shockingly so, given that we are 20 years into this, for so many organizations that platform is still print.

If you don’t believe me, I will tell you a story. The New York Times recently launched a new section. They replaced their Week In Review section with the new Sunday Review. How do you think they came about coming up with these fabulous new designs? Well, the print people went off and they sat in a room and they brainstormed all kinds of things and they are like: “Yeah, you know, on the section front we are going to have like a giant image and then on the inside we are going to lead with a big comic strip and, you know, here’s how all these pages are going to be laid out, here’s all of our content features and the layout of them within the section are going to be really closely intertwined.”

They mock this up and they brainstorm and they get approval. They finally got to a place where they’re happy with it. Then they took it to the digital people and they said: “Here. Put this on the Internet.” So, what you see is an experience that is entirely created for content consumption in print. All of their values, all of their hopes and dreams for the section were all geared around “How do we make the print experience possible.”

Then it was: “Okay, well, you know, you guys, why don’t you figure out what to do with all of our content now that you’ve got it for the web.” And it’s like: “Oh, I don’t know, that giant image you’ve got on the section top, we’ll kinda lose that experience. I guess the comic strip is really important to you so I guess we could lead with that on the section top on the desktop web.”

Then you get to mobile and it’s like Wow! Nobody really thought about this, did they? This isn’t really a mobile experience. It’s like: “Okay, yeah, I am super interested in that comic strip, where is it? There it is way down at the bottom. Wow! This is an entire page of navigation chrome for no actual content at all. I don’t even know where to click. Oh! I have to click on that tiny little link in the middle of the metadata for the slideshow. Okay, let’s check it out. Awww! It’s broken.”

This isn’t a mobile experience. This isn’t an organization that was thinking about their content holistically and trying to figure out what would be a good experience for consuming that content across any platform. That was an organization that was sitting there thinking: “How can we create content for print and then shove it onto the desktop, and then take the content, once we’ve got it shoved onto the desktop, shove that on the mobile site.”

It’s so easy to make fun of these print dinosaurs. We all can sit here looking at this and think, oh, like five years out, ten years out, print is not going to win this war, right? It’s so fun to just look at them and point fingers and say “Man, you guys are making really stupid decisions here. We would never make stupid decisions like that. Right? Right?

Well, no, of course we are! We are making the exact same stupid decisions. And you know what? We don’t even have several hundred years of history and values and culture and process to draw on. You know what we have? Like 10 or 15 years of using really bad content management tools. Forcing us to think, forcing us into ways of thinking about our content that just aren’t going to adapt.

What we are doing is we are letting people think that what they are creating is content that lives on a web page. We are letting them preview their content on the desktop website and imagine that is the one and only one place that content is going to live. We are making the exact same mistakes that these print dinosaurs are making. Unfortunately, we are doing at a time when we should be a lot more flexible and a lot more adaptable.

Just the same way that TV Guide is not in the magazine publishing business and the New York Times is not in the print newspaper publishing business, we are not in the web page publishing business. We are in the content publishing business.

So, when I say you have to start from basic content, I do not mean that you start with print and then figure out how you are going to shove that content out onto other platforms. I do not mean that you are starting with your desktop website and figuring out how do I shove that content that I wrote for the desktop web out onto my mobile site. I don’t even mean that you start with mobile and say let’s take the mobile content and then figure out how we progressively enhance it for other platforms.

No, what I mean is you start with content. Clean, flexible, reusable content that is designed from the start, is written from the start, with a mindset and a values system that says “I don’t necessarily where this content is going to live. I don’t know how it’s going to be used in the future. But, I do know that I have to create lots of flexible content that has metadata attached to it because I know it’s going to be reused in different places.”

So, what does that mean? How do we get there? I said earlier that to create adaptive content you need to create multiple sizes, you need to have meaningful metadata attached to it, and it needs to be written for reuse.

I want to talk about three things that in turn have to change in the way that we think about our content. So the first thing is that we’ve got to teach people that they have to start writing for the chunk and not for the page. So this means getting away from some of our really deeply held beliefs about content and form and starting to say, “You know what. I have to write flexible chunks for reuse.” It means that we have to demystify metadata for people. We have to start teaching people what metadata means, this is why it’s important. You have to figure out ways to add more value, more description to your content. And then, finally, if we are ever going to support multi-channel publishing, we have to have the tools to do it. We have to have content management systems, content management workflows, that treat content authors like they are users of an enterprise platform. We have to give them the right interfaces, the right workflows, the right experience of managing their content. Otherwise, there’s no way that they’re going to be able to write things the right way or assign the right metadata.

So let me talk about each one of these things in turn. So this first one: writing for the chunk and not the page. I’m going to give you an example here of, maybe you’ve heard of it. So Amazon. This is Amazon’s landing page that you might get to if you were looking for a digital camera. A lot of people tell me, “Amazon is really doing a great job in handling mobile.” And I would agree that they are, at the first couple of layers of the experience. So here’s a fairly dense landing page for digital cameras and I think they did a fantastic job of coalescing that information, crunching it down, making it navigable on a small screen. So if you tap into one of these cameras, you go to Amazon’s product page. Now, I’m sure you guys have all seen this before, but it’s like, damn. Amazon’s product page has a lot of stuff on it. I mean, they’ve got all the product descriptions. They’ve got other products you can buy. What other customers buy. They’ve got technical details and product details and all the stuff from the manufacturer and other related products and customer reviews. It’s like it goes on and on and it’s like “How are they going to get all of this content onto this teeny little screen?” And they do an excellent job here, I think, of taking the top level sections and making them navigable, tappable, regions on a small screen. And that’s because they alrady have structured content. All of these fields are sort of already structured so that you can get at them easily. So when you click into this, I’m going to spend some time going through this.

This is Amazon’s product page on mobile. So first screen here. Okay, first section is product features. I don’t really think that’s how you’re supposed to use a bulleted list. Next section, from the manufacturer. “Make memories and share joy.” Could you imagine if you walked into a Best Buy and you were like, “Hey, salesguy. What camera should I buy?” And he was like, “Make memories and share joy.” Third section, product description. They’re just repeating the name of product over again. There are 73 words on this screen. I have counted them. 23 of them are repeating the exact same words that you can get in the product description. Five of them are “Make memories and share joy.” Next screen here, let’s go into the product description. Yes, it’s that tricky punctuation problem we’ve been trying to solve on the internet for the last 15 years. We’re going to get it right one of these days, guys. Let’s look at what the manufacturer has to say, “Capture life’s best moments. Don’t miss the moment. Birthdays, weddings, baby’s first steps.” That’s like, “Nikon, I want you to sell me a camera. Not on the concept of photography.”

So I’m going to take you back into this screen here. It’s an important point and I want to beat you over the head with it a little bit. This is Amazon’s product page. This is one of the most intensely designed and researched and analyzed and tested pages on the internet. They have AB tested the shit out of this thing. And when they got to mobile, what they did is they told the robots to go into the database and to shovel whatever content they found in there until they ran out of room. What this says is that it’s perfectly okay to just take whatever you find on the desktop and just shove it onto mobile, and then when you run of out of room, you can just drop an ellipsis in there, because that’s going to be more than enough information for someone to make a decision. And the truth is, that no, you have to write content differently. You have to think about writing. It’s like the journalists in the audience would say, don’t bury the lede. Like what Nikon was doing there in their product description is the definition of burying the lede. It’s like, put the most important stuff up front. Think about how you are writing chunks of content, different sized chunks of content. Say you know what, we’re probably going to need a 60 word version of our product description. And we don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go, but at least we know if we’ve got that much space on a mobile app, we’re going to have something that’s going to fit there that isn’t going to be a bulleted list — that isn’t going to be random marketing speak that doesn’t actually tell me anything about the product.

And the root of where this comes from is that we have content management tools that allow people to think about creating giant blobs of text without any fields or structure around them. We have CMSes that allow people to say, “I want it to work just like Microsoft Word.” I want to be able to embed tables and fonts and images, and I want to be able to style and design my content so it’s perfect for the way that I’m imagining it’s going to look and work. I want to have a tool that works just like Microsoft Word so that I can imagine how my content is going to look and work in the one and only one context that I’m imagining it, and that is the desktop website. And so you have people who have the ability to create these giant unstructured blobs of content with formatting and images and whatever else embedded. And that means that they’re not writing chunks.

So I really believe, guys, that we are in a war of Blobs versus Chunks. We are in a war between giant, unstructured blobs of content, and clean, well-structured fields of content that have metadata attached. We are in a war of Blobs versus Chunks. You all are on Team Chunk. We cannot let the blobs win.

So what this means is that you have to have a content management system that has an appropriate number of fields to be entered, and that the workflow for creating those fields makes sense to people. So you look at something like this and presumably everyone from NPR can look at this and say: I know what all of these different headlines are. I know what all these fields are. I know what these teasers are. I know what this metadata is.

And I think so often we have people who are really trying to figure out how the content should be structured, and then the CMS doesn’t actually support that. So in the content strategy world, there’s a lot of work being done on creating content templates. So Erin Kissane wrote a great article for A List Apart in which she explained how you go out to content creators within an organization and give them a Word document, or give them an Excel file that helps them figure out what to write and how to structure what they’re saying. And so, you can imagine somebody being presented with this Word document that says “OK, write these different chunks of text.” And then all of that getting lost when you go to a content management system that says great, we’re just going to dump all of that information into a big, unstructured blob.

And so, I think when I look at the future of adaptive content, what I see is this really interesting interplay between saying, what are the people in content strategy doing when they’re wrangling the content, as they’re going up to business owners and saying, “How do you structure your content?” or “Here’s the chunks of things you need to write.” How does that eventually impact the data model in the CMS? How do you sync up the way that business owners and content strategists think about the structure of the content with how the database architecture or the CMS developers would actually create that data model, or the content model? And then those semantic structures that get stored in fields and metadata in the CMS, what’s the interplay between that and the style sheets? How much information is stored semantically in fields? How much of it is stored semantically in HTML and markup? And I think these decisions, they’re not going to be easy. But I think if we want to be able to create a great experience for every device, for every platform, what we’re going to need is people who are thinking thoughtfully about how do you have the CSS talk to the CMS in really smart ways. How do you have individual platforms be able to go and query the content, query that API, query the content as a service, and then figure out how to take that content back, how to display it in a way that’s appropriate. So, to me, this is what adaptive content is.

So, second thing we’ve got to do is we have to find a way to really demystify the concept of metadata for people. I think the information architecture community has been kind of banging on this problem for 10 or 15 years now, but truthfully, this is the time. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, I don’t really need to worry about that much because I’m only thinking about my content in one context, and that’s the desktop.” But when you start thinking of your content living in dozens of different places, dozens of different platforms, you have to have more description attached to it, because it’s the only way that you are going to be able to answer those questions. Have those platforms be able to go back and query the content and say “What do you have and what can you show me?” It means explaining to people the idea that what metadata does, is it allows you to programmatically build pages.

I do a lot of content management system work and one of the hardest things to explain to people is the idea that you are going away from handcrafting a landing page, handcrafting a page of content. Instead of manually going in and saying “I want this image to appear here and I want this headline and I want this short description,” getting them to say now, instead you are going to be thinking about creating content objects.

You might be writing three different versions of that headline; you might be writing two different short summaries and you are attaching a couple of different images to it, different cut sizes, and then you may not be the person who is in charge of deciding what image or what headline gets displayed on that particular platform. That decision will be made by the metadata. It will be made by the business rules.

We talked earlier about this quote, “Metadata is the new art direction.” It’s one of my favorite ones because I think it reflects a real mindset shift and what it means to design a page, what it means to have control over how something looks or works. It means that we are moving away from this very print-centric mindset where you are going in and you are placing every dot and every image and every piece of typography on that page. That means also that we are moving away from a desktop-centered concept. Where you might say I am going to have some stuff appear here on my article page and I am going to handcraft the landing page to show exactly what I want to show. You don’t have the power to do that anymore or you don’t have the resources to do it.

I go in and I look at some people’s CMSes these days and it’s like okay, yeah, yeah, we go in and write multiple headlines, so, we have the article headline and the SEO headline and the Facebook headline and the Twitter headline. You can see where this is going, right? The iPhone headline and the Android headline. It’s like “Whoa! Guys! Stop! This is a zero sum game here.”

Where you need to be thinking instead, is think about that as a system. Think about that as “How can I create a limited number of pieces of content to work with, and then use business rules to decide what content is going to appear where.”  It means that the people who are going to be making the decisions about how something looks or how something works are going to be the people who know how to manipulate that metadata. They are going to be the people who know how to construct those business rules.

It’s not going to be an Art Director saying “I want this to look exactly the way I intended it.” But, rather someone saying “I know how to set up the right rules, the right instructions, the right boundaries, so that the robots will be able to construct a really great looking page even though I may not have control of the way every single element appears.”

The second thing is that we have to explain to people is how metadata can be used to prioritize information. I had a conversation with Ethan Marcotte this summer where he said one of the challenges that they had on the Boston Globe site was figuring out how do you take all of the insight that goes into a layout on the desktop and figure out how you reprioritize that information for a smaller screen. The truth is you are not going to be doing that manually for every single platform. What you have to do is have that metadata already attached to those content objects so that you can then go in and say “Okay, how is that going to work?”

A couple of examples of this from The Guardian. What they have is these automatically generated topic pages. So, they can go out and the robots will pull all the information they can find about Tony Blair. What they found was that when they first launched these, the “Top Story” was not actually the top story. What it was, was the most recent story. So, what you would find is that there would be a lot of information just sitting there, a story sitting there that wouldn’t actually be all that relevant and it would sit there for a few days because nothing more important had come along to knock it off the page. They realized they probably need to start assigning some editorial priority in the metadata on the backend. So that when stories get reused like this there’s a little more subtlety to it.

I find myself thinking, I work with publishers all the time, where they go in and they say okay, we are going to assign this story to our home page or to our section top, and we are going to go in and we say I want this story to appear first, and this story to appear second, and this story to appear third. When they change that, later in the afternoon, they go in and they rearrange their stories, all of that metadata is lost. All of that information about what those editors thought was important on that particular day gets lost. Because they were thinking about it as a display issue. Here’s how I want these stories to appear on this page. They weren’t thinking about it as a metadata issue, meaning “What information is my editorial judgment telling you about how important this story is? And how can I save that for later?”

Instead of saying, “Okay. Show the story first, second, or third.” It’s like apply some metadata that says, “Okay. This story is more important than that story.” And then, by god, save that information, because you might want to use it again in the future. So, Josh mentioned this earlier. I’ll mention it again, because I think it’s a great point. So the Guardian had to solve the same problem again for the iPad and they said, “Great, we’ve got a lot of editorial judgement going into our print edition. Let’s find an algorithm that we can use to suck out that data and use that to drive the layout of the display.” There’s a lot of interesting insight that we’re making that learn about how important things are. What we want to share or say about that story that gets lost if we think of it as purely a display issue and not as a metadata issue.

And then, finally, for me one of the most interesting things is the idea that metadata in the future is going to be used to support real personalization. So people have been talking about personalization on the web for like 15 years now. I remember sitting in a meeting back in like 1999 and some guy is all like, “Oh, the Vignette personalization server will allow you to deliver a personalized experience for all your users.” And I’m like, “Well, of course the database can do that. Like the database part of that is easy. Who is going to write all this content? We can barely get enough people to write all the content for the website to begin with.” And so it’s like 15 years later, you’re the only people who are really actually delivering on the promise of personalization are the ad serving people and, by god, they know more about us than anyone has the right to know. But the truth is it’s a pretty easy link to go from saying, “Wow. If I’m writing all of these different versions of content and I’m thinking about my content in a system. I’m thinking about creating packages of content.” Then it’s a pretty easy leap to go from that to saying, “What if I thought of packages of content that would aimed at different things that I know about my users. Different demographic information, different psychographic information. Wouldn’t it be possible for me to tailor what it is that I want to say for an individual user?” And the only way we’re going to get there, is if we’re thinking about our content in that kind of system.

And so, finally, the only way that we actually are able to do that is if we really start investing in content management technology. We today do not have the tools to support what we need to do. We have clunky interfaces. We have CMSes that look like a database got drunk and vomited all over the screen. What that means is that people don’t want to use these tools. They find workarounds that allow them to get away with creating a big blob of content, with not assigning the right metadata, with not writing all of the versions of the content that they need. And the truth is you look at a lot of these tools and it’s like, “I can see why you hate this interface. I can see why you don’t want to assign all these fields. I can see why you don’t want to edit all of this metadata.” It’s because the workflow is terrible. The interface looks like crap. It’s like your eyes are bouncing around from field to field and it’s like, “oh, enter something over here and then go down here and like enter something else and then take this code and remember to copy and paste it into this other field that’s in this completely not intuitive screen way down in the left-hand nav.” You look at these tools and everything seems so fixable. It’s like this is an enterprise software problem. I know lots of people out there doing UX in the enterprise software space, who could very easily go in and say, “Why yes, we know how to fix these types of problems. You just follow a basic UX practice and treat people like they’re users of the system. Figure out how to redesign those screens and take all the crap off that somebody doesn’t need and the experience will be better for them.”

When I talk to people about this at lot of organizations, it’s like they look at me like this is a luxury. Like I’m doing this just like out of the goodness of my heart. The thing is, if you were running an e-commerce website, you would know everything there was to know about that e-commerce funnel. Every drop off. Every error. Every time somebody made a mistake. Every time you saw friction in that system, you would go in and you’d be looking at all these places where there was red in your funnel and you would go in and you would optimize that. You would figure out: Why are people having problems? How can I fix this form? How can I make this easier for somebody to fill out? Because you would know that every place that there was red in this funnel, every place someone found friction, is lost business value for you. The truth is, for any organization that is in the business of creating content—and in this day and age what organization isn’t in the business of creating content?—if your business is to create content, then your CMS workflow is every bit as important to your business as your e-commerce funnel.

I don’t know anybody out there that has any analytics data at all on how their CMS works. I don’t know anybody out there who is analyzing where people are finding problems, delays, where they’re making mistakes, where there’s friction in the process. Because they’re not treating their employees’ time as if it was valuable. And what that means is that they’re losing money. You are having people who are wasting time fighting with the system, as opposed to taking that time and using it to write better content, to write for the chunk, to assign more metadata, to do a better job of creating more flexible content. You are wasting energy on a bad system, as opposed to harnessing that energy for good.

And so that means that we have got to stop treating CMS decisions as if they’re purely technology decisions. I talk to organizations all the time, major corporations, that are like, “Oh yeah, we’re re-platforming our CMS.” Entirely all the decisions are being made by IT. They are not getting the content creators involved in this process at all. It’s like, this is UX 101, guys. The decisions about a CMS are not entirely based on things like the system requirements and security requirements and support requirements. The system things are important, but you know what else is important? Whether somebody can actually use it.

What it means is that we can’t be thinking of usability in the CMS as having nice interface widgets or a pretty font or a WYSIWYG toolbar. That’s not usability. Usability comes from whether the workflow is actually effective for somebody. Do they have the right fields? Are they prioritized in the right way? Does the sequence of screens that somebody flows through make sense to them?

You know, the truth is there’s a million different user experience techniques that we could use to make this better. We could do contextual inquiry, which is just a fancy way of saying why don’t you go out and treat the content authors like they’re users of the system. Talk to them, watch them, observe them work. Figure out how they do things. Figure out what their mental model of the system is, and then design the structure of the interface around that. Why don’t we do card sorting? For all of the CMS projects that I’ve worked on, there’s very little time allocated for someone like an information architect to go in and just make sure the labeling makes sense. This is not rocket science, guys. This is not an incredibly time-consuming, expensive task. This is one of those things where it’s like, have a smart person go in and do it. It takes a little bit of time, and by god, it offers so much more value for your users. Because then when they go in there, it’s not like somebody is like, oh yeah, that field – that’s not actually what it says. You should use it for something else. Have the labeling make sense. Treat it like it’s an iterative prototyping process.

I’ve seen so many organizations who are like, oh yeah, we spent three years and eleventy billion dollars on this Content Management System and then it didn’t work, and so now no one wants to talk about CMS anymore. It’s like nobody builds any other software that way anymore, why are you wasting time and money on those kind of CMS initiatives?

Start small; prototype; use open source tools; and make it so that you can actually observe someone using it, figure out where the friction is, and then continually invest in your CMS. It’s not a one-off project where you can be like. “Great, now we’ve got that CMS problem solved! We never need to think about it again.” It’s a process. Because you have to think about it as a product. Successful organizations like the Huffington Post, that are really happy with their CMS, are working on it around the clock, 24 hours a day. They are committing eight to ten to twelve different code changes every single day to their Content Management System. And that’s because they’re treating it like it’s core to their business.

And I say this as a user experience person – I want people to be happy. I want there to be happy content creators who have a tool that they like to use. But I don’t say that just because I want happy users. I say that because having happier users means they’re going to create better content and they’re going to create more content. They’re going to have more ability to do all the things I’ve been talking about, where they have to write chunks of content, where they have to think about how content is going to be reused, where they have to assign better metadata.

And what that means is that, frankly, it is not a luxury to think about having a great application for content creators. In fact, it is a requirement. And that’s because if we have better content management tools, we’re going to get better content. That is the only way that we are ever going to be able to support multi-channel publishing. If we ever want to figure out how we’re going to spray our content out onto all of these different devices and platforms, it’s going to require that we have the right tools and the right interfaces and the right workflows to support it.

So, mobile. You are not creating a mobile content strategy. This is not about saying “I am going to figure out now how to publish to mobile channels,” as if it’s this different thing from publishing to desktop or publishing even to print. What I mean when I talk about mobile content strategy is that mobile is a wedge; it’s a catalyst within an organization. It’s going to be the thing that makes people wake up and go, “Oh crap! There’s no way we’re going to be able to support getting our content out on all of these different platforms unless we start planning ahead in advance.”

So what this means is that for all of the fear that organizations have where they freak out, like, “Oh my God, the new devices and platforms, they’re never going to stop!” It’s also an opportunity. It’s also a chance to sweep away bad, outdated desktop content. It’s an opportunity to really wipe away a lot of really bad, clunky, kludgy CMS tools. Let’s start again, guys, and let’s figure out how to do it right this time. Because that’s the only way we’re going to support having flexible content.

And it’s because the more structure – if we have these better tools, we’re going to be able to put more structure into the content. And then by having more structure – paradoxically, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be more constrained at how we use our content. It actually means we’re going to be freer in the future. It means that if we have this metadata, if we have the right fields, if we have the right chunks of content, then, like NPR found, when you want to be able to go out and get your content onto a variety of new platforms, you’ve already put the time into having your content clean and well-structured and a service. Now you can put all of your energy into creating a right experience for that platform. It’s what TV Guide discovered when they said, “You know what? We’re not in the magazine publishing business. We’re in the content and the data business.” And so paradoxically, having more structure, having multiple sizes of our content, is going to mean that we’re going to have more flexibility in the future to get that content onto places and platforms and devices that we didn’t even know would exist when we decided to do this ten years ago.

And the second thing is, it’s really time, guys, that we start thinking about what it means to separate content from form. It’s time to say: “Hey, we can’t be imagining how our content is going to live in one platform, in one context.” We can’t be saying, “Oh, here’s a WYISWG toolbar; why don’t you just go in there and style it however you want. Make it look great for your desktop website.” We can’t be telling people, “Hey, here’s your preview button, I’m going to let you see how that content is going to look on your desktop website.” What if it’s not showing on your desktop website? This is the time where we have to say: what does it mean, not just in our tools, but also in our minds, to separate what we write and what we create from how it looks.

And that’s because, really, if we’re going to have content management tools to support this, we have to make sure that they can capture the content in a clean, presentation-independent way. We’ve got to get all that formatting cruft out of our content. More important — this is a really complicated issue — we have to figure out what’s the right level of semantic markup or semantic encoding that we have. How much of it lives in the CMS? How much of it lives in the HTML? What are the right decisions that we make there in terms of how something looks and works and gets styled?

I’m not saying that this is going to be easy. I think it’s going to be freakishly hard. But if we do it right, it’s going to create a much better system for the future. We’re going to have much better ways to reuse our content more flexibly.

And then finally, I think for all of us, it’s a question of saying “How does this change the way that we work? How does this change our processes?” It’s not enough to say, “Oh great, I’m the designer and I’m going to make all the decisions about what I want to show here and why.” You may have some constraints. You may say, “Hey, you know it would be perfect if I had 75 by 75 image crop here.” And they’re going to come back and say, “You know what? You’ve only got a 90 by 90 image crop and you’re going to have to figure out how to make that work.” You’re going to have more structure and some limitations. But it’s also going to give you more freedom, because you’re going to be able to say, “Okay, great. I know the pieces that I have to work with and now I’m going to make the right decisions for my particular platform.”

And so the truth is, for organizations that have invested in doing this, nobody has ever regretted it. No one has ever regretted saying I want to plan for the future. I want to plan for flexible reuse. I want to imagine ways that I can use my content again in the future. I want to start now in thinking about what I have to do so that I can make my content free for whatever platform or device it needs to go onto.

Computing History, Presentations

What is Interaction Design History?

The IBM Naval Ordnance Research Calculator

Image Credit: Columbia University Computing History

Learning more about computing history is a sort of professional hobby of mine; I have a fetish for pictures of old mainframes and this research lets me indulge my proclivities. When I tell people in the user experience field about my studies the most common response I hear is “I don’t know anything about the history of computers.”

I think that’s sad. Practitioners in other design disciplines—architecture, graphic design, fashion—would be expected to have some grounding in historical movements and trends. But most people have no formal education in interaction design, and so they’ve never learned the roots of the discipline. I taught a short course in IxD history in the MFA program in Interaction Design at SVA, and I hope that the students in the program know enough now to at least recognize key people and events when they come up, even if their introduction was a whirlwind 5-week tour.

The interesting question, to me, is how you separate interaction design history from the broader scope of computing history in general. User experience people gravitate toward the history of hypertext and the graphical user interface, direct manipulation and the mouse, the work done at Xerox PARC and Apple. In many people’s minds, that era marks the dividing line between the “us” of the design community and the “them” of computer scientists, because it’s the point at which it became possible to draw a separation between the work that was done to serve the needs of the machine, and the work that was done solely to meet the needs of the user.

I’m fascinated by the earlier history of punchcards and mainframes, green screen CRTs and command line interfaces, precisely because that process of shaping the machine to think and talk more like we do was more formative and more raw. And while many (if not most) of the decisions that went into the design of early computing systems were based on the memory and processor requirements of the physical machine, engineers were also making decisions aimed at making the device easier to use. Separate out the aspects that are focused purely on hardware limitations, and the history of punched cards, programming languages and mainframe operating systems is as important to the history of the discipline as the mouse, the GUI, or the touchscreen.

I’ve finally got around to uploading my classroom presentations to Slideshare:

Week 1: Course Overview

This was intended as a high-level flyover of some of the people and topics I covered over the next three weeks.

Week 2: Interaction Design before Computers

Make no mistake: my definition of interaction design is squarely focused on how people communicate and interact with machines. (I know it’s fashionable to talk about interaction design as influencing human behavior, regardless of medium, but that’s an awfully broad scope for a history class.) Of course, people were imagining or using complex information processing devices even before there were computers.

Week 3: Computing Technology in the Workplace

My favorite section; I wish I could spend more time on this era, exploring how early programming languages and operating systems made it easier (and yet harder) to use a computer—in fact, what it meant to “use” a mainframe. This quote always kills me:

Not only would a programmer hardly ever see the computer, he or she might never even see the keypunch on which the programs were entered into the mainframe.
—Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing

Week 4: Personal Computing

Seems like everyone has at least a passing familiarity with the history of the graphical user interface across Xerox PARC, Apple, and Microsoft. Equally interesting is the cultural shift from mainframes to personal computing, regardless of the interface metaphor.