Don’t Let Paper Paradigms Drive Your Digital Strategy

The web isn't print. As we adapt to a world of connected devices, the way we think about our publishing process must change.

The web isn’t print.

The way we publish on the web — our process and workflow — is mostly derived from what we know about putting ink on paper. Which makes sense, because for most of human history, print was all we had. In a world of connected devices, we need to publish digital content onto all kinds of different devices, screen sizes, and form factors. Right now, our challenge is dealing with PCs, smartphones, and tablets. Tomorrow, who knows where our content will need to go? As we adapt to a world of connected devices, the way we think about our content publishing process and workflow must adapt too.

Watches and glasses and fridges, oh my

A majority of Americans now own a smartphone. While mobile phones are currently the most common new device type — and the most limiting form factor — it doesn’t take a futurist (or a fortune-teller) to know that smartphones are just the start of our problems. Tablets are poised to overtake PCs in sales. Handheld devices span a range of screen sizes and resolutions, forcing us to figure out how to take web pages and adapt them for different form factors.

Beyond smartphones and tablets, we know we’ll continue to invent new devices. Smart TVs may be the next major wave of new devices in the home (and you can’t talk about the future without mentioning the long-rumored yet never-quite-primetime internet refrigerator.) Wearable devices, like internet watches or Google Glass, offer wildly different interfaces for interacting with digital content. At some point, speech-based interfaces, like Siri or in-car audio systems, will offer up content without a visual presentation layer. Who knows? The next innovation in web content might be something we haven’t even dreamed up yet.

Whether you think any one of these new devices is the future, a fad, or a flop doesn’t get around the reality of the challenge we face in publishing content to these new form factors. We don’t even need to predict which one of these new technologies will capture the public’s imagination. Some will fail, but certainly some will succeed. Whichever new devices become mainstream, we will need to get our content onto them.

Publishing content to a variety of devices and platforms is fundamentally different from print. This wave of new connected devices means it’s time we accept that the web isn’t just a glorified print document. The way we think about content needs to change.

The page is dead, long live the chunk

“The page” as a container is so fundamental to how we think about reading, it’s hard to break away from thinking about our content that way. On the web, we’ve repurposed that model, treating all of our content (text, but also graphics, videos, and other interactive elements) as through they “live” on a particular page. Our editorial processes and content management tools encourage us to treat web pages just like the familiar model of a print document.

You don’t have to spend too much time thinking about all these new form factors and device types to realize that the very notion of a page doesn’t hold up. Content will “live” on many different screens and presentations. The amount and type of content that’s appropriate for a PC screen isn’t the same as what would work best on a smartphone or a smart TV. The way content gets laid out, styled, and presented must be different for different platforms.

The future of connected devices is content in “chunks,” not pages. Smaller, discrete content objects can be dynamically targeted to specific platforms and assembled into new containers on the fly. Which content and how much content appears on a given screen or interface will be defined by a set of rules, informed by metadata. Content will break free of the page and “live” in lots of different places.

Separating content from presentation

When all we had was a print document (or a web page) it was easy to get away with mixing presentation and styling with content. Problem is, decisions made for one platform about what something should look like don’t necessarily translate when the content needs to live on multiple platforms. Anyone who’s managed a print-to-web workflow knows that styling decisions made for print need to be stripped out and then re-applied to be appropriate for the web. We might have gotten away with that when it was just print and web, but that just won’t work in the future.

A world of connected devices means we must start enforcing better separation of content from form. Our content can’t have embedded presentation markup that was intended for only one platform. Instead, we need to ensure that styling decisions are made with platform-agnostic semantic metadata.

It’s a people problem

We need to change the way we think about our process and workflow. Specific development approaches — whether it’s responsive design or another technique — are useful technical solutions, but they don’t solve the underlying problem.

As with all major technology innovations, the heart of this challenge is the people side of the problem. People who create and publish content need new tools and new approaches to help them understand how digital publishing is different from print. Our content management technology and workflow need to adapt and evolve too, so that users can envision how their content will be consumed on different devices. We need new ways of thinking about content publishing that make it clear to content creators what it means that the web isn’t print.

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