#8. Content Strategy for Mobile
This week Karen McGrane joins us to talk about content strategy for mobile. We talk about creating resuable content, the problem with WYSIWYG's, what voice means for content and the similarities between CMS design and vomit.
- Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane
- Managing Enterprise Content by Ann Rockley
- Content Everywhere by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
- The Nimble Report
- Olympics: User Experience and Design
- Shifting: The Page
- Breaking Development Presentation videos
- Content Parity
Tim: Hi! My name is Tim Kadlec and this is episode 8 of the Breaking Development podcast, a podcast focused on web design and development for beyond the desktop. My guest today is Karen McGrane, Managing Partner at Bond Art & Science and the author of the upcoming book “Content Strategy for Mobile”, which is coming up from A Book Apart from October 30. Welcome to the show Karen.
Karen: Hi Tim, thanks for having me.
Tim: Glad you could be on. I mentioned the book in the intro, Content Strategy for Mobile, looking forward to that. I have actually had a chance to give it a read, it’s really, really good stuff. It seems like a book that you could really hand to, not just a practitioners, but also if you have a boss that need convincing or something like that. It seems like that kind of book.
Karen: Yeah, my goal was to write a “here boss read this” book, that would explain why it’s important to get your web content on the mobile and hopefully give an overview of some of the things that organizations would need to do. I don’t go real deep in to all of the nitty-gritty how to get there, but hopefully it will be useful for both executives and practitioners.
Tim: Well I think it is, and I think kind of in the traditional vane of the A Book Apart books, it does a really good job of giving people the information that they need and where to kind of go on from there, right, and you followed it up with a bunch of resources at the end of the book for people who need to dig deeper into those nitty-gritty details.
Karen: Right, I there’s going to be a lot of talk about how to do this well over the next couple of years and so I hope that as more organizations move toward a publishing model that allows them to support true multi-channel publishing, a lot more smart people will be thinking and writing and talking about this subject.
Tim: It’s a subject that needs a lot of discussion. It’s kind of tricky, it’s not easy I think… Has anybody even figured it out? It’s still kind of work in progress…
Karen: I think there are really a lot of smart people who have been working on this problem from the technical communication side. So people like Ann Rockley and her book, called “Managing Enterprise Content”, she has put out the second edition this year, she has been doing a lot of work over, you know, for a decade or more in technical publishing, you know, people trying to figure out how to support document publishing and support print to web publishing. And also want to give a shout a Sara Wachter-Boettcher and her book “Content Everywhere”, which will be coming out from Rosenfeld Media later this year. Her book is, I think, a great companion to mine and gets into much more the practitioner focus details.
Tim: And we will actually been having Sara on the podcast, I think sometime next month probably. So…
Karen: Good on you.
Tim: Well she is super smart too.
Karen: Yeah, exactly. I think the world of her.
Tim: So let’s back up a little bit here. So the title of the book is “Content Strategy for Mobile”, but I believe the very first sentence of the book is that there is no such thing as content strategy for mobile right?
Karen: Yes, I know I tricked everybody into buying the book.
Tim: And you plea for people not to throw it away at that point, but I guess… So what do you mean by that—is there no separate content strategy for mobile, is that what you are driving at?
Karen: Yeah, I think when people talk about content strategy for mobile I think sometimes there’s this sense of: “Great now we are going to have this separate content strategy for what we are going to publish on our iPad app.” And in my mind that’s just not sustainable, the idea that you could think about having these different siloed content strategies that would cover each individual channel or platform is simply not sustainable, at least at this stamp in time, at this day and age. And, so, my recommendation is that right now, in the immediate term, what everybody needs to focus on is figuring out a publishing model that will allow them to take the content that they have on their desktop site, at least, you know, all the good stuff, and figure out how to support getting that out on to as many different platforms or devices as they need to, which is, you know, probably all of them. And that is a relatively complex task. I think it’s probably going to take us a good few years to get there. When I talk about a content strategy for mobile, I don’t mean, here’s your totally separate chunk of content that you’re going to publish to smart phones, I mean, let’s have a holistic process for figuring out how to get out content out everywhere it needs to go.
Tim: I don’t want to say it is a buzzword, but in a way “mobile” has kind of become this buzzword. By framing the discussion around that, it also helps to get this discussion to places where it should have been happening the whole time anyway.
Karen: As Luke says in his book “Mobile First”, I think mobile really is a fantastic catalyst. It’s a whole new platform and interaction model, requires a new way of thinking, and it’s daunting. When you really start digging into what it means to do a good job on mobile, it can be overwhelming to imagine what it’s going to take to do everything well in this new medium. But honestly, its a huge opportunity. There’s a lot of things we’ve been doing wrong. If we kept band-aiding things for the desktop site, we could probably keep limping along in that way. But mobile is a chance and an opportunity to really clean up some of the outdated practices and bad content management technology and outdated ways of thinking about the way we publish content. So I’m excited about it.
Tim: So what are some of the primary ways that we are doings things wrong or have been doing things wrong? I know it’s probably a very long list, and I don’t want to be too negative here, but if you had to say there are three things in particular that we’ve been messing up, and if we could address these three things that’s at least a good first step.
Karen: You’re right, it is a long list of things. One of the biggest challenges is that, up until this point, we haven’t really thought about what it means to create content that’s going to be reused in different places. Anybody who was working in the early days of the web is familiar with this. We had content that was intended for print, and there was this idea of “well, let’s just take our print content and make a .pdf of it and shove it on the internet and then all our multichannel publishing problems are solved.” That didn’t really work so well. I think you’re going to see the same thing happening with mobile. We don’t want to think about content as something that we know is going to live in lots of different places. We still want to imagine that there’s one real place where content lives. The content is supposed to live in print, but we’re letting you read it on the web, or the content is supposed to live on the web, that’s where we want you to read it, but I guess if you want to read it on your mobile phone we’ll tolerate that. That mindset, you can’t live with that anymore. So we’ve really got to be thinking about creating structured content that is intended from the start that it will be reused.
Tim: And when you talk about reusable content, you’re not talking about just on mobile, or just on the desktop, or even just in print if you are a traditional publisher. You’re also talking about this content has to live in all these other areas, like social networks, and every area in between, and eventually all these devices that are emerging. It’s like this broad ecosystem of not only devices and browsers, but also actual platforms and networks where this content is going to be distributed.
Karen: Exactly. To me, that’s the big a-ha moment that I hope people will have with mobile. When we went from print to web, I think people were still able to be like okay, so this desktop web that people were imagining back in 1999, people thought this was it, okay this is how it’s going to work, and I’m going to get my content out on this platform, and that’s all I’m every going to have to worry about. With mobile, the hope is that the light bulb will go on for people, that it’s like oh wait a minute, there’s always going to be another platform, there’s always going to be a different screen size and resolution and device characteristics and input models. What happens in the future when we look to the next generation of devices, where we have the post-screen future, where there’s not even that kind of interface, where it is all speech-based, for example. It’s that mindset of, oh wait a minute, we really do have to think about publishing differently, so that we can get our content out onto the web or onto mobile devices that we know about today. But also, I really strongly believe if you do your job well now, you have a much better chance of being able to adapt more quickly to whatever the next new revolution is going be. Because that day will be here sooner than you think.
Tim: Yeah, it’s moving incredibly quick. Every day there is something new coming out, something that’s going to disrupt the scene even further. It’s definitely not a stable environment. This is something that, going back for anybody who’s read this, Rachel Lovinger’s Nimble Report kind of explored this area as well.
Karen: So brilliant. I remember, we were actually in Paris for the first content strategy forum, and we got stuck there because of that giant volcanic ash cloud overhead. So we were stuck in Paris for a week or so. Rachel was working for Razorfish and I was a former Razorfish employee, and so we were working in the Razorfish Paris office working for a day or two. And she showed me a draft of that report that she was copy editing. I was just blown away, it was so, insightful and so prescient and so ahead of its time.
Tim: Oh sure, this was how many years ago was this I can’t even remember now when the Nimble report first came out.
Karen: In 2010.
Tim: 2010 was it? Yeah, and that was at the time this stuff wasn’t being explored not to the detail that it is now.
Karen: Right, exactly. I remember reading and thinking oh my God this is amazing. And then reading through the report I’ve gone back to that report time and time again. And the more I’ve delved into the subject the more I have learned. Smarter and smarter.
Karen: So I think another thing that organizations really along with the idea that their content is going to be reused is the idea that the content cannot be mixed up with how it looks. And I think everybody who has worked on the web or with web standards has this idea that content should be separate from form, but we really struggle with that. And all our best intentions sort of fall by the wayside and then all of a sudden we’ve got a bunch of code, and markup styling, flash files in with our content. I think that is such a legacy of print. It is a belief in the way we think and communicate that goes very deep, back to the notion of the way that you communicate meaning and structure in your content is through styling.
With the size of the typography or the style of the typography, the layout, the positioning, the weight of things. And those are all great tools and they’re fantastic cues we all can recognize at a glance what’s important or what’s not when looking at a page just by the layout. But those visual tools are not enough we’re not going to be able to rely solely on encoding meaning through styling. Because the styling we choose for one platform is not going to be the same as the styling on another platform. And so we need better and more flexible systems that allow us to encode what the content means and give some guidance on how it should be presented without having all of the presentation defined by one particular platform.
Tim: And this is the WYSIWYG problem if you’re going to generalize. WYSIWYG is the epitome of what this issue is. Where you’re dumping all sorts of presentation right there in the content and setting it with really for one visual in mind. One place where it is going to be displayed specifically in mind.
Karen: Yea, I quoted Ian Kelly a web developer in the book. He describes it as ‘WYSIWYG is like a thin veneer of word processor sanity spread over the anarchic nature of HTML, CSs.’ I think it’s true, we have been in a sense coddling our content creators and allowing them to believe the web is as controllable as putting things on paper. We have given them tools that are familiar to them that allow them to think that publishing a desktop webpage is like printing out a brochure on your laser printer at work. And it’s not. When you get to mobile that’s when you really see this content is flexible, it’s going to be presented in different ways, it’s going to have different styling. And so I like to say a lot of designers have had to embrace the fluid, flexible nature of the web. A lot of classically trained print designers have had to learn to give up pixel-perfect control; have learned to give up the stability of print. They have recognized that yes, they’re giving up pixel-perfect control but they are gaining other things in exchange. They are getting all of these different tools and flexibility, so we taught designers they had to think in systems and we taught them to embrace the fluid nature of the web, as Mark Boulton says. I think a lot of content creators have not been asked or challenged to make that leap. I really believe that Mobile is going to be the thing that gets content creators to realize like “Oh, right, I have to make the same leap in how I think about my work.” Some of them will and some of them won’t…
Karen: …I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but having seen a whole generation of graphic designers change the way that they think about what it means to design or what good design is, I’m confident that there is a whole generation of writers and content strategists out there that can make the same leap.
Tim: So you kind of touched on this with the first point, too, when you were talking about making content reusable; but you touched on it again here, which is this idea of structured content and getting people to think more in the systems instead of the page. What does that entail? If we are going to get our content creators to think beyond just a page and think about content as a system that is going to go all these different places, what are some of the steps there?
Karen: One of the partners to the WYSIWYG problem is what I like to call the blob problem. It’s that you get many input interfaces, editing interfaces for content creators. They’re literally one big, giant blob of a text field. It’s got a WYSIWYG toolbar at the top and you can put whatever you want in there; you can style the text however you want, you can drop images, slideshows, Flash files, HTML, or anything in that blob. The problem becomes then, how do you “strip all that out?” I’ll talk to developers sometimes and they’ll be like “well, yeah you just have got to strip all that crap out before you can put the content removal.” You can’t tell the difference sometimes between what is “content” and whats “garbage to be stripped out,” and frankly, someone has spent a lot of time adding all of that mark-up and context and other “crap” into that blob. That has meaning, meaning that we are losing.
Karen: When we talk about structured content, what it really means is having a content model that tells us we’re not just going to have a big blob. We are going to have some structure where we are going to know what type of content it is. Is it a recipe? An article? A travel diary? We’re going to constrain what someone can enter there. Sometimes that means constraining that into certain fields, or sometimes having the right mark-up available for somebody to select text and mark it up. What it gets down to is someone has modeled that content to say “I know what font and type it is, I know that it has these attributes, and I am going to create an interface and a workflow within the system that guides somebody through the process of adding the right structure and meta-data. Yes, that means a little bit more work, a different kind of work for content creators. It also opens up such a world of opportunities because now you can do more with the content. You can put the content in more places and you can act on it in more ways. It’s great for search, filtering, accessibility and mobile.
Tim: One of the things that you talked about the book that ties into this; I like how you put emphasis on the workflow. You’re designing a workflow for the content creators; designing being the big word there. I loved the quote where you said that “CMS’s look like our database got drunk and vomited all over the place,” or something like that. It’s funny but also sadly true because most CMS’s, the interface and the experience for somebody who is creating the content, is not really friendly.
Karen: You’re right, anybody who has done work with CMS recognizes that the enterprise software that user experience forgot. We treat it like it’s essentially just a window onto the database. My friend Jeff Eaton is fond of saying that most “CMS’s were designed to provide an interface into a data model as opposed to a user experience that helps content creators complete their tasks.” What the task that we’re trying to do here is not just look into the fields in a database. What we’re trying to accomplish is to help guide content creators through what they need to do and understand that, you know, that content creation is a series of steps. Some of it takes place offline. Frankly, a lot of it probably takes place offline. And I just believe so strongly, it’s like, I’m a user experience person through and through, that the technology should be there to support the human side of the equation. And right now what we have is we have people who are just essentially treated like robots expected to serve the needs of technology. And I don’t like that from a user experience standpoint. I think that’s a crappy way to treat your employees. But I also don’t like it from a business standpoint. I think there’s a lot of wasted time, a lot of wasted effort, I think you have people, I see it all the time, it’s people spend more time fighting with technology that wasn’t designed around their needs as opposed to creating great content. And this is user experience 101 guys; I mean fit the tool to the people not the other way around.
Tim: Right, and that’s, well that’s one of the problems I think, is that a lot of times the CMS decision comes down to, it doesn’t come down to the person creating the content. In many cases, it comes down to the person who’s, like, creating the sites, or whatever, they’re the ones who select the CMS based on what’s convenient for them to develop for or anything like that, but…and this isn’t always the case, but in many cases I’ve seen at least, it’s the content creator doesn’t see it until, you know, well into the process. So they didn’t really have a say into…like you said you’re picking the technology without considering the people who actually need it and what those needs are.
Karen: Yeah. User experience for content management is often treated like it’s a training problem. So, right we’re going to install whatever package our It team has decided is the right one. And then we’re going to send our content creators off for a week of training to learn how to use the system. I’m like, if you’re CMS requires a week of training to figure it out, you’ve designed a bad system.
Karen: And, I mean, I don’t…whenever people are…the number one question that I get is can you tell me what, what CMS I should use or the best CMS or can you recommend a CMS. I can’t really answer that because it is a decision of such magnitude that takes into account so many different factors that I can’t possible address all of the details that would go into that.
Tim: Right. And the answers going to vary, right, I mean based on the specific company and what they do need out of it. It’s the right tool for the job, it’s not necessarily a one size fits all thing.
Karen: Yeah. But, you know, all I can say is take into account all the other things you need to take into account; your IT team, and the security and, you know, administrative requirements, and what not. But at least have some sense of what the content model is that you need to support and how well that’s going to map to the way that the architecture or the CMS works. Every CMS kind of thinks about content structure a little bit differently and I genuinely believe it’s like any of the good, large platforms out there are probably going to get you eighty percent of the way there, it’s just a matter of that final twenty percent. Is it going to be relatively straightforward or is it going to be really, really hard to do.
Karen: You know, sometimes it’s like, you know, I do a lot of work with Drupal for example and it’s like Drupal likes to think in a certain way. And if what you want to do is aligned with the way that Drupal wants to think, then you’re gold. And if you want to do something that goes outside of that …you’re signing yourself up for a lot of custom development. Can be done, anything can be done.
Tim: Oh right.
Karen: You know, is that really how much effort are you going to have to put into making it happen. And for many organizations the answer is it doesn’t work the way we want it to and we are willing to put no effort into fixing it.
Time: Nice. Which is very effective.
Tim: Yeah, So one of the examples that’s often cited when we start talking about this kind of stuff as far as from the CMS perspective is MPR who actually, they rolled their own from the very beginning, right-
Tim: -or I mean, I should say from scratch.
Karen: I believe so although I’m not exactly sure what they’ve been doing in the last couple of years, but that’s what I understand.
Tim: Right, because their case, at least the one that everybody talks about, I guess it has been a couple years, which is kind of silly to think about because we’re still citing that as, like, the example. Which I don’t know if that means that other people aren’t promoting what they’ve been doing enough or if there really hasn’t been as much experimentation on that level.
Karen: If anyone out there want to step up and be like hey! Here’s our really fantastic CMS and API case study that we’d like to share with the world, I think everyone on the web would be thrilled to hear it.
Tim: That’s be awesome. And you said, you mentioned a couple other, I think the Guardian was one example that you put out in the book, and TV guide actually.
Karen: Yeah. TV Guide, that’s an old example, but I think it’s a good example of somebody back in the 1980s at least recognizing hey, right, we need a system to manage our content. I’ve also been citing the BBC recently, a case study from BBC Sport about their Olympics coverage and how they obviously had to gear up and make sure that their systems and their processes and their work flow could support the massive amount of publishing and traffic they were going to get from the Olympics, and fantastic case study.
Tim: So this is online somewhere, the BBC Olympics case study?
Karen: Yes. I mentioned it. I did a little short piece in Contents magazine a couple weeks ago there. I can send you the link, too.
Tim: Perfect. We’ll get that in the show notes for anybody who’s listening. The Contents piece, actually, as well as the BBC Olympics study we’ll point to. So, I mean, this is still kind of a problem that’s still being tackled, and like you said, it would be nice if we’d get somebody else kind of to come forward and be like hey, we built this awesome thing and this is what it’s been doing for us. You know, with some of the same stats that Empire’s releasing and some of these other people have been releasing about how making that move and having the API, what that resulted in from a business perspective, you know, in increased page views and stuff like that as well as, actually, how that helped them get to these different platforms in terms of efficiency both for the time and for the content creation and stuff like that. So we’ve talked about, like, reusable content was the first thing. The second thing we were talking about were the blogs. So what’s the third thing?
Karen: Third thing we should say, and I kind of touched on that already, also, would just be better content management tools. I think, I’ll maybe even extend on that a little bit and say one of the things that makes the MPR case study so interesting is how clearly and how early they were able to think about developing an API to their content and recognizing that value of being able to connect to their content through an API long before many of these platforms or devices even existed, and I think that’s going to be the real answer for a lot of organizations. The solution, at least in the short term, might not be to go in and tear out your whole CMS and start over. I think if I recommended that to any of my clients, I would be fired on the spot. But maybe the answer is, as with any new development that comes out, the answer is middleware. And so it’ll be figuring out ok, what we need to do to set up an API that will pull structured content out of our CMS and then be able to have that talk to whatever presentation layer we needed to talk to on each individual device or platform. And quite a bit of work needed to be done in that process.
Tim: Sure. I mean, one of the decisions, I mean because not all APIs are created equal as far as, like, not every API has to be a public facing API like the Twitter API being one of the primary examples, right? But a lot of these APIs, a lot of these companies could benefit from just having an internal API that they themselves are using. It doesn’t have to be something that’s going out to other people to access.
Karen: In my talk at BDConf, I talked a little bit about the US Federal Government’s digital government strategy, and one of the cornerstones of the US governments future looking technology plans is to make more content and data available through APIs, and again, some of those may be public facing, but many of them will not. Many of them will just be ways to share data internally between federal agencies or with selected government suppliers or whatever. And one of the things that’s nice about that is that by setting it up through and API, the federal government, obviously has some privacy and security. So setting up through an API means that you can have a finer grain of control over levels of access to that data. It’s much easier to protect the API than it is to protect the entire platform, like if the website’s a platform for example.
Tim: I’m glad you brought up the talk, it was a very good talk. One of the things that I kind of took away from it was that. This is a big deal. If government is mandating that people are looking at this stuff, that’s a big deal, that’s a big message that other people should be paying attention to as well. They’ve seen this as a big thing.
Karen: The federal government has mandated that federal agencies need to optimize their content for mobile. So all executive branches, federal agencies, within the year need to make at least two key services available on mobile devices, that’s huge.
Tim: Yea, it’s a big deal.
Karen: You can imagine. My eyes just about popped out of my head when I saw that. I think it’s a really forward thinking look from the federal government to try to deliver their services on the platforms and devices where their constituents want or need them. It also I think it reflects, like we’ve been talking about here, an awareness that to be able to do that doesn’t mean just leaping into “ok, federal agencies go build an IOS app”. What they are saying is, you need to have the underlying technology in terms of a CMS, in terms of an API and you need to have the underlying processes so that you are thinking holistically about publishing your content or your data to brochures and to the web and to mobile devices and not just saying great, we made an IOS app, we’ve got our mobile problems solved.
Tim: Well, that’s what was interesting I think to me too. It would have been far less surprising had they said something to the extent of you know what mobile is kind of a big deal we should make sure that every agency has a mobile app, or a mobile site or whatever, something just very general to that level, but like you said they actually went further and they said they were dealing with the underlying structure that’s running beneath those which shows obviously they’ve been giving a lot of thought to this thing ,or you know watching a lot of your talks, it could be that too.
Karen: No, I’ve read through the government digital strategy a couple of times. I’m really impressed by it. Everything in there is things that I would feel confident recommending to one of my clients. It makes me proud as a citizen to recognize that the US government is actually trying to take a more user centric or customer centric mindset toward delivering services to Americans.
Tim: And one of the things you mentioned in the talk and both in the book actually is the reasons why they were looking at this and it’s the amount of people who mobile is now offering the ability for them to get connected, whereas they wouldn’t have that otherwise.
Karen: Yeah, the numbers are genuinely sobering when you start to dig into what it means for people who only access the internet from their mobile device. I think most people, even people like us who are involved in the web field or the mobile field for a living sometimes think oh well you know everybody has a desktop computer and then the mobile device is just a little satellite device that you use while you are out and about, but no, in fact, all of the people who say that they access the internet from their mobile phones, almost a third of those people say that that is pretty much the only way that they ever access the web.
Tim: Which is a huge number.
Karen: Huge number, and it’s growing. I’m fond of saying, that number is not going down. That’s 31 percent, nearly a third of Americans who browse the web from their phones, but the numbers are much higher when you look at other populations. It’s nearly half, or just about half of Black or Hispanic Americans. If you’re are looking to reach that desirable population of young adults aged 18-24, 45 percent of them say that that is the primary way they browse the web is on their phones.
Tim: This is something, to me, this is one of the more exciting things actually about mobile as a technology, it’s ability to give access to these people who wouldn’t have had access otherwise and you’re right especially for us people working in the web and on mobile and stuff like that we are used to having the nice computer and the high speed connection and then maybe the iPad and the iPhone and maybe some other devices that we test on and so you know we use our desktop for this and use our iPad for this and our iPhone for this and so I think that it kind of tends to creep into a lot of the conversations about mobile contexts and mobile tasks and how a mobile user wants to do this or that. And I think we tend to reflect a lot, because to us, who have many different devices, sure maybe we do use devices for specific kinds of things. But for this large percentage of people who mobile is their only access, it’s not that way at all.
Karen: I think it’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing that every Internet user is just like you. And this is one of the big ways where I think we will start to see a real divide. In the same way that mobile has caused a fragmentation in our development practices, we are going to see a huge amount of fragmentation in how users access the web. And to look at your mobile device and say, What’s my experience like? If this was the only way that I ever got online – and what would you think about all the companies and all the brands that are advertising on TV and trying to get your attention, and yet they have no presence on your mobile device. It just seems – it is shortsighted in a way that does surprise me. But in a way it doesn’t surprise me. Because having done this for 15 years now, one of the things I’m most convinced of is that user behavior always evolves much faster than companies can keep up. So what you’re seeing is in the same way that the Web changed user behavior in this brief eye-blink of time, the same thing is happening with mobile. And there’s a lot of companies out there that it’s going to take them years to catch up.
Tim: Yeah. But it’s inevitable that they’re going to have to make that move quick. I remember an article, but I can’t remember where it was at. But it was talking about the digital divide, that the access to Internet is becoming this huge divide between economic classes. Because if you have access to the Internet and you have access to all of this, just think of all of the different information, all of the different things you can do online. For example, if you’re hunting for a job, you can find a job online. A lot of listings have job applications you fill out right online. If you don’t have access to that information, whether it’s because you don’t have Internet access or because some company somewhere has decided that you don’t need this particular form or you don’t need this particular piece of content on your mobile device, because you’re not going to use it…it’s not an inconvenience, it can actually be a huge hindrance on your ability to survive and function.
Karen: Yeah. Something like 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only put their job postings online. That includes companies like Target and Wal-Mart, that you might want to get a job at if you were low-income. And the idea that if you can’t afford to pay for a mobile phone and your mobile data plan and a desktop computer and a broadband connection – that you’re going to have to choose one device – I’d be curious to ask people what they would choose. But I bet, I’d be willing to stake a claim on it that if you told people you can only have one device, most people would choose their phone at this point.
Tim: I would imagine so. There’s more you can do with it. It’s not just an access to the Internet, it’s all these other things, ways you can interact with it as well.
Karen: In the work that I’ve done with clients, I’ve seen lots of numbers that I would love to share. I joke with my clients all the time , “Let’s put this on Twitter!” But I’ve seen statistics that would blow your mind in terms of companies and how many mobile-only users they have for their products. Or the number of people who are willing to go through, to suffer this incredibly painful process of filling out a form that was intended for the desktop on their mobile device. I’ve seen 10’s, 100’s of thousands of people who have gone through the process of filling out the form. And it amazes me, it makes me feel sad, like we can do so much better, you know? And it makes me realize, I think a lot of work orginizations are either not aware of how large those numbers are, or they’re just too freaked out, cause they’re like, “Oh my..”
Tim: And all of this kind of hammers home the importance of having content parity, which is not to say that the content necessarily has to be exactly identical on these different platforms, but just to say the same types of content, the same information is still available.
Karen: Yes, Brad Frost, I think, was the one who turned me on to calling it content parity. The goal is to say you should be able to get essentially the same experience on your mobile device. And what that really means to me is no one in your orginazation gets to get away with that kind of sloppy, lazy thinking, of saying that mobile should be less, that mobile should be a satellite, it should be a sub-set of what you offer on the desktop, that’s not true. Sometimes I’ll go in and be like “You have to get all of your content on the mobile,” and people freak out, where they’re all like “All of it? You mean all of it?” That’s the point where I have to say, “Well, no, I don’t really mean you have to have an exact 1-1 correspondance between every single thing that shows up on the desktop and the mobile device. I mean that you should figure out, ok, what’s the cool content here, what’s direct from the desktop site that maybe we don’t really need to include, and how am I gonna call back experience, or an alternate experience for things that from the desktop just aren’t going to translate well to mobile.
Tim: And you even talk a little about how that content can change in ways, like, for example, the primary thing I’m thinking of is the headlines, right? How it might make sense to write multiple headlines that you’ll display a specific headline on different platforms, or the pieces being to referred to in a different way, or something like that.
Karen: I think companies are going to have to create, in many cases, some different content chunks, or different elements. So things like headlines, you’re right, sometimes you might want a shorter version or a longer version, or a short summary. I think one of the things that you find when you try to translate content that lives on the desktop to mobile, is that it tends to get a 1-1 correspondance between pages, somethings that are a single page on the desktop often needs to get broken into smaller pages for mobile. And so to make the navigation within mobile to make sense to people, you often need a little navigation summary. You know, just a sentence, maybe two that describes what they’re gonna find on the page. It’d be great if everyone’s link labels were 100% clearer and totally obvious what you were gonna get when you tapped it in just 2 or 3 words, but in many cases, you need a sentence to illustrate what is happening there. So that stuff has to get written, and it’s a lot easier if you think about that as a system, I like to call them content packages. All that stuff lives in one place, it’s all managed in one interface in the CMS or one workflow in the CMS, so that whoever is creating it can kind of think of it like “Ray, I just need to go bing bang boom down these fields and write the alternate headlines and write the summary”; just do it all at once, it makes your job so much easier.
Tim: Right, and it is. I mean it sounds like it’s more work, and it is, cause you are writing more things, but that’s what’s necessary to get it off to all these different kinds of places.
Karen: It’s more work, I’m not selling, I don’t work for anybody, but it’s a streamlined process. What I fear the most from orginazations is that what they do is they treat the mobile; the mobile website is this totally different thing from the desktop website and you know they fork them basically, they fork their content. So it’s like, we’ve taken this subset of content off and now it lives in the mobile site. And then any time you need to update that site you have to update it in two places, and I feel quite confident that that is not an editorial workflow that is going to be sustainable, particularly if you’re working in an industry that’s heavily regulated, if you have a lot of legal and compliance review that you have to do, if, there might be, you know, something that, urgently needs to be updated, you don’t want to be the person who’s having to, you know, search through source code on three different platforms trying to find the content that you need to update. You know, it’s like, that is not a sustainable process.
Tim: No, not at all. And this is, to be clear, you’re talking right now about like, you know, if you’re forking the content and stuff but I mean this issue with the content and how it should be optimized for these different platforms, this kind of process, this kind of thinking, this kind of changing the content, that applies no matter what your approach is to these different environments, whether you’re building any separate apps or separate sites or responsive design or negative or web, it doesn’t really matter. The content strategy, the thinking in these terms of structured content that’s going through used in display potentially in slightly different ways on these different platforms, that remains like the fundamental decision that has to underlie all of this.
Karen: Tim, I’m glad you brought that up.
Tim: Alright, you’re welcome.
Karen: More of that, it’s the idea that, if you are treating each individual platform like it’s its own sandbox, you are setting yourselves up for a world of hurt, because now you’re gonna have duplicate content, duplicate maintenance processes, duplicate workflows to keep everything updated, it’s gonna be time-consuming, you’re gonna make mistakes, and you just won’t be able to sustain it. And so everything that I’m talking about with adaptive content and, you know, using mobile as a catalyst is all geared around, set up your content and set up your publishing workflows with the intention right from the start that that content will be able to get out to whatever device or platform you wanna get it out to. And, you know, that’s what people mean I think when they’re talking about an API. It’s this idea that, I don’t care if you want to publish this to your mobile website, or an iOS app, or iPad app or you wanna publish it to somebody’s refrigerator or electronic scoreboard or LCD watch or in-car audio system. I mean, the work that you do now to get your content structured and have a workflow that will allow you to manage and maintain it all in one place, that’s what’s gonna save your ass down the line when you realize how many different platforms you need to get your content onto.
Tim: Right, and, because we have no idea what’s coming down the line and, really that’s the only future friendly approach is to, just like you said, make is as flexible as possible so that you can kind of take it anywhere, whatever comes up, which requires that you’re thinking of it, as you said, in systems instead of specific platforms or pages.
Karen: It’s like, you can do it now or you can do it later. And I think NPR is such a great example for developing an API for their content five years ago, long before any of these devices existed.
Karen: And that means that now when a new device comes out they’re able to get the content out there really fast. I mean, in a matter of weeks for some of these platforms, because they already know what the content structure is, they know what the content objects they have to work with are, and then they can put all of their energy into creating a great experience, great design, you know, great code for that particular platform, as opposed to having to go back into their content and like we say, strip out all that garbage formatting that’s in there for one platform and then try to figure out how to retro fit that content for a new platform.
Tim: Right. So when a new platform emerges what they can start thinking about is okay, how am I, what’s the best way for me to utilize this platform and engage, you know, people and offer a content there. Whereas other companies are still figuring out, alright, well how the heck are we gonna make our stuff get there in the first place?
Karen: I’m entranced by thinking about, like the post-screen future and what will happen with spaced interfaces. And, you know, it’s like we’re not there yet obviously. There’s all the jokes about Siri and the rest. But, think about it. Like, touchscreens were a joke for like 20 years, right? Like the only thing you thought about when you thought about a touch-screen was like the crappy touchscreen at the ATM that you’d have to like angle your finger just right to get the button to push.
Karen: The iPhone came out, and it was like, “Oh, wow, this works better than we ever dreamed possible.” And it changed… I couldn’t even begin to list off all of the industries and behaviors and ways of communicating that that device changed for people. The same thing is going to happen with speech. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but at some point we will have speech-based interfaces that work. And, same kind of deal–is your content going to be ready to go there?
Tim: Yeah, and I mean you talk about the prime example where content is devoid of… Content is by itself without any sort of the styling and stuff that we’re used to being able to apply. I mean, you are talking about a speech-based interface—there is no visual styling to emphasize this piece of content or that piece of content. I mean, that’s structured content, that’s all that is.
Karen: I’m imagining a future of a lot of people driving around in their cars with a robotic voice saying, “H-T-T-P colon, slash, slash.”
Tim: Oh god. Yeah, that sounds messy.
Karen: It’s going to be messy. But it’ll be a lot cleaner for the organizations that have said, “Alright, we’ve got to separate content from form. We’ve got to make sure that we have this clean base of content to work from.” And it’s like, if you’ve got a clean base of content to work from, you’re going to have a heck of a lot easier time getting it out on to this next new futuristic platform.
Tim: And that’s one of the things that always strikes me about, you know… You’ve seen those concept videos before, right? Like The Day of Glass and stuff like that. Where, it’s showing off in the future and how everybody’s walking around and every device is interacting with each other. And you go to the bus station and the glass on the bus station is, you know, displaying the bus schedule and all this other stuff. And one of the things that always kind of hits me with this, is yeah, this is all really, really cool, and yeah individually maybe the technology is there for this kind of display or this kind of touchscreen or this kind of interaction and stuff like that, but until the data is decoupled from the presentation, and the data is actually structured in a way that’s not just consistent for a specific business, but consistent on a broader level… You know, you talk about things like some of the RDFa or microformats ideas, where you’ve got the same structure for similar types of content. Until that kind of day comes, all of those little concept videos aren’t really going to be reality at all, because you can’t do it without having very finely structured content.
Karen: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it. Whatever the future is that you’re imagining for being able to interact with content on a variety of devices, that future rests on a foundation of structured content.
Tim: Well, I think that’s an awfully good sentiment to end the podcast at actually. So, again, your book comes out October 30th. It’s excellent. It is October 30th, right?
Karen: It is.
Tim: Okay, perfect. And that’s over at A Book Apart. We’ll put a link on that too in the show note, so people can find that very easily. I do highly recommend it, and I probably recommend buying a copy for yourself, as well as your boss. So, again, thanks for being on the show, Karen. And where can people find out a little bit more about you?
Karen: So they can go to my website, which is KarenMcGrane.com, and they should absolutely follow me on Twitter, where I am also conveniently @KarenMcGrane.
Tim: Of course. That’s very handy. Alright, we’ll put those two in the show notes. So thanks to everybody for listening. This has been Episode 8 of the Breaking Development podcast. We’ll be back again next week with another show. And also, you know, we talked a little about Karen’s presentation and stuff like that…if you guys ever want to check out a Breaking Development Conference, we do have another one coming up in Orlando, which actually Sara Wachter-Boettcher, who we had mentioned earlier, she’s going to be presenting at that one. So, that’s shaping up to be a really awesome lineup, and hopefully some of you guys can join us there as well. Until next time.