There be zombies: why now is the time to embrace structured content – Karen McGrane

There be zombies: why now is the time to embrace structured content – Karen McGrane

Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, content publishers have tried to create content for webpages the same way they would for print — using WYSIWYG editors to publish content as if they were printing to a laser printer.

But the rise of mobile, and a future of Internet-enabled devices with small screens, speech-based interfaces and other innovations, is changing all that, said Karen McGrane, managing partner of Bond Art + Science, in her Confab 2013 keynote “Content in a Zombie Apocalypse” (the zombies being, in this case, the plethora of new interactive devices lying in wait).

One of the biggest calls to action at this year’s conference, her presentation acknowledged that the entire industry needed to lead the charge toward a change in approach — and that content strategists need to make it our mission to drive it forward.

The Web changed everything, and over the past 20 years we’ve been using an antiquated model from the personal computing revolution to publish online — it’s been like training wheels as we adapted to the new world order. But we need to stop treating the web like a laser printer. “We finally have to come to terms with the fact that the web is different,” said Karen McGrane “We finally have to give up the illusion that we have control over what the page looks like when we create the content … We need a new metaphor.”

Now is the time to embrace structured content

Making the leap from print to Internet means that we truly have to separate content from form. “Even the notion of the container of the page doesn’t exist anymore,” Karen said. “For most of human history, there has been no way to separate text from the page. We need new tools, processes and workflows.”

With devices such as Internet-enabled kitchen appliances, smart TVs, car audio interfaces and the rumored Apple watch, content producers have to be prepared for their content to be served up any number of ways — and in multiple ways. The truth is, we have no clue what devices we’ll be dealing with in the future: we have to be ready for our content to live everywhere.

“How we create content today will set us up for success in the future, and what sets us up for the future will set us up for accessibility today,” Karen said.

Doing it differently is difficult because it requires changing people’s behaviors altogether — moving away from thinking about the “formatting toolbar” and the ability to format content in a big open text field, and toward more structured ways of creating content.

Mobile doesn’t mean “dumbed down”

Some web experts, including Jakob Nielsen, have commanded that organizations should be separate, mobile-only versions of their websites. There are several problems with that, Karen explains, including:

  • It’s twice as much work to maintain the content on both a mobile and desktop website — and often users will get different experiences.
  • It is based on the assumption that mobile users want a simplified or fun-sized version of the site. “Screen size is not context,” Karen says, pointing out that 77% of mobile searches take place at home or at work — most likely while the user is sitting in front of a laptop or desktop.
  • People want to have choice on where they look up and read information. Ninety percent of people say they start a task on one device and complete it on another — but transitioning to the “mobile version” will give them an incomplete experience.

Karen calls this approach “forking” — trying to anticipate how people are going to want to consume content on a mobile device and then excluding, truncating or reformatting content to work in a mobile format. It often results in a poor experience for the user.

Adaptive, not responsive

“Responsive is an entirely front-end (client-side) solution to what I believe is fundamentally is a back-end problem,” Karen says. It’s essentially a way of reformatting based on device, but 72% of responsive sites still download all the content to every device: the content itself doesn’t get delivered contextually.

What Karen recommends is an adaptive approach: the implementation of a content management system that supports content elements and the creation of content packages. A content author creates short and long versions of body content, headlines, descriptions and other text; uploads accompanying video or audio; and essentially anticipates all the disparate elements that would feed into a piece of content depending on where it appears. Then, the robots do the work of displaying the content where appropriate.

As many speakers did during Confab 2013, Karen cited NPR’s Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE) model. They design content in chunks, rather than creating large bodies of rich text. The content can be used in different combinations.

“We’ve only had 20 years to adapt to the web, and we need to be patient with ourselves,” said Karen. “But we shouldn’t throw up our hands and say ‘Nobody will ever figure it out. “It is our mission and responsibility to lead the change: we are the ones who get to look that transition in the eye.”

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