User Experience Design
May. 24, 2011

Content and Technology Combine to Make the Most of Mobile

You’re both presenting at WebContent 2011 about “Making the Most of Mobile,” could you tell me a little bit more about that?

Karen McGrane: My take on it is from the content strategy angle.  If you’re thinking about developing a mobile strategy or developing mobile apps, how you need to think about your content, and particularly how you need to think about your internal processes—whether that’s your publishing workflow, the relationship between your web publishing strategy and how you make decisions about what makes sense for mobile—the human side of it really.

Jeff Eaton: Karen and I have a tendency to echo each other in a lot of ways, but I’m definitely coming at it from more of a technology background.  I’m traditionally a software developer, working on the web infrastructure and the tools, and I’m interested in the technology changes that are necessary to make the approach Karen talks about possible. It’s about transitioning from, “produce sixteen versions of our website for different audiences, devices and contexts,” to “change the way we operate so that there’s a shared pool of content that we can re-purpose.”

I find that shift interesting, because from a technology perspective we’ve gone through this before. A long, long time ago, there were a couple of newspapers experimenting on systems like America Online and CompuServe and Prodigy; then the web came around and they had parallel groups trying to maintain different presences on the web; and then everyone ditched the proprietary services and it was all about “browser wars.” Do we build for Netscape first or build for Internet Explorer first?

We went through these waves, and eventually people started to latch onto the idea that you shouldn’t have to endure that. If you bite the bullet, start planning and building a good content-focused infrastructure with the assumption that there is an ever-changing parade of ways that people get to your stuff, you can really save yourself a lot of pain and suffering in the long term.

Karen: Everyone uses this analogy of the “browser wars.” I was certainly working in this field in the late 90s, pre-web standards, where everyone had to design for every browser, design for every platform, and it was so challenging to have to navigate all of those different environments.  The rise of web standards was really seen as a huge leap forward, it was hugely motivating for businesses—I think a lot of businesses would have really struggled to get online if they weren’t able to develop one consistent approach and one consistent platform that would work across browsers and across all the different operating systems. So there’s this sense of, “Maybe that’ll come along and save us in the mobile space,” but that’s not going to happen.  I think we have to recognize there will always be an insanely diverse set of handsets, different platforms, different screen sizes, different contexts of use, and we have to embrace that as: “this is the new world order, and how are we going to deal with it?”

You really have to start with your content first. As important as that is on the web, it’s exponentially more important when you’re thinking about how you deal with the mobile space.  It’s how you make decisions as a business about what content is important for your readers to see, and how that content should be structured, what your processes are for publishing it, how you make good decisions about what gets published where and in what format. If you have that, and you’re thinking about it as a “reusable content store,” then it makes your job of how you display it on whatever device you need to display it on—it makes that job easier.  Not that your job is ever going to be easy—the design challenges and the interaction challenges of making good decisions about design, display, and interaction on mobile devices will always be incredibly difficult. The way that you make that easier on yourself, or at least make your job somewhat less complicated, is to be really clear about the separation between content and form. Treat your content as: “Okay we need to set up an API (define), we’ll talk to this content store,” and make good decisions about that content almost as a separate thing.

Duo: What are the biggest mistakes you see companies making when transitioning to the mobile platform?

Jeff: The easiest mistake to make is picking something because it’s hot right now and tailoring for it. There’s always a case to be made for taking advantage of the unique capabilities of some new platform, like iOS or Android, or new technologies like location-based services.  But it’s very easy to start locking your technology infrastructure in, especially if you’re building from scratch and looking at what’s hot. It’s very tempting to focus on current trends rather than figuring out what your long-term approach needs to be. When you invest in that, you can still apply to today’s cool platform or whatever is coming down the pipe a few years from now.

You can’t predict everything, but when you start saying, “What do we want people to do with our content?” and “How do we want to be able to leverage this in different ways?” you give yourself flexibility. You reduce the odds that you’re going to be caught flat-footed when some really cool gadget comes around the corner in in two years.

I think the good news is that we’ve started accumulating a fairly good number of success cases from organizations that have done this kind of transition.  A great example is NPR; they’ve actually made the transition to this kind of model. They’re now working on the second version of their internal content API — they’re actually going back to the drawing board and seeing what kind of lessons they can learn. They’ve been very public and forthcoming about what those lessons are, and paying attention to them can help.

Karen: I think the biggest mistake I see businesses making is thinking about mobile strategy as, “Oh, we need an iPhone App now,” or “Let’s build an iPad App.” Businesses are very quickly going to realize that they can’t embark on one-off ventures like that without having a coherent and thought-through overall strategy.  I’m not saying don’t build an Android App, I’m not saying iPad isn’t part of your strategy; any of those things are good ideas if you’re thinking about a more holistic framework, and if you’re thinking about what those things are going to mean in the long-term.  My personal point of view is that you run a greater risk of your efforts being wasted if you jump right in to saying, “We need to get into mobile, so the solution is we build an iPad App.”  You run a greater risk of that effort being wasted if you don’t stop for a moment, take a step back, and say, “Where are we going to need to be in five years with mobile?” and “What are we going to have to do from a content standpoint, from a content strategy standpoint, from a content management standpoint, to get us there?”  I really think that the efforts spent on asking, “How are we going to get our content to a place where we feel confident that whatever new platform shows up, whatever new screen size shows up, whatever new interaction models show up, we feel confident that our content is ready to be displayed on those platforms?” will serve you better in the long run.

Jeff: I think one good example is Spin Magazine. This year at SXSW, they released their iPad App. They’re not the first magazine on the block with an iPad App, but they’ve been transitioning their back-end to be able to deliver content via a custom API. Because of that, launching a feature-rich iPad App didn’t mean require up a separate production pipeline and hoping for the best.  Putting new stories online on their website and pushing content to their iPad App are synonymous. They’re able to do interesting stuff like playing the issue’s music playlist in the background while you’re reading articles. It’s not rocket science now that they’ve exposed the information, but it took planning and building the content API first, rather than just saying, “Great, let’s make an iPad App.”

Duo: When building mobile sites, what’s better: content or simplicity?

Karen: Businesses make mistakes in thinking about what a mobile user means and what a mobile user wants.  There’s a myth that mobile means you’re running through the train station with your phone in one hand. The truth is mobile could mean you’re sitting on your couch.  Mobile could mean you’re doing something, even in a quiet contemplative setting, but you’re just not working off a full desktop or your laptop, you’re working off your iPad or your phone.  It’s a myth that all that people want from mobile is location-based services, or all that people want is something you can click through with one thumb.

Oftentimes mobile sites can be insultingly dumbed down, because people assume it’s a small screen and they don’t have a lot of space, so they only need to give people the absolute bare minimum.  It shouldn’t be this watered-down version of the full experience; it should be a completely solid experience that isn’t cluttered up with a lot of useless stuff like you sometimes see on the desktop.  I would really encourage businesses to think of their mobile site not as a dumbed down version of their “real” site, but rather as a complete, useful and meaningful experience unto itself.

Jeff: I’m biased, because I’m the guy who waves the API flag, but one of the other advantages of the that approach is the ability to provide very tailored access to certain kinds of information. Things like offering microsites that give people access to important contact information and company forms, or apps that carve out a small portion of your content and present it in ways that are useful in different contexts, those things aren’t as difficult if you’re pulling from a pool of well-structured content.

Karen: I would emphasize that mobile users don’t want less, they want less complex. You can’t dumb it down for people. What you need to do is take it as an opportunity to really understand what people want, and simplify the experience for them so that you’re not wasting their cognitive effort on a bunch of useless stuff. You’re delivering exactly what it is that they need.  We’ve maybe gone a little bit too far on the desktop—lots of real estate means lots of crap on the page—and mobile is an opportunity for us all to get right by our users and focus on delivering what they need from the experience.

Duo: How does Drupal (and systems like it) approach building for mobile?

Jeff: I’m definitely a Drupal partisan, but I do want to offer the caveat that there’s no single answer. You can throw up a Wordpress micro site, and it has a nice mobile view that you get for free. You can install modules in Drupal or almost any other CMS to detect if someone is on a mobile device, and switch to a different design.  Regardless of what CMS you’re using, there are provisions for things like that. Everyone is starting to understand that you need the ability to tailor the site to how visitors are accessing it.

In terms of the API-centric approach we’ve talked about, there are quite a few tools for Drupal like the Services module and the Views module. They let you do things like easily exposing XML feeds of content, or even allow people to post comments and update content via custom mobile apps or external services. There are a lot of tools like that for making Drupal the hub of a larger network of sites and external applications, all leveraging your core pool of content. A lot of the pieces are in place, but just as with the greater mobile web ecosystem, everyone’s in the process of figuring out the best solutions are for different problems.

Karen: I think the bigger issue of the web content management system and its relation to multi-channel publishing is something we’ll be wrestling with for many years to come.  I was talking to somebody this weekend at the Society for Technical Communication Conference about this, and the way I think of it is, we used to have all of our content locked up in documents, in books or printed documents, and we’ve been working to get all of that into a web-based format, to get that into a web content management system.  But in many cases the content is still structured in pages.  We took everything out of documents and we put it into web pages.  There are still a lot of businesses that think about their content in terms of where it lives on their website. That is going to break down in the years to come just as much as the old document or book-centric model broke down when the web arrived.

The only way we’re going to be able to survive this mobile transition is if we stop thinking about documents and pages and start thinking about structured content that can be sliced and diced and published in a variety of ways.  For a lot of businesses, for a lot of people working in those businesses, that is a huge shift in mental model.  What it means to have well-structured, well-formatted content with good metadata is that you can dynamically display the content in a variety of different ways in different platforms.  It can be kind of hard for people to wrap their heads around.  Some companies are going to have to take a close look at the way their web content management system works, and make some decisions about whether the way it structures content is actually going to get them where they need to go for mobile.  I, too, am a fan of Drupal, and I think Drupal really does provide a lot of capabilities in this area.  Other content management systems certainly do as well.   But some companies may have an older CMS that still treats everything as pages rather than a reusable content store.

Duo: Since the mobile platform is still evolving, what changes or developments do you hope to see in the future? What’s still being overlooked?

Jeff: All of the device-dependent assumptions that we seem to be making reflexively — that’s going to come back to bite us. Even now with the shift towards mobile, companies that really try to leverage platform-specific capabilities are getting bitten by decisions about Android and iOS, Windows Phone 7, stuff like that.  The more we can get away from those things, the more we can shield our day-to-day processes from those kinds of platform-specific assumptions, the better off we’re going to be over the long term.  We have the chance to build good foundations, both industry-wide and within each organization that will protect us from that.  If organizations don’t make good choices at this phase, a few years from now they’ll be going through the same “We have to rebuild the system” grind all over again.

Karen: I would just echo that.  As with the web, the mobile space seems to emphasize challenges and decisions around design and technology without necessarily thinking through all of the choices that a business needs to make around content strategy.  A lot of the excitement in the mobile space seems to be around issues of display, so “Let’s talk about the screen size, let’s talk about the gestures, let’s talk about layout and form factor and what’s going to make this look and feel cool to the user.”  There’s a lot of discussion around various interface technologies for building apps vs mobile websites, and the challenges that developers face in how to build these things.

All of those things are important, and we do need to be talking about them. But unless we talk about the content first—aside from the gadget of the week, aside from the cool new gestures we just figured out how to use, aside from different interface design or development techniques for displaying the content—unless we have figured out our internal challenges around how we’re going to structure that content, how we’re going to make decisions about what we publish, how all of these devices are going to talk to our web CMS or how they’re all going to talk to an API that talks to the CMS, unless we really sit down and figure out all of those content  strategy challenges around what we publish, and why, and who’s responsible for it and how we know if it’s working, we’re going to wind up in the same place where we’re pinball-ing madly between the new device and the hot new device and not coming up with a coherent long-term strategy.

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