Adaptive Content: Our primary platform is burning; Time to jump.

The Burning PlatformWe were honored at our last enterprise web developers’ conference to welcome Karen McGrane (@karenmcgrane) as our first keynote presenter. I have known Karen since we were both attendees of the “Content Strategy Consortium” at the 2009 Information Architecture Summit, and every encounter, every opportunity to listen to her speak, has been an inspiration to me.

Currently, Karen is giving a talk called “Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content,” and many of you may have heard her give it as the closing keynote at the Content Strategy Confab 2012 in Minneapolis. For any who haven’t had the pleasure yet, I’d like to review my principal revelations from that marvelous talk.

As our conference theme was vaguely articulated as “mobile,” she addressed herself to the issues of how to ensure that our content plays well, when we have no idea on what sort of device or in what context people may be encountering and consuming our content. But more important than the “how-to” aspects, my main revelation from the talk was how hard it can be for us as content designers and producers to let go of control—to confront and release the idea that our content has a “primary platform,” from which are derived all the formats for the devices and contexts we can imagine and plan for.

Abandoning the “primary platform”

I think the greatest insight I gained from Karen’s adaptive content talk is the idea that historically, all content has been designed and created for a “primary platform,” whose format is well understood. After its initial publication, it must then be reformatted to meet the design realities of any other contexts in which it is to appear.

For example, a slick sales brochure is created as a print document. In this case, the paper page is its “primary platform.” The designer kerns and justifies, styles and tweaks, until a beautiful product has emerged, ready to be handed out at tradeshows or mailed out to prospective donors.

Then someone says, “Hey, we need to get this ‘up on the web,’” and it is (implicitly or explicitly) understood that it should look as much like the printed piece as possible. The brochure is then exported as a PDF, and on some webpage, there is a link to download it.

But then, someone notices that the brochure PDF doesn’t look right on a phone…or a tablet. The display is either too small to read, or it doesn’t rotate well from portrait to landscape. It is handed back to the designers to be “fixed.”

The design team then becomes trapped in an inescapable cycle of creating multiple formats for every content piece, first for print, then for web, then for mobile devices. The need to rework the design for different contexts multiplies the time and cost of creating the content.

Some designers, feeling the pain of the rework process, recommend “designing for mobile first.” But then “mobile” becomes the “primary platform,” and the need for redesigning and reformatting content for other contexts remains.

Responsive  Design: Teaching your design to adapt to its surroundings

Ethan Marcotte has sounded the call for “Responsive Web Design,” which from the visual designer’s perspective, offers a solid approach to putting intelligence into the CSS code, so that a design “knows” what device is calling it, and it can respond with the appropriate styling and format to match. By incorporating media queries and relative measures, web designers can teach their designs to accommodate a wide range of devices and formats. This brilliant work is revolutionizing the way we make design decisions and write code.

But if “responsive design” is about teaching the design know the device, “adaptive content,” according to Karen, is about teaching the content to know itself.

γνῶθι σαυτόν: Teaching your content to “know itself”

“Designers are control freaks,” admits Jared Ponchot at Lullabot in a blog post on responsive design. News Flash: So are writers, editors, and other content producers. “Hello. I’m Stephen, and I’m a content control freak.” I can only say that self-knowledge is the first step toward wisdom.

But it’s time to admit that we’re powerless over technology and its users. We can never know enough about our users, their needs, or their devices—let alone how devices will have changed by next year—to teach our content how to adapt to them. Instead, we must build into the content solid information about its structure and meaning, so that we can allow others to make decisions about how it should look and behave.

(It’s probably more like parenting than we care to admit: Parents do their best to rear their children and help them to know themselves, but eventually they must let go and let them be their own adults. They have to stop following them around to make decisions for them. I can hear my mother saying, “But you’ll always be my content…!”)

Karen points to National Public Radio’s “content API,” which streams no design information, but only content and its structure. Because the API doesn’t know anything about devices, devices can present the content according to their native styling instructions. The NPR website has templates to style the content for the main platforms, but application developers can also write native applications to style the content for their particular target devices and contexts.As technology changes, so will the styling, but the content remains well-structured and ready for anything.

Design can only be “responsive” when content is “adaptive.”

On reflection, I think the primary message of Karen’s talk is that we’ll get the most out of “responsive” design when we learn to make our content “adaptive.” We’ve long said that structure and presentation—content and design—should be independent of one another. Well, folks, it looks like this time we have to mean it. It will require both disciplines—and facing down our control needs—to provide rich content that plays well across the dizzying array of platforms.

Time for a deep breath. Time to jump…

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