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…

Content Modeling is more than “fields”

When content management folk talk about “content modeling,” they are usually referring to the process of building templates for a CMS.  Besides the Content Management Bible by Bob Boiko, which is a great place to see how a lot of CMSes work, I found a series of excellent overviews of the discipline by Deane Barker of Blend Interactive, Inc., at Gadgetopia.

Barker says:

“Content modeling is the process of converting logical content concepts into content types, attributes, and datatypes.”

In academia, you can find inscrutably technical research on content modeling as the process of identifying the structure of documents algorithmically. (This gem from MIT scintillates! Content Modeling Using Latent Permutations, by Chen, Branavan, Barzilay, and Karger. 2009.)

But if that’s what is meant by “content modeling,” then there are essential aspects missing.

As content strategists, we face this technical view all the time, which I believe is descended from IT disciplines like “data modeling” for database design. We come on the scene talking about content purpose and process, and technologists ask us for template requirements, metadata fields, and data types. In these days of XML standards and the quest for the Holy Semantic Web, we find ourselves pushed into the thick of technical specification before we’ve had a chance to imagine what the content is supposed to be and do, let alone how it should be structured.

Returning to art

In my view, we’d be nearer the truth of “modeling” if we took our cues from other disciplines:

  • When a painter undertakes a monumental work of art, she doesn’t just run in with paintbrushes blazing. She sketches from life. She does études. She makes early decisions about what works and what doesn’t.
  • Murals often begin as drawings in miniature, which are enlarged to scale, then transferred to the wall.
  • The sculptor “models” in clay before casting in bronze.
  • The industrial designer creates digital “models” before production.
  • Developers create prototypes (just “models” by another name) before turning the coders loose.

Models serve as demonstration and instruction to the producers, the assistants, and the artists themselves. They remind and guide. They provide format and boundaries to inspire greater creativity.

Content must be modeled in this creative sense, as well as in the technical sense.

Some suggestions for modeling

  • Banish the “basic page” from your content types. The “webpage” is the content parallel to the “miscellaneous” category in information architecture. Far from being your standard content type, it should be your very last resort.
  • Ask the simple questions. Why are we creating this content form? What are people supposed to do with it? What does that mean for the other kinds of content we produce? How can they be combined into content “super-types?”
  • Do some content studies and sketches. Before you define technical requirements, spend time whipping up some real content to see how it behaves in your domain. If you already have content, gauge the consistency of its form from one piece to the next.
  • Test the usability of your content. Like a user interface, you should see whether people can actually use your content in the way it was intended. Do they get from it what you hoped they would?
  • Define the “rules” for each content type. You’re establishing conventions for the content creators, so they know what they’re doing, and so they can do it consistently over time.

By modeling your content in the artistic sense—by setting the forms and boundaries even before the content is “designed”—all the technical content management exigencies, like “fields” and “data types,” are set in their proper perspective. Templates are simply the mold into which your material is poured and out of which the sculpture emerges, fully formed.

Taxonomy: A “Disambiguation”

I was not able to attend the several workshops on “taxonomy” at the recent WebContent2010 conference (#wcconf) in Chicago: Tough choices were made. Yet I think I got a lot out of those workshops because of the seriously faithful tweeting coming out of them, and when I said so to some new friends, they almost all said, “How? I didn’t understand any of it…overwhelming.” I replied that when you follow a tweetstream, you only see what people understand, already interpreted for you. (Which is a recommendation, really, to follow conferences you can’t attend: Done well, the tweets will give you at least the essential points.)

Amid the summary tweets of the workshops’ content, however, I saw comments such as these:

“A workshop and a session on taxonomy and I’m still confused. Is it just me? #wcconf” – @EvanKittleton

“Ouch. My head hurts. Taxonomy not an easy beast to wrestle. #wcconf” –  @cc_holland

A lot of the confusion centered on how the idea of taxonomy relates to—and differs from—other elements of Information Architecture, such as sitemaps and navigation. Are they the same thing? Is it just your metadata?

With the guidance of my best-bud colleague Becky Bristol as technical reviewer (@paintingblue) I’m going to try to “disambiguate” it, that is, to explain and clarify.

Disclaimer: I’m an explainer, not a taxonomist, so if you’d like to help with the definition, please by all means chime in.

The Roots of Taxonomy

“Taxonomy” is an ancient scientific practice. It means to find names for things. In naming things, you try to figure out how sets of things are related to one another, so that each, unique item will not only have a unique name, but also a reference to the others to which it relates.

Taxonomy creates a hierarchy of inheritance, from general down to specific and back: A giant tree, on which there is a unique place for every item, like the leaves at the ends of twigs at the ends of branches connected to a trunk and running deep into the earth.

In order to build a taxonomy in the scientific sense, you have to create a framework that tells you how to name a thing. This is the “schema.” The most famous schema was created by Carl Linnaeus, an 18th Century Swedish botanist, to categorize and name life on Earth. It has eight, major taxonomic ranks:

Domain -> Kingdom -> Phylum (botany)/Division (zoology) -> Class -> Order -> Family -> Genus -> Species

If you’re REALLY geeky, you can lay it out in Latin:

Regio -> Regnum -> Phylum/Divisio -> Classis -> Ordo -> Familia -> Genus -> Species

There are only certain terms you can put into those fields. Imagine drop-down boxes from which you MUST choose. Let’s try it on ourselves, humans:

Domain Kingdom Division Class Order Family Genus Species
Eukarya Animalia Chordata Mammalia Primates Hominidae Homo H. Sapiens

When the terms don’t apply at a certain point, then you get to pick a new term, which at that point, creates a new branch. If you find a new item in nature, something that hasn’t been named before, you get to name it yourself, but you will use the same set of terms down the tree as far as you can to demonstrate your new species’s relationship to all other life.

Taken altogether, this classification system becomes the official way of understanding the whole world of animals, plants, and bacteria. Taxonomy is powerful because it is universally adopted: You could try to work out a new system, but then you’d have to explain it to everyone and get buy-in for it to mean anything to anyone else but you. It is at this point that we make the transition to the Web…

Taxonomy on the Web

Now at some point, the word “taxonomy” was appropriated by information architects to talk about web content. When one discipline borrows from another’s, the meaning and use of the term can change significantly, and so “taxonomy” doesn’t mean to the web professional quite what it means to the biologist.

A website’s taxonomy describes how all the content relates to each other. Through its rigidly controlled network of meaning, there is a way to say with confidence:

“Item X and Item Y are in the same group. When you look at Item X, you may also be interested in Item Y.”

We take this kind of connection for granted these days because Amazon and other e-commerce giants have made such ubiquitous and successful use of taxonomy to sell related things, but it’s really quite difficult to establish those kinds of relationships in your content without taxonomy.

In summary to this point, then, “taxonomy” on a website is a classification system that maps all your content to other content. Taxonomy on a website creates a scaffold that holds your content together.

Not one taxonomy, but many

It gets a little more complicated from here. Whereas more info

in a biological taxonomy, we’re dealing with only one dimension of relationship, the ultimate relationship of one species to another through its name, on a website, there can be many classification systems to govern the relationship of content along many dimensions.

Let’s take with a clothing retailer. The most basic taxonomy would divide the products into groups of “kind” to answer the question, “What article of clothing is this?”

Clothing for the upper body

  • Shirts
    • Blouses
    • T-shirts
    • Polos
    • Turtlenecks
  • Jackets
    • Blazer
    • Windbreaker
  • Sweaters
    • Cardigan
    • Pull-over
    • Vest

Clothing for the legs

  • Pants
    • Dress pants
    • Jeans
    • Shorts
  • Skirts
    • Full-length
    • Wraps
    • Culottes (really a hybrid)


  • Jewelry
    • Rings
    • Earrings
    • Watches
    • Necklaces
  • Belts
  • Hats
  • Bags

So far, so good. We have a system for identifying items by basic type. But that’s not so good for sales.

There will be, then, additional taxonomies to build up a multidimensional system that organizes products into classes: For women or men, girls or boys; for casual, work or formal contexts; for outdoor or indoor; by color; by season; by ethnic origin; and so on, and so on…

But that’s just the products. There will be other content that accompanies these products, and all that content must also be organized into categories.

  • “How to” content might include tieing neckties, caring for leather, assembling an ensemble for an evening out in Paris.
  • “About us” content might go through all the ways that this company works for environmental activism.
  • Product information might include stories about where the materials came from, or who made them.

The taxonomy must account for all these dimensions of content description and classification, so that when you pull up the product page for that pair of shoes you’re considering, you also can see:

  • What other colors are available?
  • What other shoes are in its class?
  • How do you care for them?
  • What accessories would complete your outfit?
  • How have other customers worn this item? (From their photos)
  • How long it would take to get them if you clicked the button right now…?

Taxonomy implemented through metadata

All this work of understanding the interrelationship of content has a specific and practical end: Metadata.

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the process of developing taxonomic systems and how they are then translated into metdata for your web content. It is crucial, however, to recognize that having a clear, controlled system of metadata, which is then meticulously and consistently connected to your content, is the only way to ensure that your search and coordinated applications serve up the content the user expects, in the language the user expects, in combinations that make sense to the user.

Rich, interactive experiences require taxonomy

Creating rich internet applications (RIAs) is partly about the technology to evaluate and serve up all these connections, but it is impossible without care, design, and maintenance of your content’s taxonomy.

Again, unlike our scientific counterparts, there can be no, single, universal taxonomy for web content because each content domain has its own context of purpose, vocabulary, and peculiarity.  There are commercially available taxonomic systems to get you started, but they all have to be evaluated for your specific purpose, and there will always be adaptation of the metadata.

Taxonomy, Navigation, and Sitemaps

A lot of the confusion in the workshops dealt with how a website’s taxonomy relates to the other aspects of its information architecture. As we explore these concepts, keep in mind that when done well, the taxonomy is completely invisible to the user. It just makes everything run smoothly.


The sitemap reveals the website’s overall organization. Every bit of content on a website needs a primary “home.” Ultimately, when you reach a content item, you are (virtually, of course) in a particular location on the site. The information architect’s job is to choose from the infinite range of organizational possibilities to anchor the user experience, which then is the foundation for the richness that the taxonomy creates.

The sitemap probably will reflect some basic aspects of the taxonomy underlying the content, but when you consider the richness and complexity described above, any relation between the sitemap and the taxonomy will be loose.


Navigation is more closely related to the sitemap than to the taxonomy. The main navigation provides the user an organized path around the website, intended for browsing. Like the sitemap, it may reflect some aspects of the taxonomy, but it doesn’t have to.

The taxonomy will enable, however, the local navigation options through access points to content elsewhere on the site, reached through the relatedness of content.

IAs help you put it together!

It’s the job of information architects to work all these intricacies out. The skills for designing the taxonomy and associated metadata are extensive and precise. The content strategist helps to define the content domain and the language that will best represent it, but the IA will be able to build an organizational framework that links the content domain with the technical wizardry that serves up the user experience.

In conclusion, as my best-bud Becky says, “There is no right or wrong way of [creating taxonomy]. The trick is to come up with a taxonomy that works for your users.”

I hope that this article has helped to clarify the definition of taxonomy and its application. Please offer corrections, amplifications, and clarification. It’s a matter to wide importance, and we need to get it right!

Toward a taxonomy of content

This week, @dhh from @37signals published an article on the insufficiency of the term “content” to mean…well…content. I understand. It’s like how I love the container label “resources” or “tools” to hold all sorts of items: People always seems to suggest them for labels, yet when you turn it around and ask, “So…what would you expect to find in a drawer with that label?” The only possible answer is “Resources.” So helpful.

“Content” is in many respects an unhelpful label because it’s often expanded as “everything on your website.” While it can be useful to distinguish the “stuff” on your site from the “design” of your site, or its “architecture,” “content” doesn’t tell you anything about what kind of content you envision there, nor what that content is supposed to do.

Why “content” isn’t enough

There are practical ramifications to the term’s generality. When “content owners” are talking about what they own and want to convey, they themselves are rarely able to put it into specific buckets, let alone craft the contents of those buckets to succeed for their intended audience. Recently, I was working with an HR group that wanted to “update” their content. I suggested that they “explain” the HR processes and policies, which hadn’t necessarily changed, and so didn’t need to be updated. It caused a big fright, though, because no one had ever undertaken to “explain” how it all works, and suddenly it was all at risk of being revealed and clear. They weren’t sure they wanted to go there.

So I have been considering trying to classify content, literally into “classes,” according to what those classes “do” or “intend.” These content classes differ fundamentally from content “models.” A content model is the encoding of a parcel for a content management system, comprising the metadata and components that bring it to live on the web page. Content classes are more like your content goals. For example, you have a paragraph of text on a web page (or a video, or a photo, or a chart). That content is sitting there trying with all its might to do something. What is that something? Is it a description? Is it an explanation? Is it an opinion? Is it a sales pitch? If you don’t know what that content is trying to do, how can you tell whether it has succeeded? The answer will be specific to that class.

For exmple, an “explanation” intends to make something clear to the reader, or at least to answer the reader’s question. Has the reader understood the explanation? At least we know the right question to judge its effectiveness. Another example: An “overview” intends to give the user a good sense of all the material covered in a particular area. Can the user, after having read or watched the overview, describe the general layout of the material about to be covered?

A Taxonomy of Content

I offer this first attempt to classify to engender conversation in the Content Strategy community. I’ve just brainstormed it into existence today. I want to highlight that these classes are irrespective of “medium.” A block of text, a video, or a drawing might all be intending to accomplish the same goal. So while you might think of text initially as you read these classes, try to think also of other media for doing the same thing.

As I’ll explore later on, these classes and subclasses can then be combined into compound and complex systems of content.


Most content is just straight out “expository.” It relates some topic, it teaches something, it expands an idea, or it conveys a series of facts or ideas in prose. Some of the sub-classes of exposition might include:

  • Definition
  • Explanation
  • Instruction
  • Description
  • Biography
  • Story
  • Demonstration
  • Interpretation
  • Exploration
  • Comment
  • Analysis
  • Theory
  • Framework
  • Translation


Content often offers an evaluation of something, whether a product, a vacation, an idea, or a candidate. There are many types of evaluations on the web, from blog rants to customer reviews. These include:

  • Recommendation
  • Critique
  • Review
  • Report
  • Comparison
  • Opinion
  • Rating
  • Complaint


A summary is different from an exposition because it reduces content into a more focused, compact form. We use them all the time:

  • Overview
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Context
  • Abstract
  • Conclusion
  • Bullet
  • Update
  • Profile
  • Message


There are many kinds of persuasive content, much of it marketing, but sometimes it’s just trying to win over people’s views or call them to action. We might think of:

  • Advertisement
  • Case
  • Position
  • Slogan
  • Call
  • Invitation


Communities rely on brief bits of information that call attention to things. I call these announcements, but they also include all the practical messaging on the website:

  • Warning
  • Notice
  • Error Message
  • Alert
  • Reminder


Content that draws the line around a topic or field of endeavor indicates a boundary. Lots of web content is specifically intended to draw lines around thing, like the terms of service, or the return policy.

  • Rule
  • Priority
  • Specification
  • Standard
  • Guideline
  • Policy
  • Protocol
  • Procedure
  • Terms


Any effort to gather information, whether practical or rhetorical, fits into the inquiry class.

  • Question
  • Survey
  • Request


Web pages are full of lists, of all kinds. A list is a fundamental content class, and includes any simple collection of items:

  • Gallery
  • Sequence
  • Inventory


Reference content simply points to other content somewhere else. Like in a paper when sources are listed at the bottom, or when one article points to another, related article. These include:

  • Link
  • Citation
  • Source
  • Date


Every form to sign up for something, and any shopping cart to buy something, and any commitment to receive e-mail blasts fits within the enrollment class.

  • Registration
  • Subscription
  • Purchase
  • Application


Location content just helps in wayfinding. It includes signs and signals, maps, breadcrumbs, navigational links, and menus.

  • Map
  • Position
  • Path
  • Coordinates
  • Directions
  • Navigation


Content that makes the expected course of action clear is a plan. Conference programs, educational curricula, and menus of options might go here. I’d also include processes.

  • Agenda
  • Process
  • Curriculum
  • Menu


A lot of the content on websites serves to identify things, like product names, company logos, intended audiences, authors, article titles, list headings, and even deep in the code, the “class” assigned to html elements.

  • Name (Title)
  • Target
  • Logo
  • Icon
  • Label
  • Heading
  • Example
  • Class

Data and Visualization

When we publish data, we often include some sort of visualization. Among this class you might find:

  • Schematic
  • Chart
  • Table
  • Dataset
  • Model
  • Fact
  • Statistic
  • Illustration
  • Photograph
  • Organization chart

How content classes become content types

OK, so if my ideas are helpful, if you were looking to build a new kind of content for your website, you could use these classes to make sure that you ended up with a full content type. Taking the example from my previous writing about content modeling, if you were launching a cooking site, each recipe might draw upon a whole series of classes:


  • Description of the dish and its origins
  • List of ingredients, and perhaps of the tools required
  • Instruction in the preparation of the dish
  • Demonstration of the more obscure, technical steps
  • Specifications for the quality of ingredients, the times to cook, and the temperatures.
  • Illustration of particular steps and the final product.
  • Recommendations for serving, or for adjustments from other cooks’ commentaries
  • Plan for a complete menu to accompany this dish, and perhaps a schedule for make-ahead preparations
  • Ratings from other cooks who have made this dish

Just the beginning…

In conclusion, I think of this sort of taxonomic exercise as important both to combat overly-general labels and to provide some way to evaluate content effectiveness. If you find this kind of approach helpful, let’s see whether we can’t build it out into some useful framework.

Content Typology: Getting a Handle on Your Content Types

Content types” are among the least understood, and yet most potent, aspects of user experience and web design. Most people encounter them for the first time when implementing a grand-scale content management system (CMS) because you have to define content types before building templates for each kind of content you’re going to publish. (Everything I know about content types began with Bob Boiko’s Content Management Bible, and I recommend it to anyone facing a new CMS.)

Because they associate content types so closely with CMS, some make the mistake of equating content strategy with content management. They’re not the same thing, though they are certainly related. Your content strategy specifies the content types that will then be modeled for your CMS.

I want to take some time, then, to tell you what I understand about content typology, so that you’ll be able to address content types in your strategy.

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