The future is flexible, and we’re bending with it. From responsive web design to futurefriend.ly thinking, we’re moving quickly toward a web that’s more fluid, less fixed, and more easily accessed on a multitude of devices.
As we embrace this shift, we need to relinquish control of our content as well, setting it free from the boundaries of a traditional webpage to flow as needed through varied displays and contexts. In the words of futurefriend.ly’s Brad Frost, “get your content ready to go anywhere because it’s going to go everywhere.”
But don’t unlock the shackles just yet: our content is far from future-ready. When extracted from the carefully designed pages on which it lives today, most web content turns into undifferentiated text, its meaning lost as it spills into any container you give it.
We can do better. Rather than accept these “content blobs,” as Karen McGrane calls them, we can embrace meaningful, modular chunks that are ready to travel.
This is a content strategy problem, true. But listen up, designers, developers, and UXers: you’re not excused just yet. This job takes editorial, architectural, and technical knowledge.
This is a project for all of us.
Preparing for structure
Most conversations about structured content dive headfirst into the technical bits: XML, DITA, microdata, RDF. But structure isn’t just about metadata and markup; it’s what that metadata and markup mean. Before we start throwing around fancy acronyms, we need to get closer to the content itself, creating a framework for making smart decisions about its structure. Only then can we tackle technology in meaningful, useful ways. So hang on—this part’s important.
1. Get purposeful
You’re already designing sites with both user and organizational goals in mind, right? Great. Now you need to translate those goals to a smaller scale, applying them to each type of content you have—like blog posts, articles, rotating features, or product descriptions. To do this, you’ll need to be able to answer questions like:
- How does this kind of content support the overall site goals?
- Why would a user want it?
- What is the organization accomplishing by publishing it?
- What does the organization want the user to do with it?
Just as it’s critical to establish site goals before launching into design decisions, you have to know what each type of content is intended to accomplish before you can make decisions about how you need to treat it in different contexts. Otherwise, how can you ensure that content keeps doing its job as it flexes and twists to meet the needs of each device it’s displayed on?
(Now, if you realize your content isn’t accomplishing anything, or you don’t know what kinds of content you’re dealing with, you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands. Before getting friendly with the future, go cozy up to your client or boss and figure out what matters.)
2. Get micro
All right, you know why the articles or recipes or limericks or whatever kinds of content you’re dealing with exist. Good, because now it’s time to get even more granular, breaking these content types down into their core elements.
The specific elements you’ll need to consider will vary greatly depending on the type of content you’re working with, so start by identifying all the content chunks you can find in a given type of information. These could be things like titles, teasers, body content, ingredient lists, reviews, pull quotes, excerpts, images, videos, captions, related articles, bylines, directions, addresses, and many more.
Take a recipe for asparagus, fingerling potato, and goat cheese pizza from the popular site Epicurious, for example.
Recipes are a pretty common type of content, so you may think you’ve got this one figured out already: title, ingredients, directions. But look again, and you’ll see a whole universe of interconnected elements contributing to this single piece of content:
- Publication Attribution
- Publication Date
- Teaser Description
- Wine Pairings
- Main Ingredients
- Cuisine Type
- Dietary Considerations
- Related Recipe Collections
An information architect or content strategist sure comes in handy in determining these attributes, but everyone on the team needs to be fully engaged—because you’ll need these chunks to make major decisions about how content will respond to changes in device and display.
3. Get meaningful
Understanding which content chunks exist is just the start. Now you need to understand why each one matters to the whole—and how much it matters. This allows us to make decisions about how content is organized, prioritized, and displayed for different screen sizes, contexts, or purposes.
You can begin to do this by considering:
- How does this element contribute to the content’s purpose?
- What meaning is lost if this element goes away?
- What relationships exist between this element and the others?
If this were my project, I’d do some hefty research into organizational goals, current content use patterns, and user needs well before getting here. But, for example’s sake, we’ll work with assumptions. Since Epicurious is a publisher, let’s assume it wants to increase page views to bump advertising revenue. Since it’s a recipe site, let’s assume users are there to find something suitable to cook.
This scenario could translate to a content-level goal like, “recipes should be compelling, specific, and connected—so users want to make them, can easily tell whether they meet their needs, and ultimately want to visit additional Epicurious content.”
As you hold that goal up against these content elements, some interesting questions emerge:
- Removing all those related items may seem like an easy way to reduce clutter for small screen sizes, but will that decrease the number of total pages a user visits?
- If we make sidebar content push below main content as the screen size narrows, will users be frustrated at wading through ingredients to get to the recipe’s rating?
- What would happen to users’ interest in the recipe if we removed the image?
- Does a title, if displayed elsewhere without its teaser description, tell the user enough to be meaningful?
These are difficult questions to answer. Wine pairings may be extremely compelling for the aspiring sommelier, and entirely unappealing for a teetotaler. Ingredients may be a critical first stop for someone with food allergies, but secondary to someone without.
We may never be able to anticipate each user’s personal preferences, but the more we understand the relationships between information, the more the compromises inherent in any design decision will be clear—and the better prepared we are to make tough calls.
For example, in many responsive designs, sidebars are immediately pushed beneath main content for smartphone-sized displays. But is this always the right answer? Here, ratings, reviews, and main ingredients give readers an at-a-glance means to evaluate the recipe, and pushing this information below the ingredient and preparation sections could make them all but useless.
That’s the thing about adapting content to varied layouts: each case is different. One-size-fits-all rules about how content should react are unlikely to serve your many content types—which means they won’t serve your users’ needs or your business goals either. And as more devices and technologies emerge, you’ll need to develop new rules and make new compromises as well.
Good thing is, we don’t need a crystal ball to start taking action. We can begin today simply by improving the ways our content is stored.
4. Get organized
The future is sexy; content management systems are not. And yet, your CMS may well be what’s standing between your carefully considered content and its ability to travel. Think about the elements we’ve identified and the relationships and priorities that define them. Are the CMSes you’ve worked with ready for this level of content? If so, you’re in the minority. The rest of us have some work to do.
One organization that’s taken great strides to future-ready its CMS is National Public Radio. Back in 2009, NPR launched a methodology it calls Create Once, Publish Everywhere. With COPE, each story is entered into a set of discrete fields within the CMS, then made available via an API to multiple platforms—such as the NPR website, device-specific applications for iPad and iPhone, the NPR music site, and local NPR affiliate stations’ sites.
NPR’s CMS supports a variety of content elements, but only four are required: a title, short slug, longer description, and date line, says Zach Brand, the head of technology for NPR’s digital media. Additional attributes—like images, audio, or bylines—are all optional. Once in the CMS, the story is distributed via API and ultimately published using various combinations of elements determined by the needs of the platform on which it’s being published.
If we want systems that can handle this kind of modular, fast-moving content, it’s time we get cozier with our CMSes—and the people who develop, integrate, and customize them. Armed with knowledge from your in-depth analysis, you now have the tools to embrace a strategic approach to content management, which will help you to:
- Ensure those focused on CMS features and capabilities understand your content and what it’s intended to accomplish.
- Explain the types of content you’ll need and what elements they require, much like NPR has defined the attributes of its stories.
- Understand your CMS’s possibilities and limitations, and collaborate on how to deal with them.
- Ease your technical team’s burden by providing them with thoughtful, specific direction to inform the CMS’s requirements.
This groundwork will serve you well even if you’re just managing a basic website, but as you begin to share content across more devices and channels, it becomes critical. With a CMS that’s organized around modular, meaningful chunks of content, you’ll be ready to create rules for how that content should bend and shift—and have the systems in place to actually implement them.
5. Get structured
There’s a reason this article didn’t begin with a primer on XML. Technology can’t help you make good decisions; it can only help you implement them. But content elements must eventually become code, so even if writing markup isn’t your job, we could all stand to get more comfortable with the tools out there to do it.
Structured content isn’t new. Technical communicators have been pushing DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) for years—and there’s nothing particularly futuristic about it. Based on XML, a markup language that gives content components an inherent meaning when displayed beyond their database, DITA authors and publishes technical information in content modules—small pieces of information designed for reuse and categorized according to topic.  Designed by IBM to manage the company’s own technical content, it’s most widely used for things like help documentation.
Many technical communicators insist DITA should be the web’s standard structuring approach, but it’s never quite caught on. It’s also not the only way to do it. HTML5 now supports semantic markup through its microdata extension, which goes beyond traditional presentational tags and allows you to mark up content with standards-compliant, semantically rich HTML.  Of course, HTML5 itself is still a working draft, and it’s unclear whether microdata will gain widespread use—or offer enough specificity to suit our content. For example, late last year, the “time” element was removed in favor of the more generic “data.”
There’s also Schema.org, a microdata-based approach launched in 2010 by Bing, Google, and Yahoo!. Designed to create a common language across search engines, Schema.org arranges microdata into taxonomies of content types that start broadly and branch into ever-more-specific elements. Critics, however, point out that Schema.org is a closed system: the search engines tell us which structures matter, rather than allowing content owners to define them.
Many people are passionate about which of these approaches is best, and why everyone else is doing it wrong. I’m not one of them. Fact is, we may be a long way from a definitive markup method, and none of these currently supports all kinds of content, anyway. Use the one that makes the most sense for your project right now—and in fact, that could mean not even worrying about markup yet.
Giving life to structure
What matters much more than markup is the work we put in to get there: the rules and relationships determined through analyzing content closely and caring for its message and purpose. After all, “semantic” connotes meaning—typically, the meaning of language. Whatever markup language you use, it’s not semantic unless it pushes meaning forward—which is why you can’t start with markup; you end with it.
This, I think, is why structured content has often been written off as too technical and utilitarian for the mainstream web crowd: because we’ve left the editorial side, the experiential side—the part that lends content life—out of these conversations.
This needs to stop. Future-ready content isn’t about becoming an XML expert or assuming microdata will solve your problems. It’s about seeing structures through the lens of meaning and storytelling, and building relationships across disciplines so that our databases reflect this richness and complexity.
We don’t have all the answers, but we do have a clear place to start: with our content itself. As we break our content down, analyze its elements, and document the relationships that turn those elements into a meaningful whole, we can begin to create and manage content in a way that endures, wherever the future leads us.
Technology will change. Standards will evolve. But the need for understanding our content—its purpose, meaning, structure, relationships, and value—will remain. When we can embrace this thinking, we will unshackle our content—confident it will live on, heart intact, as it travels into the great future unknown.