No one likes stale content. That’s why we do our best to give it a long life, making it interesting and relevant to our audience in ways that could endure weeks, months or even years.
The same goes for content design, but this has the added difficulty of going past its sell-by date because of the technology it relies on.
The past is another planet
Only a decade ago, your phone was a tiny thing with a small screen and numeric buttons like a school calculator. You used it to make a call – it’s a phone, isn’t it?
Somewhere in its labyrinthine menus was an option to go online, but once you’re there it was so slow and clunky that you didn’t bother, and did all your surfing on your computer at home.
Anyway, there was no hurry, no relentless soundtrack of pings from incoming emails, chat and tweets. Twitter, Apple Push Notifications, apps hadn’t been invented. Social media was just a fuzz on the dim horizon that only a few were coming to realise would be massive.
It’s not that long ago, a decade, and yet in terms of the way we communicate with and relate to each other, it might as well be another epoch.
When Wikipedia was launched, there was up to a five year time-to-obsolescence on web-enabled services. Now it’s around 12 months, and shortening all the time – a rate of change known as ‘velocity of obsolescence’.
And if change is ever quicker for software and hardware, where does this leave content design? How can content designers meet the goal of providing fresh engaging content across time, space and devices?
A content-first approach
We may not know what the future has in store for us, but this doesn’t have to be an obstacle, according to Mike Atherton, veteran information architect and UX coach. For him, it’s not so much about defying time, but about being future friendly.
Talking at Scroll’s Content, Seriously meetup recently, he stressed the importance of putting content first. Design the content before thinking about the interface, and the future isn’t such an issue. Users get to engage with your content as and when they please, whether on a laptop, tablet, phone or watch.
He illustrated his point with his design for the latest website of the upcoming IA Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously, a new site had to be designed every year from scratch, which was a good exercise for volunteers, but left the summit without a clear and enduring brand.
The task, then, was to create a future-friendly website that could be easily updated and applied to changing user needs, regardless of interface or location.
Complexity behind, clarity in front
The trick, he said, was to create a ‘domain model’ from the off, which describes the subject and how all the concepts and relationships hold together within that. It’s not the same as a sitemap – it’s a stage removed from websites – and nor is it just a summary of content.
The domain model explains the complexity of the subject and enables content designers to decide which parts they want to show on what interface. It also enables them to balance comprehensive detail against user accessibility, what Mike called ‘complexity behind the scenes and clarity up front’.
He showed how the domain model described the relationship of the main concepts to each other, such as event, venue, location, person, role, session and session format. If domain models capture the overall context, the content model zooms in to detail, its properties and how it’s offered to users, giving it its structure.
In his example, the ‘person’ concept from the domain model becomes explained in terms of its inherent properties, such as name, company, job title, biography, job title, associated website and Twitter ID.
Once content is broken down into these atoms, it’s only at this stage that the design needs inform the ‘granularity’ of the content model, where and how the atoms appear in relation to each other.
Structured content is future friendly
This makes it straightforward to apply the structured content into the content management system (CMS), which can deal with it in terms of its properties, content types and relationships.
Use an unstructured CMS and you get what Mike called ‘blob’ content – a mess of pages, titles and rambling body fields, in which the relationships between each part are lost, formatting is made ad hoc and links are added by hand.
Style clashes are far more likely, but even worse from a user’s point of view is that the core concepts that hold the content together become trapped in and swamped by the body field.
Future-friendly content, he said, is ‘stored, structured, and connected outside any interface’, but ‘ready to use in every interface’.
In ten years from now, as we zip around on hoverboards, browsing the web on our trousers, these principles are still likely to be true.