Planning for Content Beyond the Web

The following guest post was written by Dave Olsen, a programmer and project manager at West Virginia University. Dave will be speaking at Confab Higher Ed in Atlanta, GA this November.

Woman wearing Google Glass

Is your content ready for this user?

“Get your content ready to go anywhere,” says web designer Brad Frost, “because it’s going to go everywhere.”

For many, responsive web design has become the solution for ensuring that their content is, as Brad noted, “ready to go anywhere.” It’s a simple solution that enables websites — the primary medium through which many of us communicate today — to automatically flex and react to the ever-changing landscape of digital devices. Responsive web design allows us to make sure that our web content looks its best no matter where the content is being displayed.

The problem is that, even when using responsive design, the content on our websites isn’t really able “to go everywhere.” Responsive web design only affects web content. Web content is viewed through a browser. There’s no guarantee the popular outlets of the future will have a browser or that we will want to share our content through one.

Content strategists and developers need to start sketching out and developing the solutions that will make an institution’s content truly “ready to go anywhere” — ready to go beyond the web.

Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going

The mobile-friendly web is just another stage in the evolution of publishing. We’ve moved from the static print pieces of the pre-’90s to the fixed-width web that aped those print pieces in the ‘90s and ‘00s to the ever more fluid web of the ‘10s. Universities, taking part in this shift, now have tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of webpages, each full of content we want our users to access.

Knowing this, Apple and Google included web browsers with iOS and Android as a sort of “classic mode” for finding information. Web browsers help us in our daily moments of need when we might not have the appropriate app installed but we suspect the information exists *waves hand* “somewhere out there on the world-wide web.” Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the web will always be the go-to destination for finding our information or that a channel we want to target even has a browser.

As technology continues its march forward we may have devices like smartwatches that have screens that are too small for our general web content. On the other hand, its location on your wrist might make it a great outlet for emergency messaging. Or we may have outlets like Google Glass that have bigger screens perfect for our web content yet have an input method that makes accessing that content awkward.

But users of Google Glass might benefit from location-aware snippets of campus content. The Field Trip app, available on Google Glass, might bring true augmented reality to our campuses. Or there may be a new design pattern that makes the sharing of and cross-pollination of small bits of content popular. To take advantage of it we have to make sure our content is stored in bite-sized “chunks.”

Planning Ahead

To be clear, responsive web design is a great first step when making your content and your organization future-friendly. At West Virginia University we have embraced the technique wholeheartedly. The web is still a huge part of all of our communication plans and I’m not suggesting that it’s going to go away anytime soon. From users discovering content via search to us sharing links via emails and social media, the web is, and will continue to be, our primary medium for communicating.

The future that awaits us, however, becomes apparent when you examine the amazing growth in mobile traffic to WVU’s home page. On the first day of the Fall semester 2011, 3.2 percent of the visits to the home page were from a mobile device. In 2013, just two years and one responsive redesign later, 26 percent of the visits to our home page on the first day of school were from a phone. If we include tablets in our tally then 31 percent, or almost one third, of our visits were from a mobile device.

If you’re in charge of organizing and managing content at your institution, these numbers shouldn’t just make you think, “Wow! The web is popular on phones!” You should also be saying to yourself, “Wow! Things can change fast!” Start looking at the next steps you can take to make sure that your content is really future-ready. Again, we have to look beyond the browser as the channel for delivering our content. Rather, it needs to be properly structured and stored — separating content from presentation (e.g. mark-up, CSS) as much as possible — so that it can be used across many different channels.

But how do we make this happen?

Forging a Future-Ready Partnership

The next steps can’t be taken by content creators and content strategists on their own. Today’s web requires the skills of a multidisciplinary team. All too often, though, people with the skills we need sit in different silos. If you work in another department and need to engage your IT department to prepare your content for the future I would do the following:

Identify a Small Problem that has a Broad Use-Case

Rebuilding a CMS or purchasing a new one to address content problems is not a good next step. The focus of the change will be be on the tool instead of the cultural shift in how the organization thinks about content. Instead, find a small problem where ideas of separation of content and re-use can be played with both yourself and your IT team. If the problem is small it won’t take much work and won’t feel overwhelming. If it has a broad use-case it’ll be easier to sell. Once in place it should serve as an example for how other projects be should also ready for the future.

For example, at WVU we set-up a small system to capture updates regarding a transportation system that breaks down regularly. We were able to push that data to Twitter, an iPhone app, our student portal, and our transportation website. As new outlets for content are developed, like our digital signage, we can push the information to them with minimal effort. Our unit learned about building a small API, the transportation office received kudos for being more transparent, and students benefit from accessing the information in multiple places.

Get Content Examples

After you’ve identified the small problem, get real-world examples of the content you will be working with. In the same way that “lorem ipsum” isn’t a substitute for real content in a design mock-up, it isn’t a substitute when programming a system. Having real content will lead to less guesswork and fewer surprises for everyone. It’ll also help you identify sources of existing content.

It’s better to “free” this existing content rather than create extra work for others. Reducing friction leads to more buy-in. WVU Dining Services produces an Excel sheet of each day’s menu. In order to get that information online we have them upload that Excel sheet and parse the data. Uploading the file, rather than filling out a long web form, is only one extra step in their workflow. The menus are now uploaded regularly and we have that content ready to be used anywhere.

Define Structure for Your Content

Review structured data standards like and RDFa for ideas on how your content might be chunked and stored. Also, brainstorm ideas on where you might want to integrate the content you store. Sara Wachter-Boettcher does a beautiful job of covering these issues in her A List Apart article, Future-Ready Content.

At WVU we will be using schemas from to define templates and their editable regions for our new, in-house CMS. For example, we could have a “bio” template for faculty based on the Person schema. One editable region of the template could be for their name, another for their telephone number and yet another for their address.

To our editors, they feel like they’re editing a web page.

To the CMS, it now knows the data is from a bio because it has that template and that the data is related to a particular person with a specific address and phone number.

To our designers, they now have the ability to build dynamic pages like directory listings and re-use the data on press releases for their site. They get to define what and how much data is stored just by creating a page template.

To us, the system maintainers, we can also dip into the pool of data since it’s been standardized.

Learn to Say “Yes, and…”

Ultimately, the key to building the relationships and trust that’s needed to remake how institutions approach content is positivity. There will be pushback — that’s a given. But don’t let “no” deter you.

The more prepared you are regarding the goals of your project and its requirements the more likely that people will hear you out. The more examples you have the easier your project will be to build. And the more you can provide positive, creative solutions to potential setbacks, the more likely that your first project will lead to future projects that prepare your content for the future.

Amanda Costello covered this topic here a few months ago in her post, Improv and Content Strategy. It’s full of good advice for content strategists and developers alike.

Time to Get to Work

Representation of the web on a range of personal and household devices

With all due respect to Brad Frost, who created this graphic, this is not the future of the web. The traditional web, where we access content with browsers, will not meaningfully make its way to cars, watches, refrigerators, or the bathroom mirror.

What the graphic does highlight, though, is the fact that more and more of our devices are going to be connected to something and that we’re going to want to be there too. Which content is appropriate for these outlets and how that content will look is still very much up in the air. Because of that uncertainty, we need to develop the infrastructure now that will enable us to deliver contextually-aware content to the post-browser channels of the future.

Photo by azugaldia / Flickr Creative Commons

About Dave Olsen

Dave Olsen is a programmer in the University Relations department at West Virginia University. In 2009, he developed WVU’s first mobile-optimized portal, kindling his passion for creating “go anywhere” content. He also contributed a chapter to Smashing Magazine’s The Mobile Book in 2012. Every now and then he posts on Twitter and on his personal blog. More than likely, though, you’ll find him banging away on code that he shares on GitHub.

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  1. Excellent article. Reminds me of Dr Emmett Brown:

    ” Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need ‘roads’ “

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