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Context-free content: new challenges for publishers

Publishers used to control the way content was experienced. Designers read and put content in tailored layouts. Content was produced and laid out for consumption on paper and later on desktop computers.
The experience could be controlled but the content landscape is changing. First, an ever expanding portion of audiences access content through mobile devices. Each device, browser or app fragments the user experience. Second, new services extract content from the publishers’ websites and put presentation firmly in the users’ hands. As a result of both developments, the number of contexts in which a single piece of content is available has grown out of control. No one can keep track or test them all.

Content consumption apps and services

In the last few years, many new services appeared to help users collect, experience, store and share the pieces of content they come across on the web. Paper.li is a good example. It collects links in Twitter and Facebook and displays them alongside an excerpt in a familiar format. Others such as Readability and Instapaper reformat the content, act as repositories and sync it to other devices. All these services trend towards orbital content which “is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users” as Cameron Koczon puts it.
One of the consequences is that content is separate from its original layout. “The separation of design and content is not a bad thing for designers, in fact, it’s an opportunity to create a better content consumption experience than the next guy”, Simon Madine explains in Context-free content and content-agnostic design.

Responsive web design

Context is fragmenting even on single websites. Last year, Ethan Marcotte published an article entitled Responsive Web Design which he later expanded into a book. His ideas ignited the passion of web designers. Using the capabilities of modern browsers, web designers craft a single website which adapts to devices dynamically. You can see an example by visiting the Boston Globe and resizing your browser window. New challenges arise from these changes in design process. A single site’s user experience now changes dramatically from device to device.

Responsive content

Due to both the new service ecosystem and responsive design practices, content needs to fulfil business objectives and user goals in many different situations. To adapt to these changes, we must go back to content fundamentals and pay close attention to the emerging practice of content strategy. Shelly Wilson proposed, in her five minute presentation at the 2011 Content Strategy Forum, to integrate content professionals to the iterative design process of responsive web services. Ongoing conversations among content professionals and other designers address these issues and significant progress is made.
Progressive publishers who have embraced the separation of content and context by implementing content serving APIs (The Guardian, National Public Radio) had to adapt their content creation processes. Martin Belam, Lead User Experience & Information Architect at Guardian News & Media, shared his experience in a talk at the 2011 Content Strategy Forum and on his blog. Content creators must learn to create content that is self-contained and context-agnostic enough. Otherwise, we might run into problems, such as:

  • Spatial relationships between pieces of content are often broken. You can’t say “the figure on the right” because it might very well be somewhere else or not render at all.
  • Embeds, whether based on Flash, inline frames, or native HTML5 audio and video tags, can prove problematic in certain contexts. iOS refuses to render Flash and HTML5 tags are not universally supported. Planning for graceful degradation is more important than ever.
  • Help sections instructing users to use a mouse are rendered meaningless on touch-screen devices. Users may get confused and write for support or worse — leave forever.

Creating content which retains all of its meaning in different contexts is challenging. Fortunately, the whole community discusses these issues and best practices are starting to emerge.
I wrote “Context-free content: new challenges for publishers” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on October 14, 2011. Reproduced here with permission.