Mobile is Just the Beginning – Part 3 [NF2]

Recap up to Part 3: Mobile is not “the new format for which we must be designing content strategies and content”.  Mobile is actually various formats* that need tackling.  Taking a short list of key ones we have:

  • HTML
  • Kindle
  • eBook
  • multimedia eBook
  • PDF
  • ePub

We should approach mobile delivery solutions such that they are stepping-stones to scalable, maintainable, multi-platform content strategies. 

The thesis of this three-part article is that we need to stop eating up articles debating “App or Mobile website: which is best for your customers?” and invest in getting ready for the real scary answer: you need to be ready for both, and many more formats, contexts and applications too.

*Thanks to Rahel Anne Bailie for pointing out that eye-opening link!

What you can do

Here is a list of high level content steps required (not in any order, and clearly only a starting guide) to tackle mobile “properly” (as I’ve defined it so far):

    • Modularise: Design content that’s clearly info-typed in a modular way. A module is  allows flexible recombination. High level types like ‘Article’, ‘User Guide’ ‘Report’, ‘Review’ and ‘Announcement’ are not granular enough to be split up and re-assembled. To tell new stories from existing assets, you need your assets to be sufficiently small components.  We call this ‘monolithic’I really like the way the Wall Street Journal page that Rachel Lovinger pointed me to that links small components about other movies into the main story flow (down right hand column “Films Mentioned In This Article”). The main story isn’t designed to be broken up in this case, but the side components are great examples of content that would slot into various other stories sites, or even print articles nicely.Also, think about the difference in reusability between a single, discrete FAQ or How-To vs procedural information that’s mixed up with some concepts and reference data in the flow of a larger deliverable.  You can’t extract it cleanly, so how can you reuse it?
    • Enrich: Metadata is not optional anymore. To be able to sort, filter, and rebuild things with the help of automation, we need to look at making taxonomies, folksonomies, and structural metadata all work together.This is several blogs on its own, so for now, just know you need to know about it.
    • Stop building into one format and converting: There are some print folks today who are still looking for a piece of software who allows them to take content that was created, laid out and conceived completely for print, press a button, and get a good mobile experience out of it.  It can’t happen.  It’s asking the question, “How can I hammer the square peg of my paradigm into the round hole of the market requirements? Must need a bigger hammer…”We need to design format-agnostic content as early as possible in the content lifecycle (I and many others recommend XML formats for this). Content is not deliverables. Deliverables encapsulate content for one context, time and format.
    • Build a standard process for re-casting content into new “stories” (See part 2 for “stories”): Some XML helps you describe modules and maybe break content apart, but doesn’t help you stitch stuff together with new relationships, new metadata/keywords, or new hierarchies for the diverse new scenarios. It’s this standardising of both in a format-agnostic way that really makes it usable.Whatever way you mark up your content, you will need a standardised, agreed way that you can define the stories, not just add metadata to individual modules.  Why?  Because even if you’ve made content format-independent, if you only structure the modules and not whole navigation models and flows between modules – whole stories – then you’ve just locked yourself deeply into your current management tool.These stories are the way your content relates and interconnects is critical to it. Otherwise it’s just a ‘pile’ not a website or a publication.  That metadata is the intelligence that makes the content consumable.  If a big chunk of your content’s intelligence and structure is only described in the software that manages it (the CMS), not inside the content itself, changing software would mean extensive rebuilding of your content to just make it work like it did before and make any sense to anyone.

So, although some feel we can just refer to ‘XML’ or ‘structure’ because there’s lots of options – HTML5, Dublin-core, or myriad others. I disagree. I think that not all format-neutral / metadata standards are created equal.  Without standardising on the story-telling, we’ve only got a portion of what’s really needed to deliver content.

  • Realise that change is change: XML and structure aren’t magic. There are complications and issues and ways to screw it up like anything else. Again, Rahel Anne Bailie talks about this a lot, and she and I are on the same wave-length: if users are still avoiding learning how to use Word styles or not thinking about content in a strategic, structured and process-oriented way, then XML will be harder to wrap their heads around.To thrive in an environment with this must change happening, we need to not fight to maintain the status quo but meet the challenge head-on.  We must find out how we can learn, partner, beg, borrow or steal the necessary capabilities to deliver solutions.

The Marketing Content Conundrum

A lot in the web content marketing world (a lot of content strategists) are concerned that single sourcing and structure are hard or even don’t work for marketing content.  I’ll wrap this up with a bit specifically for them as my techcomms readers will no doubt have been hearing about structure, reuse and XML for a good while by now.

I do agree that marketing overall is the hardest nut to crack. Everything else, including sales proposals or enterprise content, deals with more hard facts.

Marketing is the most “nuanced” of the content areas, but it’s not impossible. The low-hanging fruit is the things that are small, structured, and/or repeatable – catalogues, brochures, small hand-outs and data-driven ads, emailers. I’d need some more specific examples to talk about the relative difficulty of each scenario, but the idea is that because some aspects of marcomm are still very difficult doesn’t mean that marketing generally should ignore the trends.

The ‘facts’ areas of marketing are the easier ones to tackle. Feature lists, product overviews, offer conditions and details, disclaimers and media are the things that can get most easily reused into myriad deliverables. However, that’s already lots!

Single sourcing is realistic, but a strategy for reuse needs to be tailored to the business context. It’s just one more facet of your overall content strategy.

I’ve mentioned Ann Rockley a lot, probably because I’m in the middle of reading the Second Edition of the MEC, but also because she has had one of the most diverse backgrounds in structural publishing in the market including marketing solutions. She listed problems in this area as:

– Marketing sees marketing content as creative, but structure as restrictive. Structure appears to be a technical scary thing. Structure doesn’t have to be restrictive. I love what one of my clients said “Structure sets you free!” (Noz note: I’ve been saying that exact quote for years too. So true! You’re free with structure to focus on the content, with the machinery around it taken care of for you)

– Everyone is blinded by format. Everyone is so focused on how the content will “look” on the Web or on the page and there is a strong belief that content written for one format does not work well for another format. Not so, well written content designed to be modular works well in any format.

– Many see conversion as the answer to their problems. Conversion doesn’t work because the paradigm for print is different from web which is different from mobile. It should be content first, channel/device second.

Single sourcing, structure and reuse are applicable in all industries and as mobile kicks more of us into action, the skills and tools required will only become cheaper and easier to source.  Content professionals and contents strategist today need to get plugged in and linked up.

Learn More – Go To Events

For more on this, networking and conferences are great. For example:

Our topic on the night will pick up on one of the main themes to emerge from [the] CS Applied conference: namely, how do we, as content strategists, help organisations plan for useful, usable content in a multichannel world?

We’re going to talk about separating content from presentation, get a crash course in authoring and publishing standards (don’t worry, until quite recently, I thought DITA was Marilyn Manson’s ex-wife ;), and discuss the finer points of content structure.

Check out the EU CS Google Group for more.

  • We’re also regularly doing webinars and live events over at trying to bridge the technical communication and web content strategy worlds.

Please do let me know in the comments where and how you’re seeing the format explosion impact your content strategies!


  1. Kate Concannon

    Thanks for this very practical and helpful article.

    I’m an IA and Interaction Designer, but have to very quickly ramp up on enterprise content strategy…because there’s no one else to do it!

    I’m excited, but feel I need to learn more in order to successfully document adaptive/reusable content. Are there any examples of deliverables out there? Giant Spreadsheets, wireframes that include metadata and structural info?


    • B. Noz Urbina

      Hi Kate,

      Responding on my phone right before a long flight. Please excuse a short reply.

      Glad you liked the article! Rahel Anne Bailie, mentioned above, is great about posting on deliverables. Check out her blog. She and I are collaborating on some upcoming work in this area too.

      Also of course, wrap your head around Ann Rockley’s Managing Enterprise Content, second edition.

      Finally, make sure you are on the Google CS groups, EU and NA. Deliverables have been a discussion point and I believe there are some good links if you search the archives.

      Please do stop by and let me know if you find any of that useful, and if not, I can see where I can point you when I’m back with my feet in the ground.



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