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The trouble with context

At the Information Architecture Summit in Baltimore, I’ve just had the pleasure of a full day with Karen McGrane, considering content strategies for mobile which of course isn’t content strategies for mobile at all but content strategies for content which might somehow be consumed by 76% of us using some kind of hand-held device or other as the primary device that we use to consume that stuff because that’s our preference notwithstanding the fact that indeed for some 40% or other of the 76% or other that preference is actually the only option because using a smartphone to access the internet is the only way to do it and don’t forget that an ever-growing percentage or other of the new natives in the 18-24 age range just actually don’t see why you’d want to access the internet on anything other than your smartphone because, like, using a proper computer is what your dad does in the corner of the home office and I should know because that dad is me.

Which is to say, don’t get led astray by implied contexts of physical devices when considering the user needs and behaviours in relation to the structure and organisation of the content they may consume. There is no specific mobile use case that defines a content strategy when considering your options for creating a compelling user experience. There is only content. And the structure of that content. And the user experience of interacting with that content is what defines the context of use. It is a misappropriation of the term to hypothesise scenarios based on context, since context can only ever be undefined up to the point at which the manifestation of the moment of interaction occurs.

We can, of course, be pragmatic and facilitate a conversation about context by making some assumptions about likely renditions of scenes where actors follow a script to bring to life some awkwardly cinematic versions of potentially reasonably representative portrayals of the personification of a user need. These are the ‘what if’ propositions that at least enable us to align our thought gazelles behind a weirdly myopic vision of a real life event. It enables us to say ‘that might happen. what might we consider based on the knowledge acquired from that?’ And actually, we can write pretty good scripts. And we can develop pretty good personas.

But we’re just making it up. And we bring to that imagination every subtle or not so subtle nuance of our own limited experiences and assumptions to the point where we can imagine a whole sundance festival of what ifs but if the only person in the audience for the special screening of ‘a series of what ifs in the style of a seemingly disconnected robert altman style parable that ultimately defines the human experiences but coincidentally demonstrates the likely context of use for you the user’ just sits there slowly shaking their head muttering something like ‘they don’t understand. they don’t understand’ then we’re wasting our time.

Your content strategy is brilliant and hopeless

I don’t believe there’s anyone out there who has put two words together that have been published on a web site since 1993 that hasn’t at some point sat at their desk and typed into a strategy document ‘write once, publish everywhere’ or ‘centralised writing, distributed reading’ or ‘write once, publish many’ or ‘global content, local readers’ or ‘one repository, many devices’ or ‘my CMS brings all the boys to the yard and damn right it’s content framework means it’s deployed on multiple platforms and viewports with coherency and efficiency and is better than yours by which I mean maximises ROI and provides the ideal user experience about which I could teach you but I’d have to charge’ or something like that.

Defining a content strategy that maximises ROI on publishing for a business isn’t difficult. Once you’ve distilled the distribution components of a publishing system into the dark matter of a CMS then everything else kind of gets sucked into the inevitability vacuum. You just need to draw some concentric circles around it and randomly place some google image swipes of devices and screens and that stock photo of a globe with a URL wrapped around it that says THIS IS WHAT THE INTERNET IS and you’re away. If you like, you can project the cost benefit to the organisation of rolling out said strategy by Q4 and streamlining your processes, synchronizing your publishing and automating your workflows. In the long term the ROI is massive. Like, a huge number.

Trust me, I’ve written that strategy a few times. It’s brilliant.

But it’s also hopeless. Content strategy, however perfectly formed, nearly always necessitates business change in order that is delivers on its promises. And businesses don’t like to change. They like to save money. They like to be efficient. But they rarely actually honestly have the ability to change the way they operate around a strategy that makes their content delivery scaleable, manageable, responsive, adaptive, data-driven, intelligent, profitable, better. Not because they don’t think your strategy isn’t brilliant and that it will indeed bring all those boys to the yard, but because they’re simply unable to overcome the festering delineations within their own business that preclude agility. I mean, if you could just change your strategy to make it work for the product division, because, you know, I think they have data or something, then maybe we could do a pilot, you know, phase one, but we don’t have anything to do with the service division, I mean, they’re a separate part of the business and we don’t even know who they are, although Mike in corporate does know the manager over there and Mike owns all that corporate stuff, like, um, I dunno, press releases and things. Can we do press releases? They already have a CMS. Maybe we can use that, etc…

Defining a content strategy is rarely a problem. Facilitating business change nearly always is. If you’re not talking to the person who can truly bring about that change, you’re quacking into a void.

Global, local, desktop, mobile

About a million years ago I wrote the web globalisation strategy for a large corporation that included, variously, authoring and production strategy, globalisation, localisation and internationalisation requirements, data architecture, content management platform definition, functional specifications, business requirements, lots of pictures of concentric circles, some arrows, some double-byte character sets, search integration, all sorts of stuff. I mean, I didn’t write all of it. No, actually, I did write all of it. And it was pretty good. But it never happened.

It never happened because the content strategy that supported a ‘write once, publish everywhere’ model was simply too inflexible for stakeholders to sign up to. The idea is perfectly simple. The execution is pretty doable. We could build the platform, we could integrate localisation workflows, we could support content authors with different levels of scope and authority, we could distribute that authoring, we could centralise that authoring, we could mash everything together into a globalised online presence, and Bob would indeed be your uncle.

However, different stakeholders want different things. Different customers want different things. Different users want different things. So, what’s good for the North American goose isn’t necessarily good for the Korean gander. What’s good for the North American buck isn’t necessarily good for the French doe. What’s good for the North American seahorse isn’t necessarily good for the Australian, well, seahorse. And the subtleties of those differences are what led the program to dribble to an apologetic unconclusion. We simply couldn’t define a content strategy that was flexible enough to assemble and distribute a globalised site, based on the centralised, corporate brand and product requirements and the business needs of the content experts and marketeers in the countries. It was easier for the countries to roll their own. So that’s what they did. Using the platform we built to support the central content model. They just created their own instances and copy and pasted the bits they needed from .com, creating silos and duplicates all over the place thankyouverymuch.

It’s that difficulty I witnessed in the global vs. local model that appears to be a central (pun intended) issue with desktop vs. mobile. Well, ok, it’s one of the central issues. I mean, it’s a bit of an issue. IT’S AN ISSUE.

There’s no reason why technically we can’t support the authoring, publishing and distribution of content and services that can provide a coherent experience across all kinds of screens and devices. Responsive design is a method. Having less stuff is a method. Having smaller stuff is probably a method. But for a properly scalable, flexible and efficient operation, it’s just not going to happen unless all stakeholders are in agreement about the content strategy. And when I say stakeholders, I mean anyone who owns, manages, authors or consumes that content. As a content owner, you might not care about comments disappearing from an article when you read it on a smaller viewport. As a commenter, you’ve just been slapped with the wet fish of ‘fuck you’ simply because you’re reading the article on something that fits in your palm. And that’s why content strategy is hard and why rendering isn’t the whole answer.

I’m not proposing a solution, I just see parallels with the globalisation efforts I went through years ago. I don’t think anyone has ever really got globalisation right. I’m not sure anyone will ever really get content strategy for the wider web right. But it is fascinating seeing the component parts evolve that might make it happen.

Jennifer might enjoy this Global Web Programs presentation (PDF 5mb) that talks about the common web platform. Fun times.

listening post: pg.lost – jonathan

which way round for globalization development?

I’m not sure where this bit goes. I mean, I understand the idea of your über plan and all that, ’cause you’ve been banging on about that and doing those staroffice presentations with all those circles and arrows and things for years, but what exactly do you want me to do when somebody managing global content deletes a node in the global tree and expects the whole operation to be supported seamlessly across multiple venues and countries and languages?

er, I dunno. I only did the strategy, right? or did I do the business requirements as well? I can’t remember. oh, that’s what you mean. so what do you want me to tell you? everything we asked you to tell us 6 months ago about how you actually want this content platform to support a centralized content model at a level where we can actually write something approaching a functional spec which we can turn into something we can actually begin to engineer. have you got time to do that? oh, sure! um, but what is it you actually want me do do? I mean, have I missed something out from the globalization requirements that I did last year? well, yeah. you need to let us know how somebody might actually utilize the platform to perform some kind of task which supports the operational model that you put in those requirements so we can work out whether we need to re-architect the system to enable slurping by delta and node deletion and actually what the criteria are for us having actually delivered a globalized platform that meets your needs, which, by the way, are probably not the same as they were a year ago, because everything’s changed.

oh, right. hang on, are you telling me that my own business requirements might be wrong? you can’t do that, I am the business. there mine. it’ll take them home and not let you play with them if you start saying nasty things about them. no, we’re not saying they’re wrong, they’re just not quite, well, right. here’s a whole bunch of stuff we noted that you might want to consider, because what you’ve asked for and what we’re doing aren’t necessarily exactly converging on a neat path. oh, ok, thanks. jesus! that’s loads of stuff! yeah, but we want to make sure we do it right, right?

so we reach an agreement that I pull my dumbass finger out and actually do those process flows n’ stuff that I never get round to doing and the engineering team will do what’s right, like they always do, and if they need anything urgently to progress the globalization development, they’ll let me know, so I can make something up and filter it back into the strategy later. only joking. I’m calling it the pragmatic globalization development chain (because of course, aggressive pragmatism leads us into systemized sticky matrix approaches), which is how it’s always been really, except the engineering team know globalization as well as the rest of us these days, so I’m much more deferential when I tell them absolutely positively that global content is US-English and the tiered fallback model only goes 2 levels, because they’ll probably be able to point out to me just how that won’t really work, even from a business point of view, but in a really nice way.

globalization. head. wall.

there’s no myths associated with globalization just a simple truth. you’ve got to change all your business processes mate, cos this globalized solution ain’t gonna work if you keep producing stuff like you’re in an exam room with your arm over the answers and then expect it to spread the sharing message to where the revenue is, which is not where you are, probably. the burgeoning underclass of globalization managers have been squirrelling around for years, trying to get you in a small room with no natural light just so you can understand how it might actually be possible to transform our beautifully crafted concept album of monetization through pragmatic centralization into a workable, sustainable and accountable framework for managing our messaging and enabling our commerce venues with cascading content inheritance and local value-added content support, like what I just drew on those concentric circles in staroffice, in case you were trying to work out what that was. this projector’s a bit rubbish. and I’m in another country, of course.

I mean, it’s not like its gonna even cost you a fistful of dollars. you’re already building that central web application architecture, right? I just know you’re gonna be fully internationalized an’ that, and lookit, you got hooks into localization workflows and all that stuff going on, so its gonna be like sticking a lemon on the eiffel tower. easy innit? so why not let us talk to the authors and business owners so we can’t just have some sort of arrangement where we give them this lovely globalized platform where localized milk and internationalized honey flow across the plains of centralization and over the cliffs of subscription and into the valleys of unified content taxonomies and they just have to change the way they’ve been creating stuff for the last 10 years. I think they’ll be open to that. I expect they’re falling over themselves to break their agreements with their press agencies and design vendors and actually, I bet if we pointed out to them that copy and pasting entire sections of our corporate site into Re: Re: [Fwd: Re: [Fwd: URGENT: Re: [Fwd: emails and then expecting the intern to create the online equivalent of the cistine chapel on 15 disparate sites in 10 languages in flash isn’t the most viable authoring solution, then they’d probably have some kind of religious experience and convert wholeheartedly to the church of g11n and succumb to the divine and all-knowing truth of ‘the content model’.

so, I’m off down the newsagents to pick up my copy of Marketing Matters – But Not If I Can’t Employ My Friends To Do It magazine and I’ll leave it to you to arrange the con call that has to work for Santa Clara, Camberley, Singapore and Moscow that will kick this stuff off. but don’t do it on Wednesday afternoon, cos I have an appointment with a medico about a collapsed idea.

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