The second full day of the Intelligent Content Conference was also filled with interesting talks and demonstrations. Patterns started to emerge around the topics that are important today. In this post, I’ll sum up some of the trends that I saw across the three day event.
There’s a growing need to create content once and publish it in a number of different formats, configurations, and platforms. Authoring standards such as DITA are designed to add structure to the elements of content (in DITA’s case, technical documentation) so that they can be segmented and reconfigured and still retain their context in the overall body of content.
The tools that support this kind of publishing include component content management systems – which have been around for a while – and some newer tools that are designed to produce multi-platform content for specific purposes. Several of the conference sponsors are companies that make component content management systems: SDL, Author-it, and Vasont. In the realm of more targeted authoring tools, I had the chance to play around with a platform called LearnCast. It’s designed to allow people to create educational content – including video, audio, and interactive elements – that’s compatible with any mobile platform.
Content will be everywhere
Several of the speakers observed that content is breaking out of its containers (an opinion shared by us here at Scatter/Gather). And of course, people increasingly want to access digital content on their mobile devices: phones, tablets, netbooks, etc. Single-source publishing tools are going to be indispensible in making that possible for organizations with limited resources, but there are also decisions that need to be made.
To really streamline content production, organizations should separate the content from platform-specific layout or functionality. But this could mean missing out on some of the desired features of apps. As a result there’s a growing tension between the benefits of creating device-specific apps and the benefits of creating digital content in platform agnostic standards, such as EPUB. As the platform wars heat up, do you sacrifice features? Or reach? Or will we develop ways to get the best of both worlds?
Let’s hope we develop ways to get the best of both worlds, because paging through a PDF on a tablet is not going to cut it for most people. They want interactivity, social integration, collaboration, and links to other sources of information. They want a good experience. Eric Freese (Aptara) gave an overview of some of the enhanced eBook capabilities of the EPUB 3 specification, the first public draft of which was just recently released for review. Unfortunately, many features that are currently available, even in version 2, aren’t supported by the eReaders on most tablets.
Content needs context in order to be intelligent
Without context, content is just information. It may or may not be useful in a given situation. With context, you can deliver content that’s actually relevant. This means being aware of your users’ needs, which could be broad or very state-specific. Derek Olson (Foraker Labs) gave an inspiring demonstration of the breastcancer.org iPhone app and discussed the kinds of research and design decisions that went into creating an app that delivers highly targeted content to an audience with very specific medical and emotional needs.
Context also means being location aware, especially in the case of mobile content delivery. Localized content applications can be powerfully engaging when done right. This was the topic of a lively presentation and discussion led by Mark Fidelman (Mindtouch). The discussion was focused less on the capabilities and more on the privacy implications of providing a lot of personal information to corporations in exchange for discounts and rewards. People have different comfort levels, but many people in the room (including Mark), felt that we’re already giving away a lot of personal information all the time, we might as well be compensated for it in some way.
I was also pleased to hear several speakers discuss the need to tag content with meaningful metadata in order to make the most of all this contextual awareness. Rich, semantic taxonomies, properly structured and applied to the content, help make sure that information gets served up when and where it’s most useful.
End-to-end content strategy
Though a number of useful tools were demonstrated at the conference, it’s important to keep in mind that buying a tool doesn’t, in itself, solve all of an organization’s content problems. I like the way Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, expressed it during the wrap-up: “Vendors talk about ‘end-to-end solutions’ but they don’t seem to understand what ‘end’ means.” Generally, they define the “end” as the point when their product is no longer involved in the process.
In fact, several speakers had presented their view of the content lifecycle. Rahel Bailie, for example, identified a four stage process: analyze, collect, manage, publish, and then back to analyze again. Other speakers proposed models with three stages, or even six. But however many stages each person envisioned, they all agreed that it’s a cyclical process. And while certain tools may help with one or more stages in the cycle, no tool covers all of them. For example, a content management system isn’t going to help determine user needs or business priorities. There are tools that can provide data that will support those activities, but they still require human insight and a solid approach to developing a strategy.
In other words, use tools for things that tools are good at, and let people do what people do best. And involve your audience when you can, as well as your employees. Content creation is happening at such a massive scale now, any successful effort will probably require some combination of editorial effort, automation, and user/social contributions.
Next: What’s next?
At the end of the conference, the organizers, Ann Rockley, Joe Gollner, and Scott Abel, led a discussion with all the conference participants on what we had seen and what’s next. In my final post on ICC11, I’ll talk about some of those upcoming trends.