Content, Code and People: Are you ready for responsive design?

Erin Scime   October 19, 2012

When the walls collapse, will your content be ready? (photo by chaines106) 

The Breakdown: Last week, Erin Scime traveled to Minnesota to attend the 2012 MIMA summit, a conference on interactive marketing and technology. The night before, Erin was part of a 3-person panel on responsive design, hosted by the Minneapolis CS meetup. Here’s what they discussed.

What happens when a presentation layer developer and two content strategists are invited to speak to the Minneapolis Content Strategy meetup group? You get a warm group of people, warmed by the light of the fire on a cool October night at Fallon Worldwide’s fabulous office space, and a great conversation about the future of creating and managing content within the framework of responsive design.

The talk, “Responsive Design, Content, People and Process,” was a panel discussion including myself, content strategist Sara Wachter-Boetcher (whose book “Content Everywhere” will be coming out later in 2012) and developer Sean Tubridy.

If you’re not doing responsive design now, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will face it in the near future.  Sean Tubridy offered a humorous metaphor for how responsive code works. Remember the scene in Star Wars when our heroes are trapped in the trash compactor? Well, responsive code is a bit like this – albeit less destructive. It’s a state where your content must flex and fold as the walls of the page width narrow.

Previewing her MIMA Summit presentation, “Getting Flexible: Working Content into Responsive Design,” Sara Wachter-Boetcher talked about how we need to model our content so it can withstand (or respond to) the range of widths that the content will need to fit within.  Using a recipe page as an example in her presentation, Wachter-Boetcher illustrated the importance of breaking down a page to its essential components. In your CMS, you’ll ultimately be creating sub-areas that put structure around the bits of content that make up a page. For the recipe example, Sara talked about treating yield, ingredients and instructions as these separate components.

The great thing about structuring your content like this is that you can then “turn on” or “turn off” elements of a page depending on context and, even better, you create your content once and distribute it to as many devices as you need.

I was the last person on the panel to speak. Using a case study to highlight the people aspects, I focused on how responsive design can impact your team. Previewing my MIMA Summit presentation, “There’s a People Problem Lurking Behind Your Digital Strategy,” and speaking from direct experience constructing Support.ford.com, I talked about how creating responsive & nimble content requires a nimble team.

To be more specific, on the Ford support site, I worked very closely with a presentation layer developer, CMS developer and UX designer to create templates that would be modular and flexible enough to handle the constraints of responsive design. Our process was stripped of typical waterfall signoff.  We were co-located and we collaborated on the same deliverables.  Ultimately we were able to share working prototypes with real content in them to our client, so they were able to see exactly what the experience would be for desktop, tablet and mobile users. This was an incredible win in increasing transparency and meeting expectations so much sooner.

Another important thing about working as a nimble team was that our roles essentially collapsed into one another. We still had our areas of expertise that we focused on, but were able to cross over into each other’s domains easier in that we had expectations that we were truly a cross-disciplinary team with one UX lead. The brilliant outcome: no feelings were hurt in the process due to confused roles. We truly had one goal we could focus on – and that was getting the best work done as efficiently as possible.

During final Q&A at the meetup, our panel rested on the notion that it’s ok to be cautious about whether or not your next site build should be responsive. Sean Tubridy provided the great insight that you should consider how big your mobile/tablet audience is – rather than jumping to the conclusion that it will be worth the effort.  For example, if 90% of your audience is desktop users, it might not be worth the effort to change around your existing processes to code your pages responsively.

Whether or not you go responsive, structuring your content is one thing you should not hold back on. As Sara said, it will allow you to scale your designs in the future. If there is one painful (and expensive!) aspect of content management, it’s restructuring existing content too late in the game.

Follow any of the panelists on Twitter:

Or read more on creating smart, structured content from our own Rachel Lovinger’s Nimble Report.

Designers: Swimming in the Content Strategy Pond

Tosca Fasso   August 18, 2011

No overfeeding allowed! (image via Glassholic)

We admit it. Content strategists do a fair amount of talking about our work—what we do (and what we don’t do), what it means, and why it matters. But we’re not the only ones having these conversations. Copywriters are asking about it. Clients are insisting on it. But, interestingly, some of the most illuminating discussion is coming from visual designers and information architects.

Today is so yesterday

In the short run, content strategy complicates a designer’s job by adding considerations, such as how—and how often—the current content will change, who will change it, and how they will do so. In his post, Why Designers Should Care About Content Strategy.

Stephen Landau, Creative Director at Substance in Portland, OR, says that if these questions aren’t asked from a design standpoint, “…you’re designing for now, you’re not designing for the future.”

Designing for now is exactly what many of us have done for years. The alternative (designing for now AND the future) is not only more difficult, it’s more time-intensive. But the result is the opportunity to build infinitely more thoughtful and enduring solutions. Landau elaborates, “If we, as designers, know the strategy for what will be created next, we can create design solutions that work both today and tomorrow…Successful interactive designs are beautiful because the content is constantly being updated, and the design takes this under consideration.”

Independent design consultant Christine Thompson echoes Landau’s concerns with designing only for the now in her post, What Does Content Marketing Mean for Designers, “As people in the digital asset business know all too well, your future possibilities are constrained by the design choices you make at the point of content creation or capture.”

Killing the content muffin-top

What’s true for low-rise jeans is true for online experiences: the perfect fit for one is an embarrassing disaster for another. Designers know that to avoid a mismatch between the content and the container, you need to consider not just the amount of content but the format, and where the audience will encounter it. In the post mentioned above, Thompson asks, “How many creative teams or marketing departments are ready to execute content strategies that nimbly support multiple devices, with differing viewing or playback capabilities?”

While we may not know the answer, we do know that this question is increasingly being asked by agencies and in-house teams alike. Our work is changing: it’s not just the rise of dynamic content and connected devices that is increasing the need for content strategy. It’s also the fact that the internet has simply been around for a while now, so there’s significant legacy content to consider. Web experiences aren’t necessarily a fresh start anymore. There are “refreshes,” “migrations,” and “updates” to contend with. And designers have recognized that content strategy is a key component in creating the right fit.

In essence, Landau and Thompson have both articulated a significant shift in the way we do our jobs. Designing context-dependent experiences takes more time, and, truth be told, more strategy. Projects that require a fast, furious, bang-it-out-over-the weekend approach are going to shortchange our clients more than ever before, and it’s up to us to make them aware of it.

Common ground

In his thoughtful post, Letter to a Content Strategist, User Experience Designer Dan Brown confesses, “I’m frustrated with the characterization of content strategy as ‘good writing’ or ‘operational issues.’ They are unnecessarily limiting, even if taken in the context of the web. I know there’s a design component here, a newly emergent set of challenges that comes with preparing information to be delivered online. Content strategists are designers, just like I am.”

Excuse us if we blush. On a superficial level, we’re flattered that some of our esteemed design colleagues believe that content strategists are designers as well. But when designers take the time to publicly express their opinions about what we do, they are essentially holding up a mirror. Content strategists need to decide if we are going to live up to our colleagues’ expectations. It’s up to us to look those reflections in the eye, own what we see, and make our design partners proud.

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