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Content modeling: Making future-ready content possible

Good news, y’all: after two months of research and writing and endless editing, I’m still excited about the future of content.

Even better, I’ve been talking with tons of smart internetters about the topic—and they’ve all got incredibly interesting things to say. What might surprise you, though, is that these interviews keep returning to the same topic: content modeling—the process of creating “micro” architectures that together form a piece of content.

If you trained as an information architect or technical writer, content modeling may seem far from futuristic to you—I mean, we’ve been modeling content for years, right? It’s got a whole chapter in the Polar Bear Book.

So no, it’s not new. It’s not trendy. But with our new challenge of getting content prepared for an endless number of places, I think content modeling needs a hard second look—especially by the folks who are closest to the content itself.

Here’s why. Just a few years back, content modeling was typically designed to drive contextual navigation—to create meaningful connections between information, allowing you to do things like systematically link the byline on an article to that writer’s bio page, or show all articles by an author. That need hasn’t gone away (and so many sites still haven’t mastered this), but there’s now a lot more that content modeling can give us.

Whether you’re talking about personalized content, responsive design, or using an API to get your content on multiple apps, sites, and channels, your content’s structure—and which sorts of structure it has—is what either limits or extends your ability to repurpose that content and make rules about where and when it should appear.

Today, I thought I’d share some of the tidbits I’ve gleaned from these interviews, with the hope of getting you as excited about content modeling as I am.

Whose job is content modeling?

Should content modeling be done by an IA? A content strategist? The CMS integration specialist? The database developer?

A content model is ultimately a data model—something that’ll end up needing to be implemented in a relational database—but that doesn’t mean it ought to start with the technical team. Instead, content models are the strongest and most useful when they map back to the content itself:

“I’ve always seen it as a role of the people who are most involved with the content. I know it bridges across—it bridges into information architecture, to the perspective of how we structure and retrieve content; it bridges user interface design because it’s not enough to chunk up the content, we have to know what we’re doing with that content… But someone has to truly understand the content, the customer, the device, the metadata.”

Ann Rockley, CEO of the Rockley Group and author of Managing Enterprise Content

What should be included in a content model?

Well, that depends on what you want the content to do now (we need content chunks A and B to flip below C for small screens), what you might want it to do in the future (content chunks A and B will be available on web-enabled toasters, but C won’t make any sense there), and how much time and resources you can afford to spend on both:

“Modeling content is a never-ending battle between flexibility and complexity. The most complex model is the most flexible.”
Deane Barker, Partner at Blend Interactive

How does the CMS fit in?

When a content model is too complex or difficult to follow, it causes serious issues for those actually publishing and maintaining the content. In conversations with CMS experts and publishers alike, I’ve heard over and over the need for CMSes that make more sense for authors and editors—otherwise, we have no hope of them following them:

“If you make assigning a story to a section a complicated or unintuitive process, they won’t do it. If you layer it in the right way, people get it. Our UX designers are involved with everything we do in the CMS.”
Patrick Cooper, Senior Product Manager for NPR Storytelling Tools

In other words:

“You give them something that’s useful, then they start using it.”
Cleve Gibbon, CTO of Cognifide

Duh, right? People do better work when they’re given better, more intuitive tools. Except, you see, that’s not really how people think about CMSes:

“People think CMS is a soul mate—but it’s more about how you treat it. Instead of finding ‘the right’ CMS, need to make it do what you want.”
John Eckman, Digital Strategist at ISITE Design

Experiments abound

Structure may be essential for getting content across lots of devices and channels, but there are plenty of people looking at alternate ways of building that structure.

Some are implementing CMSes where authors can edit in context, viewing a page of the website and simply clicking areas on that page to edit them. From there, the system extracts structure from the content based on the template used and the names of the editable areas.

Others are experimenting with things like markdown—a lightweight, readable way to add some structure to content that can be automatically translated into a variety of more substantial markup languages.

Thing is, no one’s got the perfect answer, and there’s likely never going to be a singular way to prepare content for every different situation. Solutions that don’t require authors to think differently will have some limitations—but so will solutions that require lots of steps and granularity.

Here’s where you come in. The more people like you—people who care about content and our users’ experience with it—think about how content is organized, stored, and entered, the better our solutions will ultimately be.

Of course, you’ll find much, much more on modeling content for this new world of connected devices and distributed publishing in the book, which I can’t wait to share with you. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think: What’s your role in content modeling? What do you think is important? Who should be doing it? What experiments have you tried?

3 comments on this post

  1. Adrian Kingwell

    Really interesting stuff, Sara… As a content producer, I agree with the idea of content modelling and have talked to Cleve about it in the past.

    I am currently working, through my content agency, on a multi-country financial services website, trying to produce the content once and then go through a localisation/translation process that hopefully changes the original content as little as possible.

    Problem is, each local country (and there are 13 of them) demands its own tweaks to the content. Fine if we can assemble pages from chunks of micro content, and maybe have a local market lexicon, so pages can be created from appropriately tagged local chunks and words in the lexicon.

    But the CMS wasn’t really set up like that. Why? Because there is no content strategist on the project. As usual the content agency was engaged at a relatively late stage. In all the talk about the user coming first, there was little understanding of how the content would work in the solution. But hindsight is 20-20. The design company had an IA, but an IA doesn’t think of content at that level. IAs seem to be more concerned with grouping topics and navigation between topics than what goes on within each page. There’s a gap and now we as a content agency have to try to fit the content into the CMS design and page design as it is. Pity. It feels like a compromise.

    I had thought about this on other projects, about using chunks to reuse core content in multiple situations (e.g. on a product age, in a FAQ, in pop-up help text) but it is only when it came to publishing content across multiple countries that the idea became a necessity. If we don’t find a solution for it, then we end up with different content on each country’s site – a maintenance nightmare just waiting to happen. If we get it right, we can have very simple, very quick content change management, allowing each country to have what it needs, and having a solid amount of core content which can be managed centrally. Change the core content, and replicate it out to 13 countries with minimal fuss. Sorry, we haven’t found the answer yet, but we’ll let you know as soon as we do.

    Makes me wonder if there are any examples of a successful “content first” CMS implementation? Do you know anyone that has built a new corporate website by writing the content first, then working out how the CMS set up and page design would support it? A CMS built around a content strategy and the actual content, not just the IA and the user requirements? Page design without lorem ipsum?

    Very much looking forward to the book!

  2. Andy Etzel

    Hi Sara, when can we expect this book? I’m highly interest (read: not qualified) in this area. I am a content producer in an organization which struggles with the gap Adrian described. Do you have any recommended. Reading in the meantime?

  3. Sara Wachter-Boettcher

    Hi Andy, the book is nearing completion! Or at least, the draft is…it still has editing, production, etc., so we’re not quite ready to release a launch date. Hopefully we’ll have that for you soon!

    In the meantime, here are a few reads that might fit your interests:
    - Rachel Lovinger from Razorfish did some great stuff on content modeling for A List Apart recently: http://www.alistapart.com/issues/349
    - Cleve Gibbon wrote a series on it: http://www.clevegibbon.com/content-modeling/
    - Karen McGrane talks about related issues with the CMS, authors, and getting content mobile ready. Her book will be out this fall: http://www.abookapart.com/products/content-strategy-for-mobile, but her talks (you can find her on podcasts, in Slideshare, etc.) are a great start
    - Ann Rockley’s Managing Enterprise Content is a great read when it comes to pretty large-scale content reuse/storage issues. It’s most aligned with tech comms (e.g. big help databases, knowledge centers, manuals, etc.) but definitely gets at some of the challenges with multiple versions of the same content for different parties.

    Hope some of that helps you!

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