Designing for the future and not the internet fridge

I was lucky enough to attend 3 fantastic days at UXLondon last week, listening to some fantastic speakers and enjoying some web-safe beer. Highlights included Des Traynor’s insightful and very entertaining talk explaining his experience in setting up Intercom, as well as Brad Frost’s talk on working with Atomic Design which is really worth looking at if you’re about to create a new design. But one of the talks that really struck a chord with me, how we work and with some of the challenges we have seen was Karen McGrane’s talk on “Content in a zombie apocalypse”.

Getting ready for the next big thing

Humans have been using printed pages and text as a means of communication for thousands of years, so it’s no surprise that the web has taken this as the basis for its form.The idea of pages are so inherently baked into how websites have been thought of and designed for 25 years: Ask most people to describe a website and the mention of a ‘web page’ is sure to come up at some point. That’s just it, even the terminology we use leads us to a certain way of thinking about how a website should display its content.

This has been mostly fine, but one thing has forced web teams to rethink how we see web sites, and that’s mobile.

So we went back to the drawing board and started designing multiple versions of our sites so that they could work on mobile devices too. Great. Then tablets came along, so we ditched the ‘m dot’ version of our sites and went fully responsive with breakpoints and media queries and sat back all delighted with ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, responsive design is a fantastic thing and has changed the web in so many great ways, but there is still a problem.

We are now at a stage where the web is no longer confined to a single set of devices. We no longer know the screen size, pixel ratio or interaction method of an end user. They might be on their phone, laptop, smart TV, Google Glass, in-car entertainment system or even their Internet fridge.

( Internet Fridge - Probably not the next big thing)

The point here is that we don’t know how our content is going to be displayed. We don’t know how users are going to interact with our content and we don’t know how it should be presented to them.

But what we can do it make sure that our content is ready for anything. We need to try and have a complete separation of content from presentation so that it doesn’t matter what device is being used to consume it.

Think of using a WYSIWYG editor to add content to your website - this type of editor bakes in the idea that we should think of content as a page. The tools presented to us encourage us to couple how the content looks with what it means and while this might have worked in the past, it’s not going to work in the future.

So how do we go about making our content ready? Through content modelling.

Content modelling is the process of breaking your content into their smallest individual clean and concise chunks. Instead of thinking of a web page as an entity with a single block of ‘content’, we now think of it as being made up of several chunks of individual content types that all fit together to form the overall page.

Imagine a news website such as The Guardian or The Boston Globe and you can quickly see how there are several single components grouped together to form the overall pages. Trying to manage individual pages in sites like these is simply unmanageable.

With this in mind, we start to see our content in a different light. Each individual news article, recipe or user profile for example, is made up of individual attributes that are relevant to that type of content and have no reference to the medium in which they are going to be displayed or consumed. Once our content strategy is purely about content, it gives us the power to display that content in any form we desire. It gives your design team a perfect foundation to design for any medium, now or in the future, because that content is modelled with semantic meaning rather than presentation.

If you’re about to embark on a redesign or restructure of your website, I strongly recommend you go through this process before even thinking about designing for a specific platform. Getting it wrong and having to fix it afterwards is not only frustrating - it’s expensive. Karen provides a great example of how institutions store huge reams of content in PDF documents. While these are technically “on the web”, they may as well not be, because very little of that information is ever looked at. It’s hard to find, not accessible, not responsive and just generally not a good experience.

The example she gives goes through the content modelling process of only a fraction of one organizations PDF ‘library’ and details how this took them 6 months or work by 8 people at a total cost of $322,000 - not a small undertaking. This is all something that could have been avoided by employing a content modelling process at the beginning.

Start thinking about how your content would cope if you had to move it to a new medium: What attributes does it need so that you can be ready for the next big thing? What taxonomy are you using with your content now, so that when you need to search content via Google Glass, a watch, TV, digital signage or whatever the next big thing is going to be, you won’t need to retrofit attributes onto old content? Going through the content modelling process will make your content much more streamlined and future proof you for whatever technology throws at you, but if there is one lesson to be learnt; please don’t design for the internet fridge.

Further reading

The original talk
A list Apart 
Brad Frost’s Atomic Design (shows similar ideas as content modelling, but for designs themselves)