An Event Apart: Adaptive Web Content

by October 25, 2011

In her presentation at An Event Apart in Washington DC 2011 Karen McGrane discussed the need for structured content in Web sites. Here's my notes from her talk on Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Web Content:

  • Typical client request: we need visual consistency across all experiences so we need a redesign.
  • But it’s often better to a step back from the need to have a redesign and instead focus on your content delivery system. Most people are very hesitant to touch their CMS. “Our CMS is hard to use.”
  • We have people all over the organization who are responsible for creating content. They don’t always report to the same person. They don’t share all the same values. So we face organizational challenges for content management.
  • Mobile and social terrify organizations. They don’t know what to do but know they need to do something.
  • Everything is fragmented: CMS tools, internal processes, and devices + platforms.
  • We can’t afford to be writing content for any one platform. Instead we need structured content to work everywhere.

A Tale of Two Publishers

  • Conde Nast: created tablet apps for a number of their magazine titles. They went back to their roots of design & articles: to doing what they’ve always done just for different devices. Art and production staffers make two layouts for iPad edition (landscape & portrait) in addition to print layout. But the iPad apps have seen consistent declines in sales. They only sell in the tens of thousands compared to hundreds of thousands in print.
  • NPR: created an API that allows anyone to access and display structured content on different platforms. The API makes it possible to separate content from presentation and allows for re-use. NPR has seen an increase in page views of 80%. Mostly attributable to mobile use (new experiences built on the API).
  • Why are news organizations the innovators? They know how to build systems with good structure: headline, deck, lead, nutshell paragraph, etc. This is engrained in their culture & they are taught how to work this way.
  • The future of adaptive content is pretty old. People have been talking about structured content for years. What’s stopping us?


  • People are still thinking about how to write for print. They start with thinking about print, then how to shove that into a Web site, then how to shove that into a mobile device.
  • All their processes, organizations, structures, and modes of behavior are focused on print. They have generations of history and workflows influencing their decisions.
  • Thinking about where content will live on a web page is pretty 1999. Yet this is what a lot of Web CMSs do.
  • One well-structured flexible reusable set of content that can be published to many places.
  • Everyone thinks content and form are married together. Web standards has made great strides toward separating content and structures.
  • We have CMS that are vertically tied to specific display and delivery. As a result, we need to go deeper into the stack.
  • This is not a technology problem. It’s a strategy problem. We need to explain to people how these systems will work and why they should care.


  • Write for the chunk, not for the page. Truncation is not a content strategy. Don’t just chop content off to make it fit onto small screens. There is a war between blobs and chunks. We can’t let the blobs win.
  • Demystify metadata. Metadata allows us to programmatically assemble content in appropriate ways (for different devices, etc.)
  • Metadata helps prioritize content and eventually personalize it. But you need human judgment to decide what actually matters. Automated pages are not smart enough on their own.
  • Better CMS workflow. Content administrators hate the input fields in content management systems but they are just a symptom of bad workflow. We have to stop making checklists for deciding on CMSs. We need to look at the workflows for content creators instead.
  • We need to make sure the workflow is streamlined, the system is usable, and creating structured content is easy. A prettier font and better tabs are all great. But we need to look at the design of the workflow. Apply the same principles and techniques we use to design Websites to design our CMS systems.
  • Use mobile as a wedge. We have a huge opportunity to take a step back and figure how content publishing practices can be rethought to set ourselves up for future success. This will allow us to make it onto new platforms.
  • The more structure you put into content, the freer it will become.
  • We have to separate content from display (for real this time).
  • We need to capture content in a clean, presentation-independent way.
  • We need ongoing conversations about structured content.