John Birchall discusses the potential conflicts and tensions behind creating future-proof web content.

Image of Drupal front page

Arts organisations thrive when they put digital strategy at the heart of their operations as a website is usually their most important public-facing digital presence. Naturally, users think in terms of a web publishing platform which allows them to assemble their pages. And yet Karen McGrane of Bond Art + Science, who has advised large American publishers such as The New York Times and Condé Nast, has spoken emphatically about a war between future-proof content and the web publishing mentality, which she regards as an evil dinosaur. She may be wrong. However, the outcome of a conversation about content strategy (be it in-house or with a user-experience consultant) will have an impact both on the daily work of content creators and the longer-term viability of an organisation’s content.

McGrane was speaking at the Drupal Conference last week in Portland, Oregon. Drupal is a free content management system which is gaining traction for commercial, government, charity and publishing websites of various sizes including big ones, such as The White House, The Economist, Greenpeace, Oxfam and BBC Magazines. The software aims to offer an excellent web publishing platform and an excellent content management system. However, the two objectives do not live easily together. This conflict explains why Drupal developers (all volunteers) spent over 18 months and more than 100 posts arguing about whether the button for creating a piece of content should say ‘Save’ or ‘Save as Draft’ or ‘Publish’…

It is best to store units of content in a very clean form, unencumbered by formatting specific to particular platforms

What is content? Natural language content itself has many formats. For example, train information includes text news of disruptions. A good strategy would take into account that such data might be used on station boards and be displayed but not ‘published’ on internal, non-internet computer systems, and would still be viewable in a user-friendly form on a website or a mobile app. Visually impaired users will use screen readers, and the time is not far off when many mobile users may prefer to receive the information audibly. Not much further into the future, the data may be viewed on Google glass-type spectacles and wrist-watch computers.

For these purposes it is best to store units of content in a very clean form, unencumbered by formatting specific to particular platforms, and unencumbered by related data which will be relevant to some platforms and not others. There is a second set of reasons why clean data matters, which was addressed in the conference’s keynote speech by the software’s founder, Dries Buytaert. The best digital communication responds to context. That context is not only the type of device the user is receiving it on, but also personal signals. What search term did the user put into Google or Yahoo to find the page? What language area is the user in? For mobile users who have given permission to share this information, which street and town are they in? What is the user’s browsing or buying history on the site or with the company? How has the user navigated through the site? If the user logs in with Facebook, even more personal data may inform what is presented. In his keynote speech Dries googled for flights to London. His first result was Icelandic Air, a search engine optimisation (SEO) triumph! Clicking through, its flight search form was already filled with Dries’ current location in the ‘from’ field and ‘London’ as his destination; the page also displayed exciting pictures of London. Another major airline presented a blank form with an advertisement alongside for an irrelevant product. The latter company does not ‘get it’.

In order to serve context-responsive content, the content needs to be created and stored in a form which is relatively clean. Ideally, it should be clean of mark-up, but at least chunked so that it can be served separately from meta-data, such as related images, meta-tags and other items on the page. Implementing ‘responsive design’ web pages has a place but does not come close to addressing the underlying issue.

However, there are downsides to a content strategy which stores chunks of clean, future-proof and context-agnostic content. First, cost. The range of automated tools for using that content in a context-sensitive way may be expensive. The more immediate problem is that content creators may want to create a web page for each piece of content which looks good and which has appropriate extras (for example, links to further reading, a product reviews tab, an auto-generated list of related blog posts or tweets or recommended products). As content creators, arts organisations may want to create unique, beautiful, hand-crafted pages, albeit ones which include some machine-generated material. Those pages may be a little different on a mobile device, and they may want to control those too. Web developers know how to make an intuitive content-creation interface and workflow. They also know how to build systems for collecting and storing clean, chunked, findable data, and how to build a presentation layer on top of the data which responds to context. The problem is that doing both is extremely difficult. A system built on a robust strategy of clean, chunked content usually has an interface which is far more difficult for content creators to conceptualise and is less agreeable for producing a decent custom-designed web page with a sensible workflow.

At the same conference, Larry Garfield, a web programmer, called for a clearer awareness of these diverse ‘existential’ ideas. When buying digital services, clarity on the point is valuable. A good user-experience consultant should advise on content strategy and information architecture. Simply being aware of this area of tension is useful for anyone about to talk to web shops, which will all have their own methods and agenda (and will know that an intuitive web publishing platform is easier to demo and sell), though the best ones should help clients think through their content strategy very carefully.

John Birchall runs Digit Professional, a boutique web shop delivering digital solutions for small and medium third-sector organisations and businesses.

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I thought this is an interesting feature but it raises issues that arts practitioners and arts organisations may not understand, like myself, or appreciate their significance. Talking of context, where's the explanations of what 'chunked' content etc. is, or did I miss that? The article uses a lot of technical language and talks about concepts that are not explained very well for the benefit of us non-digital-savvy-philistines. For example, which is the 'evil dinosaur': "future-proof content" or "web publishing mentality"? What's the meaning here? Thanks John for putting your insights out there, but could you remember your audience of arts/creative industry people are generally not hot on digital publishing technology and probably could do with more plain English rather than 'digi-geek-speak' (my own coined phrase). Just my opinion.

Thanks for this comment - it's always difficult to know how far to edit a 'techie' piece. Some readers will find it a bit difficult to grasp all the detail in John's article (and I include myself in that!) but other readers work with their organisations' websites all the time and would find it condescending if we were to interpret it for less techie readers. It's a fine judgement call - maybe we misjudged this one. Hopefully everyone got the general gist - which I thought was very thought-provoking.