Flexible content and future-ready organisations at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

I love Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s bio:

Content strategist, writer, thinker, cocktail drinker. My name eats character limits for breakfast. Chomp.

Sara’s presentation is titled Flexible Content Demands Future-Ready Organizations. She talked about mobile users, mobile content, and the world of responsive sites, apps, APIs, and read-later services. Structured content is the way to give customers what they need. Producing structured content isn’t just about getting the right CMS. It affects the entire organisation.

Most of what Sara works on is web-based. But the issues and challenges are shared in other tech comm areas too, as are the skills needed to address them.


Sara quoted some web designers who are realising that their customers are concerned with content problems. The challenges that mobile has created for us, have made people in the web field realise that content is a problem that needs attention. Designers are realising they only have one “known” to work with, and that’s content. All the other aspects of mobile design are fluid – basically, the presentational aspects.

But what do web designers actually know about content? Luckily, they have content strategists to help them. Talking about content as a strategic business asset for the organisation. Defining how content supports the customers and the business, and the benchmarks and measurements for success.


  • Organise your content.
  • Define what you want to sound like.
  • Devise plans for creating the content you need. Templates. Ways of getting information out of SMEs.

OK, so we have a lot of emphasis on content and how it matters for mobile.

But it’s still really really difficult

How do we implement our strategies so that we can get content that’s more flexible? We don’t want our readers being told the content is not available on a mobile device. Or something that just looks awful, or is even illegible, because not designed for a mobile device.

Look at read-it-later applications, not solely devoted to mobile, but most people use such services on mobile devices. Examples: Instapaper – allows you to save content for reading at a later date. We don’t want our content to be missing when people schedule it for later reading.

We also don’t want our mobile interface to override the user’s choice by giving them a simplified view of the web app they were looking for. Sara gave us the example when she Googled something, got the useful link, and was directed to a simplified mobile overlay of the site. The URL she had found was lost to her. The content had become useless because she couldn’t get at it.

Why is it difficult?

Because of the content. It’s difficult getting the content ready for mobile. Sara referred us to an article called “The Story of the New Microsoft.com” by Nishant Kothary.

Looking at the redesign of a web page to cater for mobile platforms, you could say, “This is a new home page”. Or you could say, “This is a huge change to the way the organisation works”. Sara says the latter is the case, and that’s why mobile is such a problem.

Our content is stuck

Sara often hears people saying, “Just stick it up on the website”. You’ll end up with a website that looks more or less like Seattle’s chewing-gum wall. A lot of content that’s just stuck there. No reason. No way to move it.

We tend to create content by putting it in a big box, to fit on a big web page. That’s what our CMSes are designed to do.

If you’re building things for just one platform, or for one platform at a time, you’re going to keep on getting stuck. Because more and more devices will keep appearing. You’ll need separate strategies for each one. Sara mentioned the possibility of our content having to appear in a car, or on a web-enabled fridge. Trying to make more content for every new device is a losing battle.

Single sourcing

We have the tools to make our content more adaptable. This idea is fairly well known in tech comm, but not in the wider world of web development.

DITA has a number of great features.

NPR has a great system called COPE (Create Once Publish Everywhere). They have everything in a custom-build central content management system. No representational information. Then it goes via an APR to all the various websites, apps, mobile browsers, and so on.

Content like water

Web designers have started saying we need content that can flow, and fill whatever container size it’s given. But content doesn’t magically flow. It’s messy!

Sara showed us an example of an API diagram for NRP’s COPE. It illustrates beautifully that it’s complicated to get the content from content entry, via the APIs, to the end destination.

And it all starts with the data entry. Writing stuff in chunks, so they can be stored separately, is the most flexible way of doing it. It allows you to make separate decisions about each chunk.

Content models

Next you need to think about how content is connected – the relationships between the chunks of information. Create a model of your content. Compare this to a database model that defines how data is interrelated.

Data is also content. When data people design the data model, they tend to forget this. Decisions that ultimately affect how our content reads are often made by people who aren’t trained or empowered to think about content.

The structure of the content must be valuable to people, and must reflect the way people think. You can’t just break it up into parts arbitrarily.

So, find the patterns

We must analyse our existing content to find patterns. Pages are not all the same. They support meaning.

From the patterns, you can identify content types. For example: blog posts, press releases, “how to” guides, and so on.

Each content type has basic structural elements. Sara gave the example of a recipe, which has a title, ingredients, instructions, and even metadata. Decide the inherent elements required in each content type for your organisation.

Then decide how the content types fits together. For example, a recipe may be just one of many for a particular dish, which may be part of a cuisine.

Adaptive content

Adaptive content automatically adjusts to its environment. If you have a resilient and flexible content model, you can make decisions about how it is displayed.

We can’t manage how every bit of content will look. But structure allows us to make rules, which we can apply to our content as a whole. Structure sets our content free. It can go where we want it to go.

Why is our content stuck?

Why is it still so hard? Because organisations are stuck in their existing processes. They get bogged down in expectations of stakeholders.

  • Organisations have a mass-production strategy. People keep producing content the way they always have, without thinking about where it’s going to end up.
  • Content-producing roles aren’t tied to organisational strategies. Content producers don’t know how their work fits in to the corporate goals. It’s hard to make changes, and people don’t see why they should.

Content strategy should be the bridge between the corporate vision and the content producers’ role.

  • Teams are siloed. Teams don’t communicate, or are even hostile towards each other.
  • As a result, content is duplicated and confusing.
  • It’s impossible to have the users’ needs at the forefront.
  • Organisations are so concerned with how they’re organised internally, that that’s what they show to the rest of the world.

These are hard problems to solve. One way is to create small teams with a cross-department focus. Spread new ideas, and focus on a single issue.

  • Organisations have obsessions with control.
  • Stakeholders don’t get digital. They want to see their content in fixed format, such as print.
  • Businesses are scared of the idea will take their content away and read it later in another format. User control terrifies them.
  • Organisations aren’t built to change, but things are changing very rapidly. So people try to freeze things rather than change. But that doesn’t work.

The organisation doesn’t have to learn just how to deal with mobile. It has to learn how to become adaptable.

What can we do?

There are some good things we can do. We need to change the way we work.

We have a lot of passion about content. Share it with people. Here’s how:

  • Make mobile a start, but not the end goal. Karen McGrane says we should “use mobile as a wedge to create a better experience for ALL users”. Sara says this is true for organisations too. Mobile is an opportunity to get people from different departments to work together.
  • Don’t sell solutions. Invest more deeply. Don’t tell people we’re going to fix everything. We can’t be our organisation’s saviour or mastermind. An organisation doesn’t need a mastermind. You need to find ways of getting people to work with you. Teamwork is messy, but it’s the only way to sustainable change how we deal with content.
  • Do less, and facilitate more. It’s not all about the thing we produce. It’s about the way our work is carried on. So we need to be facilitative. This is also the way we can take on leadership roles. Find the people your work will affect, and involve them from the start of the project.

What’s coming?

We can’t know what the future will bring. We do know mobile is not going to go away. But we can’t know what it’s going to look like. How many people will be using mobile, and what kind of devices will there be? We can’t know.

But if we and our content are adaptable, we’re in a better place.

Thanks Sara

This was an inspiring and lively session. It put a lot of things into perspective. Thanks Sara!


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 7 May 2013, in STC and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks, Sarah, for this comprehensive write-up. I had to miss Sara’s session and had this page bookmarked for months now. Now I finally have good use for it and am glad to have a play-by-play recap!

    Cheers, Kai.

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