netmagFeature

Perfect your online content

A robust strategy for managing content is a must for web development projects. Angus Edwardson talks you through the hows and whys of developing one

This article first appeared in issue 233 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

I recently heard a story about a client who turned up to a meeting carrying two huge cardboard boxes overflowing with photographs and handwritten documents. When asked what this material was, the client responded: “This is the content for my website.”

Managing content is a problem every web developer faces. In the not-so-distant past, our agency received material from clients in formats ranging from scans of crayon drawings to never-ending Word documents (complete with psychedelic rainbows of highlighting). We would receive PowerPoint presentations, InDesign files and printed brochures. Our long-suffering inboxes were groaning with inconsistent chunks of content.

The result of this madness was that countless frustrating hours were being spent deciphering totally unstructured bundles of material. We were left thinking: content may be king – but surely this is no way to treat a king?

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The mad king

Numerous articles have been written about ways in which to minimise the trauma of getting content from clients. Many of these articles set out the best ways to ‘squeeze’ or even ‘coax’ content from clients, and assert these methods as valid solutions to the problem.

But there is a conflict of ideas here. If content strategy is now being accepted as an ongoing counterpart to design and development workflows, shouldn’t it involve something more active than simply ‘getting content from clients’?

Shift workflow to the cloud via Dropbox
Matching content to design

It has been asserted that you should connect the design of your content to the design of your ... design. As Mishlaev Vitaliy has pointed out, if we fail do this, designers simply become painters, marking out an empty canvas to hold imaginary structures. Concepts such as ‘designing content out’ and ‘designing adaptive content’ underline the opinion that content really is at the core of a project; it really is king.

So why is it that when I speak to many web practitioners, they’re troubled by the task of gathering material in the first place? If we’re still struggling with the basics, how can we engage in any of content strategy’s more complex aspects?

My point is that we must leave behind this core concept of getting content from clients in whatever form they happen to submit it. It’s outdated, outmoded and fundamentally incompatible with the emerging concepts that constitute a successful web content strategy. Let’s look more closely at some of these issues, and consider how they can be avoided:

Problem: content is fragmented

There are two major problems with the way that companies have traditionally created content:

  • Content is independently planned, produced, submitted and published.
  • The content itself is disconnected until it’s entered into a CMS.

A common scenario is that clients, contributors and/or content producers are simply told what content is required and then proceed to create and submit the material in line with these requirements.

For example, technical writers are often told to go and write help documents while marketing writers go and write the content for a marketing site, and other groups manage search and social media content.

This way of working makes it hard for the content makers to have any real perspective on the project in its entirety: to see how their pieces of content relate to the others. It makes collaboration difficult, making it less incumbent upon content producers to communicate with other people involved in the project: specifically, designers and developers. And finally, it makes it more difficult to track, update and replace specific chunks of content.

Page Trawler makes site content audits easy

Following what is often a staggered submission process, some lucky individual (or a series of individuals with unsuspecting inboxes and unprepared brainstems) is of course given the task of collating, reviewing and structuring all of this content. This is where it can get messy, since getting signoff on content, measuring quality, consistency and relevance, and then putting it all into the various channels for publishing, requires a huge amount of time and energy. Chaotic environments like these make it difficult to focus on preserving the integrity of the content itself.

The need to ensure a project stays up to date heightens the fun, since adding or replacing chunks of content may involve repeating the same process. Often, project managers simply don’t bother, and content is allowed to become mouldy and rank.

Solution: centralise content creation

The way to avoid this mess is to keep content creation as agile as possible. It’s not about employing someone (or something) to manage content once it has been created; it’s about moving that creation process out of the back alleys and putting it back into the core of the project. Simply by having focused discussions about what needs to be created, and opening ongoing collaborations, content will become better and easier to manage.

These principles can be put into action in many project-management tools, Trello being an incredibly powerful example. And if I say so myself, GatherContent is also pretty marvellous.

Problem: content is organic

The way project content behaves is becoming increasingly organic. It’s constantly required to change and adapt to external circumstances: like a tree or any other plant, it is relentlessly growing, shedding leaves, putting out new branches … and probably being climbed, carved, or even cut down.

Taking this analogy further, we can argue that if we want projects to thrive, and if we’re lucky, to bear fruit, we must nurture them in stable environments with well-managed support systems.

Solution: begin auditing early

To establish such environments, it is necessary to start early. As with guerilla UX research, by making individual tasks small enough to carry out in hours, or even minutes, content management can become something that happens throughout the course of an entire project, rather than in one huge, desperate last-minute rush. Little and often is better than late and drastic.

Instead of the pain of a full content audit, the initial process can be as simple as discovering problems with existing site content. Is it irrelevant, outdated, lorem ipsum, non-existent, unlinked, broken – or just plain wrong? Simply pointing out these issues is a good way to instigate that initial investment in developing a content strategy.

Trello provides a simple, powerful means of managing projects

Problem: content must be consistent

Consistency is a word screamed from the rooftops by content strategists, editors, designers, SEO teams, UX specialists, managers, marketers, researchers, publishers, users, readers, consumers, critics, customers … and probably your mother.

However, consistency is the victim of a scenario in which content is independently defined, independently produced and then simply ‘collected’. Breaking down a project into multiple disconnected documents makes it difficult to keep track of versions of content, cross-reference documents or look at your projects from a bird’s-eye view.

Although it makes sense to break content down into workable chunks, if we fail to link these chunks, how can we ever ensure consistency and continuity?

Solution: use content models

When planning for consistency, consider creating content models. These are a great way to analyse the aims and output of a project deeply. Content models act as great foundations from which you can create written style guides for content producers (see www.voiceandtone.com for a great example of this).

Another quick solution is to create a basic map of your content and to make this accessible to everyone involved. As a general rule, your content should be connected, and you can do this by simply grouping it together and storing it online.

Problem: content must be adaptable

Another concept currently in vogue is adaptable content. This is content that can be augmented to suit different devices, scenarios and users. An example of this would be a responsive website that removes the subheadings of articles when it displays them on smaller screens. As Erin Kissane puts it: “Get your content ready to do anything, because it’s going to do everything.”

Although having clients or contributors independently producing content doesn’t itself prevent content from becoming adaptable, fragmenting content into chunks before publishing is largely incompatible with this new criteria of adaptability, since it makes it impossible to preview or prototype real output.

Solution: learn to C.O.P.E

As Karen McGrane has observed, if you want to create adaptable means of distributing content, you must develop intelligently labelled and well-structured content repositories. This doesn’t mean simply breaking up your content and pumping device-specific formats down different tubes. It should also involve a lot more than having a great CMS. Instead, learn to C.O.P.E (create once, publish everywhere): create a single well-considered repository to fuel multiple versions of your site.

Although the concept of C.O.P.E-ing implies a minimised focus on production, I think in order to truly cater for adaptability the way in which content is created also needs to become fluid. For maximum efficiency, the development of repositories should really involve ongoing agile collaboration with content producers. Having someone dedicated to tracking and replacing chunks in a central location encourages much tighter control over maintenance.

GatherContent is an online platform built on the principles of this article

Problem: content must be open

Passing around a Word document or spreadsheet with a list of requirements doesn’t really function very well as a platform for collaboration. If you want to achieve collaboration, you obviously need to connect not just content, but the people involved in various stages of its development and production.

Solution: online collaboration tools

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it’s simple to convert to storing and developing content online, and having ongoing access to it. By doing this, you can open up the content development process, straightaway creating a more fluid and transparent method of working – and replacing the idea of simply defining requirements with an open system of guidance.

One major benefit of this is that by encouraging designers and developers to consult real content throughout a project, design and content development can become more synchronous.

The easiest way to begin this process is to use one of the many online document-storage tools: Dropbox, SugarSync, Just Cloud and Google Drive are some of the most popular. Depending on your project, you might also benefit from adopting other tools – such as Basecamp – which are more dedicated to people management and which therefore enable you to give more direct guidance to content producers.

This is clearly a highly generalised scenario, but although it may not be appropriate for everyone, it’s worth taking time to consider the general ethos of communication, guidance and collaboration that stems from opening up content and storing it online.

Problem: maintaining content

When it becomes unclear where content resides, it becomes hard to update, and can quickly become irrelevant. Again, think of it as a living thing that requires constant attention and constant maintenance. Professionals now approach projects with the idea that design is a continuous, iterative process, and you should also consider the testing and updating of content from this perspective.

Different projects throw up different maintenance timelines, but it’s rarely the case that content can be left for very long without any need for at least some small updates.

Solution: regular content audits

There are some great tools for testing the content of websites. Most of all, you should take a look at Page Trawler: an incredibly rapid means to conduct content audits. Content Insight is also in the process of developing a tool for content audits, which promises to break new ground in the way we maintain content.

Focusing more on smaller organisations, Perch is a CMS that makes it wonderfully easy to track and update content. By focusing on simplifying the experience, the developers have opened up maintenance to a far wider spectrum of people, such as clients, non-technically savvy copywriters and site owners.

.net’s own Basecamp account. Tools such as this are a useful way to direct content producers
An array of resources

As we have seen, there are many ways to defragment content development and integrate it with the rest of your web design process; to create a foundation for content strategy. I’m confident tools that encourage communication and collaboration throughout the development process can really take content from the margins of a project, and put it back where it belongs: at the centre of the stage.

Above all, content ought to be developed rather than collected – that is, it should be genuinely integrated with the development of the rest of a website. By making use of methods such as content modelling, and by adopting a consistent strategy of testing, experimentation, and agile development and maintenance, you can make your own content more consistent, better fitted to your design work, and better able to define the websites you produce.
 

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