Tomorrow’s Skills Benefit You Today
B. Noz Urbina, Content Strategy Practice Owner, Mekon Ltd
In 2012 I delivered a talk called “Tomorrow Was Yesterday: Mastering the Future of Content Creation” that looked at how we get lulled into a false sense of security in the face of cultural and technical change. The thesis was simple, but the implications are significant:
- We are now, as always, living in the past. That is to say there is more future of human history and change ahead of us than there is past behind us .
- The rate of change is accelerating while human life is getting longer. Modern communications and transport is enabling a pooling of resources (skills, effort, material and money) the likes of which history has never seen. Modern people must therefore deal with more cultural change in a single lifetime than at any other period in history.
The talk was very well received, so I’m sharing some of those concepts, and what they mean for the world of content, with you here.
Mobile was just the beginning
In the light of what’s coming, our current crop of shiny mobile devices and super-fast computers will be seen as slow, clumsy, inelegant and primitive. As much as manufacturers want to portray each of their new models as revolutionary, they will be replaced in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 50 years’ time with products that are vastly cheaper, faster and easier to use.
As a structured content specialist, I often work with companies who need to move to a publishing model that is multichannel, structure-based and strategically aligned with the business as a whole. Usually, they have come to recognise the need to tackle what I’ve started calling “The Right List”, that is, they need to deliver the:
- Right content: accurate, consistent in message and appropriate in voice, in the locale-specific variant that users want, tailored to their information needs, relevant to the task at hand. Often dynamically published and able to be assembled and remixed by the user.
- In the right format: convenient and fit for purpose (web page, print, PDF, interactive text-to-speech system, etc.)
- In the right language – appropriate for each user profile and in the chosen language or language variant of the audience.
- At the right context / time – appropriate to the stage in a process or level of expertise, point of engagement in the sales cycle, or other parameters that define the user’s particular need.
Even if we could put the brakes on further social and technological change right now, meeting the demands of “The Right List” will already give the modern content professional enough stress, cost, and additional workload to justify, from a practical and financial perspective, modernising the way we work.
Social media and mind-boggling search capabilities have also significantly changed market expectations, and ‘captive markets’ who will accept the content they’re given, are on the wane. This colludes with globalisation to mean that it’s never been easier for your customers and your competitors to find each other if you fail on any of the points on “The Right List”.
Structured content is the tool of choice for tackling these new market scenarios because it enables the kind of dynamic, multi-channel delivery we want, while keeping costs down and quality and consistency up.
Change is nothing new, but neither is its acceleration
So, there are already reasons for organisations working in printed-page-based, discrete publishing channels to fundamentally rework and migrate their people, process, content and delivery paradigms.
However, it’s about to get a whole lot more urgent.
I’d be happy to debate this with specialist historians but in terms of socio-techno-cultural development, I’d say there’s decidedly more difference between the years ~1800 CE to ~2000 CE (the locomotive and the industrial revolution to the microchip and information age) than there was between the years 500 CE and 1800 CE (the middle ages and renaissance). Similarly and so forth for the millennia before, there’s been a gradual but steady acceleration of change. To put this idea in perspective, the first Pharaoh of Egypt was alive in 3050 BCE, and the last died 30 BCE. That 3020 year block is more than 1000 years longer than between our calendar’s year 1 and today. Compare global progress in those two periods, and you see a stark contrast.
Images are CC license or public domain (http://bit.ly/X8Ow8p, http://bit.ly/14sjZIZ, http://bit.ly/XKsKYP)
So although many of us – possibly the majority – are still catching up with the new requirements of internet or mobile delivery, organisations that are not investing in multichannel, dynamic and structure-based systems are falling behind faster and faster as time goes by.
There is a new phalanx of interfaces and devices already here and on the horizon offering new modes of interaction with content. Some of my favourite examples are:
- Embedded User Assistance – Many websites, software applications or devices are “self-describing” today, using an array of interactive mechanisms to give users precisely the knowledge they need at the time and place they need it. Embedded UA guides users through complex procedures without them sifting through a PDF or digging out a paper manual. When there’s a problem with my printer, for example, it pops up a window on my laptop describing the problem and launches the help file to the appropriate topic, then displays the steps to fix it on its little built-in screen. Professional products, like some of Oracle and IBM’s offerings, are doing much more.
- Multi-device interactions – instead of creating content for this or that device, we are being or will soon be forced to rethink how content will work when one task spans multiple devices. For example a maintenance person en route to repair a piece of equipment might use a smartphone to prepare for the visit, before using diagnostic information via a display on the equipment itself, along with a tablet to access more detailed service information or media files. A single workflow therefore spans 3 or more screens. In 2012, Google reported multi-screening is already commonplace and is on the rise.
Caption: Google Multi-screening report, 2012, http://bit.ly/ggl-multin
- Content with multiple dimensions – I’ve got a blog in the works about this as it’s an article on its own, but the idea is that modern content no longer has just width and length, but the dimensions of depth and time. Web content is an easy to understand example: take the common product description page. Some content is created specifically to show up on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). SERP content is then the “surface” of a multi-layered body of information objects. The SERP lets users drill deeper into the content by clicking on it, revealing a second layer of product information. Tabs and links and will allow further drilling into details along certain routes – technical info, commercial info, or more – if you want them. Alternatively, users can browse out to parallel layers of related information from other sources like knowledge bases or 3rd parties. In the digital realm, when you do this – that is, in what context and depending on what messages the organisation wants to communicate at that time – will also determine what content should be displayed. On a mobile device, different dimensions of the same core body of content may be exposed before or after the user chooses to “drill down”. For example, I recently found out my name is not on the first level page for my own book when viewed on the Amazon mobile app, but it is on the desktop web. Content should be consistent and accurate across all these dimensions, but what happens today is that, at on one point on this journey, information or branding can be seen which doesn’t line up with other dimensions. Conflicts in content from multiple departments that has been build over months or years is seen in stark contrasts in a few seconds. Avoiding this requires more collaboration and coordination than most organisations invest today.
CAPTION: We picture information in a flat way, with navigation consisting of movement from area to area on a plain. Different areas are owned by different departments and updated on different cycles, allowing discrepancies to creep in.
CAPTION: In the digital domain, user doesn’t experience content as moving across discrete areas. They experience different assets in rapid succession, with each new exposed layer offering new point they to drill down into the overall content set. In a few clicks they will traverse our organisational and format boundaries to get the content they’re after.
- More seamless human-machine interfaces – This includes things like Apple’s Siri – which was just the tiny tip of a huge iceberg of voice-based interactivity – Augmented Reality (AR), and also gesture-based and wearable technology like Google Glass or Leap Motion.
Just as we can’t consider mobile to be just smart phones, just eReaders or just tablets, it is not a matter of picking a trend and hoping it wins. They’re all coming and will all be blended together in ways that make the content landscape even more complex than it already is.
So now what?
In a landscape that’s changing so constantly and quickly how is it even possible to prepare? The answer lies in structuring content so that it has the necessary agility to address whatever the future may bring Going from single-channel content to multi-channel processes is the main transition point. That’s where structuring, migration, retraining and rethinking have to happen. This effectively means that preparing people, content and systems for today’s channels of internet and mobile uses the same platforms, standards and skills that will prepare you for multi-screening and voice-interactivity 1, 3 and 5 years from today.
Arguably, most businesses aren’t really equipped to deal with the demands placed on content today: how many can say they’re speaking with a consistent corporate voice, always delivering information that consumers want (rather than what communications teams are able to give them with the tools and processes they have), delivering content that works in multiple languages, and on the responsive web? So in a very real sense they’re not tomorrow’s skills – they’re skills you need now.
Today’s Content Needs Agility – Congility 2013
Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.
– George S. Patton
Even if you are a hardened sceptic, or just missed the articles that said self-parking cars and brain scanners for the iPhone came out last year, I hope you’ll agree big things are coming, and if they’re anything like those of the last 5 years, we should all be preparing. To that end, I’d like to invite readers of the DCL newsletter to the Content Agility 2013 and Congility S1000D events this June in London, England. This year’s theme is “The Next 5 Years: Mastering Communication in a Multi-Device World”.
- Content Agility 2013 brings Content Strategy, Structured Content and component content management all under one roof with leading experts like Ann Rockley (Rockley Group), Rahel Anne Bailie (Intentional Design), Eliot Kimber (RSI), Keith Schengili-Roberts (DITAwriter.com), and many more. The call for speakers is open until February 28th 2013 or pre-register online. Pre-register and get priority places on workshops (first come, first serve) and a discounted entry
- Congility S1000D 2013 is a must-attend aerospace and defence industry event. It gathers the best minds to teach you what you need to know if you are evaluating, implementing or using S1000D content. The call for speakers is now open. You also pre-register to receive a discount on entry.