The controversies of adaptive content in content management

Published on September 6, 2016 by Karen McGrane

Karen McGrane attended this year’s Magnolia Conference in Basel, talking about adaptive content. She's one of the leading experts for user experience and content strategy for web and mobile. She’s also the author of "Go Responsive," and "Content Strategy for Mobile." We asked Karen some questions on adaptive content.




Karen, can you define adaptive content for us please?

Adaptive content is a technique by which organizations can tailor the experience for the user. It means that they are creating alternative forms of content. So maybe shorter or longer versions for mobile and desktop. Or perhaps alternate forms, that might be tailored to the user’s context. Like location or time of day, or things that you might know about the user. Adaptive content is a technique that really relies on having structured content, in a content management system. So to do it, and do it well, teams need a CMS that will support both creating more granular forms of content and also creating the sorts of targeted rules that will allow them to personalize the experience.


Why did you focus on the topic of adaptive content?

I've been an advocate for what I would describe as more modular, more structured content for most of my career really. With the rise of mobile devices, this was a point at which many organizations really started to see the value of having content that was structured, not locked to its presentation, as it would be with a print document. And they started seeing the value of wanting to provide perhaps slightly different experiences for different devices, or based on the context of someone's device.  


So with regards to struggles, what are the strategical aspects that matter for content?

From a strategic standpoint, I really do think understanding user tasks, user needs and user goals is vital. Understanding how your business can help facilitate or support those. Understanding what it is that you can uniquely deliver for your customer. Those are the broad, strategic lenses through which people should see their content. From a more technical side, working thorough content management processes and infrastructure is so crucial to doing that well. And too often teams will either not put the time into evaluating how the tools and the processes will support creating quality content. Or, they'll assume that they can purchase a CMS package. And that that's going to magically solve all their problems for them. And while there are great tools out there, like Magnolia, that can support that - it's really more about the broader, strategic questions. Of making sure that you know what you want to do, and then the tool facilitates that.


What do people have to be aware of with regards to technology and CMS systems specifically, about what can they do for content?

A good CMS should support you in creating content with the right level of structure, and creating content that - if you wish to adapt it based on the user's device, or their behavior or their context - should support you in creating that structure, to support those variations. The CMS should support you in developing a workflow, an editorial workflow. For creating and managing and governing that content. So that you have processes in place that you can evaluate over time to assess how successful the content is. Or when it's time for some content to be retired or reviewed. All of those are things that a great CMS should help you do. But it's not something that the tool can necessarily answer for you - how that should happen. You have to figure that out for yourself and your business. And then set the tool up, so that it works that way.




You've written 2 books, "Go Responsive," and "Content Strategy for Mobile." What are the main aspects of going responsive? How do you plan and launch a successful, responsive redesign?

In many organizations, responsive design is often treated as if it is - much like CMS - a purely technical issue. As if our designers and developers are going to go in, and they're going to use media queries and fluid grids and flexible images, and they're going to make the site responsive. Unfortunately, that is only a very small piece of the puzzle. The bigger questions are around organizations prioritizing their content.


Probably the biggest challenge that most companies face as they go responsive, is that they can no longer get away with having desktop websites that are just crammed with stuff. They've got to focus and prioritize on the most important things to the user. It also means that they have to think about their process a little bit differently. So I would say that teams that are thinking about going responsive need to recognize that, while it is a design and development challenge, it is - first and foremost - a business, and user focused challenge.


You've already touched on the mobile aspect of adaptive content, but what do you need to be aware of with regards to adaptive content for mobile?

The need to do adaptive content for device specific targeting - to tailor the experience based on whether someone's on a smartphone or at a desktop - is frankly, rather overblown. When mobile devices first came out,  there was this almost gut level instinctive sense of "Well, we've got to deliver different content for different device types." That really hasn't proven to be true. So what I would guide people to focus on more is - how they might tailor the experience - either to the user’s context. So, is she instore, or is she away from home? Or it may be actually doing real personalization. So actual user focused data, to determine what you can - what you know about that customer, or her buying habits. Teams that want to do that need to recognize the sheer magnitude of the challenge. Of creating all of those alternate forms of content, and doing that well. It's not easy. And if you do it badly, it can actually be worse in a sense. So my argument, and I'm the adaptive content person - is very clearly to say - if you want to do this, I think you should do it carefully. And you should do it only in the limited scenarios in which you really genuinely believe it will provide business value. Don't go in thinking you're going to adapt everything. Because you don't have the time and resources to do that.


Your Magnolia Conference talk was "Adaptive Content, Context, and Controversy." Can you tell us a bit about that?

This talk was an effort to unpack the differences between responsive and adaptive, to address messages that I sometimes see in the web design and development community. Addressing flaws that they see in responsive design, and arguing that adaptive solutions are better. Even though you might wish to create an adaptive solution for very specific parts of your experience, that doesn't mean that you throw responsive out. Responsive will probably solve for 90% of your problems. And adaptive solutions will only then be used in those limited scenarios where you absolutely need them.


Is there anything else you can say about the Magnolia conference?

I think it's just such a fantastic event, and I was thrilled to see that you had an event both here and in San Francisco earlier this year. And I would hope that next year, people will also come back and see some of these fantastic case studies, about how Magnolia can be used to create structured or adaptive content. Or can be used for commerce solutions. I would be very thrilled to see more people come to this event.


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About the author Karen McGrane

For more than fifteen years Karen McGrane has helped create more usable digital products through the power of user experience design and content strategy. Karen helped build the User Experience practice at Razorfish, hired as the very first Information Architect and leaving as the VP and National Lead for User Experience. Today, she manages Bond Art + Science, a user experience consultancy, is the author of “Content Strategy for Mobile”, published by A Book Apart and is on the faculty of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she teaches Design Management. Karen spoke about adaptive content at Magnolia Conference 2016 in Basel.

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