Beyond the hype

Interview with Karen McGrane —”Adaptive content is not an automagical solution”

Tom Wießeckel

Karen McGrane

Adaptive content has become a buzzword which means different things to different people: on the one hand, it is a long-term initiative to structure content for dynamic targeting and flexible reuse; on the other hand, it is a way to make sure that everyone (no matter their location) sees exactly what they want.

In this interview, Karen McGrane, founder of Bond Art + Science and keynote speaker at the upcoming International PHP Conference 2016, is sharing her views on the reality of adaptive content and the amount of magic that resides in this buzzword. She is also pondering on ways that adaptive content can support tailoring content according to context and ways that can go wrong.

JAXenter: Karen, how have mobile devices managed to change our reading habits?

Karen McGrane: Contrary to the assumption that “no one wants to read on their phone,” mobile devices seem to have determined people to read even more. I’ve seen data from magazine publishers, book publishers, and read-it-later services which show that people’s engagement while reading is highest on smartphones— higher than tablets or desktops. It stands to reason that the device which is always with you, the one that provides the most focused, clutter-free experience, is the one people will use most for reading.

JAXenter: Wasn’t that long overdue: an initial moment that made us rethink the consumption and production of content?

Karen McGrane: If I recall correctly what I learned in college during my Economics course, this is the law of supply and demand. Now that the cost of content creation and distribution is no longer a constraint, the way we enjoy (and pay for) content is changing. Magazine and newspaper employees got the short end of the stick, but overall I think society benefits from putting the tools to create and share content in the hands of more people.

JAXenter: Since the release of the iPhone – at the latest – users have been expecting a great user experience … What can content producers learn beyond the smartphone factor?

Karen McGrane: Before the web, written communication was inextricably locked to the constraints of the printed page. When the web came along, we pretended a web page was really just like a sheet of paper. We produced designs and layouts to conform to the expected size of the screen. Today, it’s not about getting our content to work on smartphones—it’s about recognizing that we will never again be able to design around one fixed screen size. I believe making that transition is more of a content problem than a styling problem. Content creators must develop more flexible, adaptive content that isn’t attached to any one particular presentation format.

“We will never again design around one fixed screen size”

JAXenter: In your keynote abstract you said that to some editors, “adaptive content” means they can ensure that everyone, everywhere sees exactly what they want – like magic. How much “magic” is really in there?

Karen McGrane: Zero magic. It’s all difficult, complex, time-consuming work. While I am a huge advocate for the value of adaptive content, I am concerned when I hear it pitched as some kind of automagical solution to delivering exactly what the user needs. While there are clear reasons why adaptive content can help meet business needs, still, no one should sign up for doing it unless they understand that the costs of doing so will be covered by the benefits.

JAXenter: So no more layout tasks for editors – it’s all about context?

Karen McGrane: That is one of the most complex questions we’re trying to answer today, and I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. In one sense, we do need more separation of content from presentation. This needs to exist in our CMS products; it needs to exist in our human workflows. But in another sense, we truly can’t separate content from layout in the content creation process—writers and editors need ways to control narrative form and presentation. I believe that we still need to figure out what this means. It’s not going to be the same as print.

JAXenter: Adaptive content means tailoring content to device types; but we are not only talking about display size, are we?

Karen McGrane: Not at all! In fact, I think display size or even device type are the least of our problems when talking about adaptive content. The need to tailor content to device type is overblown. If you have a problem that is purely about the size of the display, then you should solve that problem using responsive design. There is no need to use adaptive, server side solutions if you can solve the problem entirely on the client side.

A better use of adaptive content is tailoring the information to the context of use. I have a very specific definition of context: that it must be information we can glean from the device sensors. Commonly this is data like location or time of day, but could also be something like the velocity or temperature of the device. In many cases, when people talk about wanting to use adaptive content to tailor to the device, they really mean they want to tailor to the user’s context—using actual contextual cues will always be more accurate than device type.

“Print layout is a tough habit to break”

JAXenter: Is there still too much „print layout“ in the minds of editors?

Karen McGrane: Print layout is a tough habit to break. For however many hundreds or thousands of years that we’ve been putting ink on paper or chiseling glyphs into stone tablets, we have been able to imagine our content as being fixed inside a container. Now we can’t do that anymore. It’s tough to give up. (I bet you hit the preview button at least once when publishing a post—I know I do.)

JAXenter: Considering the current content reality — how far away are we from real adaptive content? Maybe you can point out some good examples?

Karen McGrane: I am heartened by the number of large enterprise companies that are working on developing adaptive content today. I am particularly enthusiastic when I talk to organizations that see it as a solution for effective content reuse, rather than a magical solution for delivering exactly what every user wants all the time. Retail and travel are two industries that are investing in these solutions, probably because they have the greatest need for contextual content delivery.

Thank you very much!

Bildschirmfoto 2016-03-23 um 14.01.15If you wish to have a better understanding of when adaptive content is necessary and how to get the most value from it, Karen will be giving a talk called Adaptive Content, Context, and Controversy at IPC.
Author
Tom Wießeckel
Thomas Wießeckel is an editor at Software & Support Media, specialized in Web technologies, Mobile Development and Open Source. He writes regularly for the portal entwickler.de and is responsible for the German publications PHP Magazin and Mobile Technology. Before his engagement as IT journalist he worked as a freelancer PHP and frontend developer.

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