Sara Wachter-Boettcher, content strategist and author, knows web content inside out. In late February, she wrote an article for A List Apart, Future-Ready Content that has literally reframed the debate about responsive websites and the mobile first approach.
Luckily for our industry, the thought-leader she is currently becoming on future-ready content (or why not call it responsiBLE content?) is familiar with the content challenges faced by higher ed as she has already helped a few institutions tackle the “C” issue.
That’s why I decided to invite her to be the keynote speaker of our upcoming Higher Ed Responsive Web Design Summit, scheduled online on June 19, 20 & 21, 2012. This 3-webinar series will also feature Stewart Foss who has been teaching Higher Ed Experts’ 4-week online course on responsive web design and Nick Johnson, Director of Web and Interactive Marketing at The University of Notre Dame who oversaw the latest redesign of nd.edu.
In preparation for the summit, Sara was kind enough to answer a few questions so you can find out why higher ed websites need “responsible” content.
1) You wrote this thought-provoking piece published on A List Apart two months ago. With all the talk around mobile first and responsive web design, do you think that web content is still left behind?
What’s interesting about the responsive and mobile-first movements is that I think they’re actually forcing everyone to be more aware of content. When we design in a way that’s flexible and lightweight, which we need to do to go mobile or responsive, we end up stripping sites down to their core. What’s at that core? The content, of course. If the content isn’t good, or is broken, it becomes very difficult to ignore. So, in a sense, mobile and responsive force us to be more focused on content, because as we remove bells and whistles, that’s sort of all there is. It’s because of this that in the past year or so, some of web’s biggest design-and-dev names, like Jeffrey Zeldman or Ethan Marcotte or Jeremy Keith, have really started talking about content a lot.
As a content nerd, I think all this is fabulous. But here’s the catch: so far, I think content folks haven’t been a big enough part of the conversation about mobile and responsive and the like—and I think this might be our own fault, in some ways, because we tend to see it as a design-and-dev issue, when really it’s a content issue just as much. The more we speak up about this stuff and raise concerns about what all this means for content, the more we can improve things for everyone.
2) You’re currently working on your first book, Content Everywhere, to be published by Rosenfeld Media early next year. Can you tell us a bit more about its topic?
The idea of the book is simple: That devices and channels will only continue to multiply, and we’ll need content for all of them—because pretty soon, our users won’t accept only being able to access our content in just one way. Since we can’t possibly keep up with creating endless versions of our content for all of these different channels, we need to find way to make our content go further—to make it flexible and reusable.
In the book, I walk readers through how to rethink their approach to content, breaking away from the idea of “pages” and “documents” that are fixed, and instead thinking more about what our content is trying to communicate and what elements it needs to do that. This involves breaking content into semantic chunks, and storing it in a way that isn’t specific to any one output. This work really sits at the intersection between content strategy and information architecture, because it emphasizes the need for us to carefully craft both our messages and stories, and the structures and relationships that will bring those stories to life in this wild new world of varied devices and platforms.
3) Universities and colleges have always been “content factories.” In your opinion, what will be the main challenges to make higher ed content more responsive?
Higher ed has always produced a lot of content, typically by many different people—and, in many institutions, those people’s skill sets often vary widely, from expert web writers in a communications department to admin staff with little understanding of the web or of the CMS. This has always caused some challenges, but I think the advent of responsive design in higher ed is going to make those challenges more apparent, because when content doesn’t work well on responsive sites, it’s glaringly obvious.
I think what will come out of this, though, is that institutions are really going to start seeing the need for governance, and take that on with more gusto than before. And that’s actually a great thing. In fact, I’m in the early stages of planning a responsive or adaptive site with a law school right now, and they’re very committed to cross-department governance in a way I haven’t seen in the past. By having people from different parts of the institution really embrace the website and take ownership, they can do a lot more to get all the varied content creators across their campus more ready for responsive design than if the school simply unrolled it one day without that governance team.
4) In your online session at the Higher Ed Responsive Web Design Summit, you will help attendees tackle this huge task, but can you share a tip with us today?
I think the number one tip I would give is this: Don’t freak out. The web is in a transitional place right now, and there aren’t a lot of perfect solutions to every problem. You’ve got to learn to be OK with that or the uncertainty will overwhelm you. Overwhelmed people tend to either freeze up, halting their progress entirely, or make rash decisions, wasting a lot of precious budget jumping on bandwagons—and neither of those responses are going to help you. Instead, think long-term about your web presence and don’t be afraid of taking smaller, more iterative steps.
Higher Ed Responsive Web Design Summit
Top Trends, Lessons Learned and Content Strategy
June 19, 20 & 21, 2012