In many respects, when we talk about, evaluate, and revise products from a usability standpoint, we overlook the most important piece: content. Our tendency is to be concerned only with the wrapper or container, navigation through that container, and the interplay of the elements that make up the container. But what about the content which populates this otherwise dead space?
Let’s take this article—the one you are reading—as our example. As a contributor I have no control over UX Magazine’s website design or interface. I did not make any decisions related to the layout, fonts, color, interactions, etc. This is a good thing, for many reasons. First and foremost, I am not a web developer or designer. But, more importantly, as a contributor to UX Magazine, I can concentrate on what is important: writing content. The fact that I cannot change the container in which this text will be placed means that I can only control issues related directly to the content of this article. This, of course, begs the question: how does content fit into the conversation about usability?
Casting the net wide, I believe that UX encompasses many areas that are not directly related to interface, interactivity, and navigation. Let’s say that anything that includes a customer interaction can be considered UX. For many digital businesses outside of web and/or desktop application development, UX includes customer service, marketing, brand image, even social media. In the case of a publisher, this includes content.
When we take a step back and think about it, it becomes clear that content is overlooked when we are considering the usability of our products. In most cases, UX deals with everything related to the content’s container and not the content itself. But I work for a book publisher, where content is what we have to offer to our customer. It’s not “copy.” In fact, in our case, the content is more important that the container. Our customers, most of whom are students preparing for an exam need not worry about being slowed down by interface issues. But they also require that the content we publish is absolutely correct and strategic to their studies and preparation.
Here the conversation about the usability of content begins—with strategic content.
In the world I inhabit, we have many strategic decisions to make in regards to content. This includes determining how best to present content. Should questions be test-like or non-test-like? How do we use elements such as sidebars, table, images, and other non-textual or hybrid elements to convey complex concepts? How do we integrate complex formulas from high-level math and science into otherwise straightforward textual content? How do we handle formatting for practice questions and difficult areas for digital production such as numbered reading passages? The list goes on.
Daunting enough in a print work, in the digital realm all of this can become a giant usability nightmare. eReaders were not designed to optimize this content. In some cases the devices do not even support the types of content we need to deliver.
The capabilities of containers are expanding, and so is the realm of content. Today, content can be anything from text, to video, to images, to audio, to scripted code, and beyond. In most cases, those consuming the content take in all of these elements, mostly simultaneously, and don’t even think twice. It is precisely this expanding nature of the definition of content that presents us with both the necessity and opportunity of integrating usability practice with content development.
In the book publishing industry, there is currently very little consideration being given to content strategy on a product level. XML and enterprise content management solutions are being handled by information architects (or will be so in the near future). Overarching content plans are being put into place. But it takes time for this to trickle down and for each product to be affected. This is where usability professionals can begin to make a difference.
Over the past four months, I’ve lead an effort at Kaplan to launch KaplanLabs, a digital imprint we launched in April. It serves as a shadow pipeline to our full retail products, allowing us a space for large-scale usability testing, customer engagement and dialogue, and rapid product development. Products released under the KaplanLabs brandmark are small, focused, and free. They also have well defined learning goals that we are trying to achieve. A major area of experimentation is content and the usability of content.
We are experimenting with content in blended and hybrid configurations, where more than one content-asset type is used. An example: we are currently working on an eBook product where video will be used as the main ingredient—not just a garnish—in the recipe, as seems the case in most “enhanced eBooks” in the retail space. The inversion of video and written content presents a clear need for usability knowledge in how we execute the product. The same can be said of the inclusion of other various digital assets, as well as combining web elements with books or eBooks to form hybrid products with both offline and online components.
The important thing here is that new models for content delivery in the digital space are emerging, and UX is a key feature of creating good products, especially when applied top-down all the way to the product level.
Brian O’Leary, Founder and Principal at Magellan Media Partners, someone I admire and consider to be exceptionally forward thinking, recently presented a keynote address entitled Context First: A unified field theory of publishing at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference in New York City. The full presentation is available online here.
The essence of Mr. O’Leary’s theory is that the publishing industry has unduly allowed our dependency on containers to dictate our practices. We completely ignore context and are, by doing so, undermining our own success as our competition in the greater digital space includes websites, apps, books, eBooks, blogs, etc.
What this theory elucidates is the need to further examine our content, content creation practices, and content distribution methods to ensure that we are reaching our customers in every way possible. It is entirely possible to have the best container in the world, and still produce an unsuccessful product with content that does not connect to your customer.
In this brave new world, product strategy, technical development, UX design, and content usability are the cornerstones of one process. Acceptance of this reality is going to be the key to success for many businesses.