Image showing Lang organising content chunks.

Usable and reusable content: Karen McGrane's "Content Strategy for Mobile"


The constant increase in end devices forces us to rethink the content of our websites. Karen McGrane’s approach to this is called adaptive content: content which adjusts itself to the device.

Good content for a good User Experience

Good content is just as much part of the User Experience as a brilliant design is. Good content doesn’t just mean well-written words; it means clean, structured pieces of content. Good content is planned and organised, so that it can be used flexibly and independent from specific platforms and devices: It is adaptive.

In her book Content Strategy for Mobile, Karen McGrane examines how we can create better content by including mobile devices in our decision making. She demonstrates that with the rise of mobile, we have definitely reached the point where we can no longer use our long-established methods of content creation, which mainly focus on the desktop version of a website. With the rapid, never-ending appearance of new devices capable of accessing our websites, we can no longer write for a single device. We have to come up with new strategies, so that we can create content which can live on any device.

No device-specific content

Mobile devices have truly made apparent the problem of our current web content: Simply taking pre-existing content and displaying it on a mobile app or a mobile website doesn’t work. What we need is a proper content strategy. On the downside, “there’s no such thing as content strategy for mobile.” On the upside, what Karen means with this is that a content strategy shouldn’t focus on the mobile context only. Instead, we should simply use this context as a catalyst for creating device-independent content.

In fact, mobile devices don’t even require a specific style of writing. The small screen of a smart phone may discourage you from reading a tediously long paragraph with multiple ideas crammed into it. You might be willing to skim the same paragraph if it was displayed on a larger screen. Nevertheless, the reading experience would be improved on both devices if the whole passage was split into separate paragraphs, one for each idea - this isn’t writing for mobile, it’s simply good, concise writing.

Equality among all devices: content parity

Device-independent content furthermore implies that we don’t create different versions of content for specific platforms or devices. In fact, no matter where it is, all content should always be the same. It needn’t necessarily be prioritised and presented in the same way, but everything should be at least available. This not only ensures that for instance mobile only users have the opportunity to access all content, but guarantees that users who switch between different devices will always find what they expect to be there.

If we want to achieve having our content on all these different devices and platforms that are out there, we can’t manually create and publish it to every single one of them. Instead, we need intelligent content which can be written once and then used in any place: adaptive content.

Adaptive content: chunks and metadata

Content which can be reused in multiple situations has to be thoroughly organised and structured. Comprehensive articles need to be split into various chunks: Title, teaser, summary, and so forth. Using metadata, these single elements can then be defined in their right sense, so that when being published, they can be queried and reorganised automatically by the platform. As Karen explained in her talk Adapting ourselves to adaptive content, rather than handcrafting the arrangement, we tag our article chunks with the right labels. The reassembling of these bits can then happen without our interference. The metadata not only ensures that the article will be rendered in line with our idea of it, but in a way which fits the respective platform or device.

In creating these different chunks of what Karen McGrane calls a “content package”, it is important to think about the purpose(s) of each piece. Your subheadings might be used as anchor links in a mobile version of the article, your title as a standalone-link, your introduction paragraph repurposed as a teaser. Ideally, each chunk could work independently, without needing to be connected to the rest of the content package.

Furthermore, we need to depart from conveying meaning through the visual presentation of a text. Instead of using styling and formatting to illustrate emphasis or importance, we should use metadata to indicate these attributes. To some extent, decoupling ourselves from the visual appearance of a text also implies rethinking our use of the preview button. The classic preview button shows only one context: desktop. However, if we publish our content package to a great variety of channels, there is little value in knowing what it looks like on a desktop website. A new option might be a preview of several prototypical contexts, for instance desktop, mobile and tablet - what’s for sure is that the very basis of the content must be independent of the eventual presentation.

A CMS which supports good content

Adaptive content can only work if there is a content management system which supports this kind of content creation. It needs to be able to pass on the chunks, together with the metadata, onto the different platforms. Apart from these technical issues, the CMS also needs to provide a good User Experience for the content creators. The CMS should allow them to easily create the right content chunks and enable them to understand what metadata they have to attach. A CMS which supports adaptive content has to meet both technological and usability requirements.

Future-friendly content

Karen shows that considering mobile can serve as a great starting point to see where changes are necessary and improvements possible in our content creation workflows. By creating adaptive content, we not only create better content, but prepare our content for the future. New, different devices will probably be released even more rapidly than now, and we won’t be able to assess what our content looks like on every single one of them. But while it is impossible to write our current content according to the specifics of these prospective devices, what we can do is make our content future-friendly by writing good, independent base content. Adaptive content - albeit it won’t let us know exactly how our content will appear - gives us the relief of knowing that the devices themselves will be able to select the right chunks out of our content package and present them appropriately in the respective context.