For an Effective Mobile Content Strategy, First Understand Your Users

Any good CMS system worth its salt should be able to support proper mobile devices through the platform specific targeting of content and style elements. However, simply making your page layouts and stylesheets mobile friendly may not be enough to satisfy your users.

Different Ways of Providing Mobile Content

There are different ways of supporting your users on the move, including*:

  • RSS News feeds
  • Mobile friendly web pages – navigation as per your current site structure
  • Downloadable eBook/pdf – for Kindle/Tablet users
  • Mobile friendly site – both pages and content structure optimised for mobile
  • Mobile friendly site in an app – installed like a mobile app, works like a website (normally HTML5)
  • Framework based mobile app – e.g. PhoneGap – makes native phone/tablet functionality (e.g. GeoLocation, local storage) available to mobile web app (normally HTML5)
  • Native mobile app – implemented in native language for each device – e.g. iOS, Android

* (you can find out more from my previous post Mobile Apps for the Uninitiated)

Broadly speaking, this list gets more expensive as you go down it, but with a potentially much richer and deeper ongoing engagement with your users.

None of these approaches covers all eventualities – there is a cost/benefit for each. For example, RSS feeds provide users with easy access to news items from your web presence, typically with very little extra setup cost. At the other end, native apps provide the smoothest experience, and the possibility of an excellent push content channel. However, you can’t push content to users unless they download the app, and they will only download an app if it supports an activity they want or need to do.

Different Users, Different Uses

Users may fill their time with research type activities when commuting to and from work on the train, using their smart phone or tablet. They may wish to get access to material relevant to their job at their desktop, to your contact details on the move, check their user account, or outstanding orders at lunchtime at their desktop…and so on. If you hope to have a clear idea of how to service their requirements, then you need to clearly model the key user journeys you want to support, otherwise you are not making their lives easier. Different kinds of users engage with different kinds of content, on different platforms, for different reasons, in different situations.

There is no one size fits all approach to reusing content on mobile platforms, beyond the basic exercise of providing content. Whilst this basic exercise is better than nothing, this is unlikely to make all, or even any, of your groups of users engage more deeply with your content.

The Right Approach for Your Users

It may be that you have something to offer your users that means they are keen to engage on an ongoing basis – for example, if they order your goods regularly, or if they use real-time information, or if there is a professional or interest based reason for frequent two way communication. In such cases, you will most likely have a strong case for developing a mobile app.

If you find that your users just want your news on an occasional basis – in which case, a mobile friendly news page, or an RSS feed may well suffice. If your users tend to check you out on the move, then your entire site navigation, along with the page content, will need reconsidering in light of issues such as:

  • how do and should people access your content
  • how should you signpost the most important activities in the limited screen space of a mobile device
  • how should you keep the sequence of activities short and easy to manage on a mobile keypad

Reuse of Content

Only when you understand the likely patterns of engagement of your users will you be in a position to judge how you may be able to reuse your content. Although the challenge of how you will push that content out technically is not to be underestimated, that is just a side issue compared to the organisational and human complexity of establishing and appropriate authoring process.

Reuse may require Rewriting

You cannot expect content designed for the written page to be a good fit for mobile devices and vice-versa. You may be able to give much more concise, interactive and context-sensitive content on a mobile device, which can be made aware of its environment to some degree, as compared with a desktop browser. If you are considering reuse, then you need to set up an appropriate workflow that will segment your content into elements that are appropriate for each platform. In your CMS, this may mean that you have separate précis, body and imagery for each distinct platform. You will no doubt wish to flag which content may be permitted for use, or blocked from use for each platform as well. You may want the structure as well as the content to be pushed into the mobile device.

Mobile Apps as a Content Delivery Platform

If you are in the fortunate position of having a compelling reason for deep two-way engagement with your users – perhaps as a membership or professional body, or as a charity – then it may make sense to consider developing a mobile app as a content delivery platform. The advantage of this is that you can give a bespoke engagement with content which can, if implemented correctly, be updated regularly without distributing a new app. Users can then engage with content on the move and then access it subsequently without having an internet application. In effect, you can have a targeted push channel into your user base, as well as an effective platform for two way communication.

Creating an effective mobile content strategy is complex, though it offers great opportunities. Only by understanding the needs and behaviour of your users can you hope to succeed in achieving your organisational aims.

KISS with CMS!

KISS – “Keep It Simple Stupid” – is often mentioned in relation to technology, but not very often observed. User Experience may be well established now as a discipline, but many systems are still woefully lacking in due consideration for users, requiring them to jump through lots of hoops to achieve their everyday goals.

Content management systems (CMS), including intranets, are an increasingly important kind of technology, one that more and more corporate staff are expected to deal with. Given its expanded role, it is vital that users should feel comfortable using their company’s system whenever they need to. For some users this will be an every day experience, and for others once a week, perhaps. Some users may access the content over the web on their PCs, others on their tablets or mobiles.

However frequently it is used, and on whatever platform, it is vital that users find their system intuitive and engaging – they should only be presented with the minimum level of complexity required to complete the task at hand, any extra complexity should be accessible in the background, but neatly tucked away. The tasks that take up 80% of your time as a user shouldn’t be slowed down by the ones that take up 20% of your time.

Being Useful Means Being Usable
It may be a tautology, but it is still one that is worth spelling out: a system is only useful if it is used, and it will only used if it is usable – hence careful interface design has a major role to play in the effectiveness of information systems. In an age when organisations are expected to produce a constant stream of timely and appropriate content, it is in their interests to decentralise the creation of content and the sharing of knowledge, to avoid the ever present problem of content bottlenecks. It is thus also in the interests of organisations to make their systems as easy to use as possible.

I have witnessed many different CMS systems in use, of all shapes and sizes, and some of them prove to be difficult to use because they employ inconsistent or unclear metaphors for interacting with content. I have sat through training sessions on some of the market leading CMS systems, where most of the time seemed to be spent explaining away idiosyncracies of the interface. The success of such systems often reflects the fact that sales are sometimes made purely in the boardroom, rather than with reference to everyday users.

A CMS system may in itself be excellent, but if the agency implementing a website or intranet is lacking a deep understanding of its inner workings, and best practices, you can be sure that users will have a hard time getting to grips with the implementation. On a number of occasions I have had to pick up projects where an agency has thought that a CMS just means editable text, rather than structured content, meaning that users were expected to user HTML in their editing process, when properly implemented the users should only need to worry about their own content.

The Influence of Software as a Service (SAAS)
If there is something that the explosion of Software as a Service has demonstrated, it is that given the right kind of intuitive interface, users can be up and running in moments with doing what they need to do, even if the more complex side of their activities may require some extra training or research. It should be just the same with a CMS system – get up and running in minutes, while you find out more about the advanced features as and when you need to. A good CMS system should be effectively invisible to users – if it is working, it should not draw attention to itself, the focus should be the creation, the curation and the consumption of content.

Kentico CMS – Easy and Effective
There are no doubt many CMS systems that could be used to achieve the appropriate mix of simplicity, engagement and sophistication for users, but my own personal preference is Kentico. Ever since I chose this as my agency’s preferred CMS platform, I have been consistently impressed with its mix of features and simplicity – when properly implemented, users find it so easy to get to grips with that they hardly need any training. At the same time, it can do anything it needs to, as well as being easy for developers to extend in any way required. Whichever tool you use to manage your organisation’s content – don’t forget to keep it simple!

Design, Technology and Metaphor

I find it useful to think about most creative activities as being centred around the notion of metaphor. In advertising, for instance, a very common metaphor is the equation of success in life, and most particularly success with the opposite sex, with the purchase of the appropriate product. Indeed, branding is all about the metaphorical association of the abstract brand with a desirable character trait, such as Coke = happiness, or Guiness = invention. Brand managers strive to ensure that this metaphor is implemented coherently and consistently across all points of contact between the consumer and the brand – from advertising and promotion, through purchase, the actual moment of consumption itself and how consumers describe the brand thereafter.

Just like above the line activity, interface design and user experience, on the web and elsewhere, is all about constructing and maintaining a consistent metaphor. The most obvious example is the common computer Graphical User Interface (GUI) itself – the desktop, borrowing as it does some elements of the now-antiquated real world office – such as folders, and trash can. Just as you can change your mind about stuff you have thrown away, provided the office cleaner hasn’t emptied the trash, you can change your mind and retrieve items you have thrown away on the computer desktop. In constructing such a metaphor, not all aspects of the office are implemented in the interface – we don’t get a choice of chairs, for instance – though our virtual desktops do get messy, and we frequently put pictures of loved-ones on them. The creation and maintenance of interface metaphors is usually considered to be a design discipline. For successful interfaces, however, design and technology must work seamlessly together – which is often quite tricky to achieve.

Historically there has been quite a big divide between the disciplines of programming and design. This goes back to the days when programming computers involved the laborious writing of lines and lines of code, and using software involved entering some mystic incantations from the keyboard and viewing the resulting lines of text – neither mouse nor pointer to guide the way. In some ways, the creation of code still has something in common with those early days – particularly the focus on the linguistic and algorithmic aspects of code – aspects that can’t be captured easily in a graphical environment. Whilst design aims to look at things from the user’s point of view, the abstract linguistic orientation of code keeps some developers at arm’s length from user’s experience of the interface, whilst alienating many designers from the undoubted benefits of the deep understanding of interaction that can be derived from understanding code. Indeed on of my own preoccupations, both personally and professionally, is overcoming the synthetic divide between design and technology – which was one of the driving forces behind Lime Media being set up in the first place. At Lime we insist that our developers always keep their eye on the experience of using the system, whilst we expect our designers to understand the technical framework being used to implement their designs.

Given the way that software is often purchased these days – online, or on a mobile, at low-cost, for immediate use – it is unreasonable to expect user to delve into the recesses of a help system. When was the last time you used a user-manual, even when one was provided? If you are like me, probably a very, very long time ago. In most cases, except when using specialist or proprietary systems, user do have it relatively easy, finding themselves able to use new interfaces on first exposure, with little or no instruction. Why do they find it so easy – if the agency has done their job it is either because the interface has been designed in accordance with accepted or de-facto norms of behaviour, or, if it the design is quite innovative, they will have clearly indicated the metaphor being set up through visual and interactional cues.

When you innovate, you must provide clear sign-posts about the metaphor you are using. Here is where the bridge can be built most effectively between design and programming. User interface design is all about the visual cues for use, as well as the seamless progression of related actions involved in undertaking common tasks. If done well, the user will hardly notice it has been designed at all. The code implementation, however, is vital to support the consistency of the metaphor – it provides the depth and the behaviour over time that leads the user to trust that the GUI will not suddenly do something unexpected, that it will behave as advertised by the visual cues, that it will intelligently reuse information provided and not, for instance, ask you more than once for your name and address – unless doing a security check.

For the user, the experience of an interface can’t be broken down into component parts. The smoothness of movement on the interface needs to be matched by the information handling and vice-versa. If everything is right, then they will only be thinking about what they are doing – finding information, making purchasing decisions, amending information – instead of the interface. As soon as the metaphor of the interface breaks down – through inconsistency or unexpected behaviours – that is when the interface design, or lack thereof, becomes apparent.

Just like art, design and technology are ways that we reshape the way that we engage with the world – rearranging what is important and how we take our bearings. Art often likes to do this through metaphors that jar and provoke, through drawing the viewer into a world in which confusion and shock are the order of the day. By contrast, interface design is all about making the user feel at home – with design and technology taking a low-key role, keeping users focussed on what they are doing.

In order to create an engaging user-experience, and hence make systems useable and useful,  design and technology must work together to create consistent, coherent and intuitive metaphors for engaging and guiding users in what they really want to do.

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