in Digital Media

Print Is Dead, Metadata Rocks, and Grocery Store Tiles Are Different Sizes: Lessons from An Event Apart, Day 1

So I recognize that my title is obnoxiously long. I also recognize that I’m violating all the rules I spend my days championing. (Short titles. Most important sentence first. Action in the first 5 words. Keywords.)

I don’t really care.

This is my blog. About 8 other people read it. On a really good day. I can ramble if I wanna.

Okay, I feel better.

Anyway, I’m decompressing from day one of DC’s An Event Apart conference. The whole day was fantastic. But the parts that have (so far, anyway) really stuck with me were talks by Andy Budd and Karen McGrane.

Andy spoke about persuasive web design. A lot of what he discussed is stuff that real designers (aka, those who actually learned about design in some sort of formal setting) probably already know. Specifically, he talked a lot about the psychology of persuasion. There were lots of mentions of various cognitive biases and/or shortcuts that we humans are prone to making. You know, stuff like “halo effect” and “selection bias” and “loss aversion” and “operant conditioning.”

I quite like this sort of thing anyway, so it’s probably no surprise that I quite enjoyed the talk. In fact, some of the things that (I suspect) you get in Advertising 101 just hadn’t ever occurred to me. One illustrative example: Ever notice how supermarkets often change the flooring in their luxury goods aisle? You know, like the floor goes from tile to hardwood. Partly that’s just to signal that, Hey You’re In Fancy-Pants Land.

But there’s also a more subtle reason going on.

See, your shopping cart makes regular clickety-clacking sounds as you go across the tile. When you hit the hardwood, those clickety-clacks get faster (because of how hardwood is narrower than tiles and all.) So it sounds like you’re going faster. Which makes most of us slow down. It’s totally unconscious. But it works.

Pretty neat, huh.

Also, Andy totally looks like Joshua Gomez, so that kind of makes me like him. I’m pretty sure that’s some weird form of authority bias.

Toward the end of the day, Karen spent an hour chatting with us about adaptive content (aka, the idea that you create once, publish everywhere.)

I’m going to keep the recap here pretty brief, largely because I’m mulling over a much longer post on the topic in the coming days. Suffice it to say, though, that I spent much of Karen’s talk wanting to stand up and cheer. Her theme throughout the talk was a simple one:

Content must be separated from display.

It seems like an easy concept. Indeed, in principle, this is what content management systems were supposed to do. Only then we shoved WYSIWYG editors into our CMS. We used those to shove images and tables inline, then ended up with a whole pile of unstructured data than can’t easily be reused. And that’s if we were lucky. For a lot of publishers, print is still king, and we online types are trying to shoehorn print processes into an online world.

Karen offered a three-step strategy for moving our sites in the direction of adaptive content:

  1. Write for the chunk, not the page.
  2. Demystify metadata.
  3. Build a better CMS workflow.

Easy, right? Hey, wait, I have to give up my wysiwyg editor? WTF?

So those are the big takeaways for today. Tomorrow brings (among other things) Kristina Halvorson on content strategy and Whitney Hess on the philosophy of UX. Hey, look at me all excited about a conference on philosophy! It’s like I’m a starving academic again.

Write a Comment


  1. I’ve been following the aea conference via the tweet streams of the presenters and attendees – sounds like a great event for designers, but something that should be mandatory for content authors. As a former print designer turned web designer in the mid/late 90’s I can attest to this not being a new concept. Indeed, the reason I first began building dynamic websites (with Perl no less) was to create a simple CMS because the people responsible for writing content were completely unwilling to try and learn any other method of content creation outside of WYSIWYG editors like Word. Fast forward 15 years and designers still deal with the same problems. There are excellent, simple ways to create content without the use of RTF or WYSIWYG editors (Textile is a particular favorite of mine), but as soon as you suggest any type of markup to most content authors, their brain simply shuts off. One can create device agnostic content using simple tools, right in the browser, such as WriteSpace and Textile, but it appears to me the problem is that content authors aren’t wired for writing this way.

    IMHO what we need is not a CMS with a better UX, but rather a CMS that feels more natural to writers and allows the content to be stored independent of formatting. If those Word and PDF documents that authors generated had underlying markup that could be extracted in dependent of formatting, us designers tasked with presenting the content in a variety of formats would have more time to focus on user-centric design. Instead, designers spend the vast majority of their time trying to replicate RTF formatting.

    What we need is a CMS that reduces HTML, RTF and PDF formatting down to Textile or XML markup so that authors can create in a natural way and designers can design without the limitations that formatted content present.

  2. I would also like to point out the irony of me, as a web developer, calling for the use of a markup language other than HTML for content authoring for the web. Indeed, HTML is the most ideal of markup languages form document content – or at least it was prior to the addition of font and blink tags – back before WWW stood for the Wild, Wild Web.

    If WYSIWYG editors simply dropped support for anything other than semantic markup (H1, H2, EM, Blockquote, etc), Word, OOo, etc. followed suit we may not be having this discussion.

  3. I guess if we’re being fair, WordPress’s native WYSIWYG editor does a reasonable job of providing decent (HTML) markup. Of course, a lot of people using WordPress for more than personal blogging immediately go out and install a more Word-like editor.

    I do wonder in the end whether the right answer will be to let users work as they want and fix their bad practices on the technology end or breaking users of their bad habits. Writing blobs goes all the way back to the scribes, so it’s a lot of bad habit to break.

    The notion of starting with a title and working your way down to “the end” really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense any longer. I mean, there’s still a place for narrative. But even narrative doesn’t have to be produced in the order in which the narrative unfolds. Our content creation tools, however, are mostly developed with the assumption that it is.

    I’m just kind of thinking out loud here, so this may not make a whole lot of sense. Well, okay, not out loud, technically. You get my meaning.