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February 5, 2013

Beyond Responsive Design: Adaptive Content

Taking another critical look at responsive design and a new technology on the horizon: adaptive content.

Jacob Emerick

Responsive design is a great step forward for the Internet. The ideas and practices behind this methodology has put focus back on the true purpose of a website – sharing accessible content. Regardless of capability (or screen resolution), any device that can connect to a network should be able to render content in a way that a user can understand and engage with. However, while responsive is a move in the right direction, by no means is it ‘the solution’ for all future Web development. Like any technology out there it will fade out one day and be replaced, and I think that the next advance is already taking shape.

Media organizations, especially newspapers, are not the first industry that comes to mind when most people think of cutting-edge Web technology. Print news is under a lot of stress today with the widespread creation and distribution methods available today. One uniquely powerful piece with media organizations is just how they treat content. A news story is not a bunch of words broken up into sentences and paragraphs. The story is carefully structured into many little chunks, from the first sentence (the lead) to a call-to-action (kicker) to article teasers (subhead). You can read more about a typical news style on Wikipedia.

A piece of content should be more than just a collection of words. Structured content conveys information in several different formats. The headline introduces the body while a description may provide a summary. Images with captions and blockquotes give rich context and keywords link the content with related information. Other assets, like downloadable documents and audio files, can offer opportunities for a user to learn more about the topic. All of these different fields can be thought of as metadata to the primary content, supporting and filling in context. Also, in some cases, a subset of the content can still convey the information without the full textual body.

Welcome to Adaptive Content. Frequently discussed by Karen McGrane, the main idea is that content comes first and the presentation comes second. Put the focus on creating information with supporting metadata, not targeting specific devices or audiences. The application layer will choose what fields of information is relevant. If your business builds a mobile site it may not make sense to include a 5000-word article right away but it may make sense to have a title, summary, and a link to a paginated version of the article. If you build a mobile application you could offer a save feature to download audio files to listen at any time. A desktop site could include most everything, with an audio player built right into the page. Once you disassociate the structure of your application from the content you open up more avenues of distribution and easier future product builds.

One great example of a successful adaptive content approach is NPR. A few years ago Daniel Jacobson, then Director of Application Development, pushed through a new approach to their digital strategy. COPE, or Create Once, Publish Everywhere, is fairly simple: Create a content management system that handles all of the content and editing then push out the data through an API to all of their outlets. You can read more about the specifics on programmable Web’s article on COPE. The results have been impressive. By making their content more accessible, letting third parties and multiple in-house applications read and distribute across different venues, NPR has seen a 100% increase in page views in the first two years alone.

Not everyone is a giant media outlet, generating hundreds of news storys each day, but every single entity on the Internet is in the content business. Whether it is a restuarant menu, store products, or standout photos, the content should be accessible across any connected device as easily as possible. Responsive design is a great way to make sure that you have a Web and mobile presence but it’s not enough to handle the myriad of devices that are heading our way in the next few years. The ideas of adaptive content, of separating out content from presentation, is the next natural step from responsive and one that is worth watching out for in the months to come.