Embrace Adaptive Content to be Part of the Digital Zeitgeist
We're more than 20 years into the web revolution, so maybe it's about time we started treating content as flexible, reusable bits of data rather inflexible words and images on pages.

Adaptive content may just be the future of content management, but there is still no widespread agreement on what it should look like or how it is to be implemented.

Device Agnostic

After several decades of web-focused technology, we're rapidly embracing a mobile defined world. In the past five years, the use of mobile devices has been surged. According to the latest Pew Research, 63 percent of US adults use their phones to go online and 35 percent of Americans 16 and older own tablet computers.

Companies have tried to develop native apps for various mobile platforms. But the reality is that trying to wedge web tools into a mobile world is difficult and time-consuming — little more than a Band-Aid for an issue we have failed to adequately address.

"I'm calling it the hole in the web problem," Don Day, an independent structured markup expert said in an interview with CMSWire. "We've got a problem with web architecture, browsers and how we access information in databases."

Responsive web design (RWD) — the framework for websites that respond to their environments — offers some relief. As Jeffrey Veen, CEO and Founder of Typekit, said in a book by Ethan Marcotte:

Day by day, the number of devices, platforms, and browsers that need to work with your site grows. Responsive web design represents a fundamental shift in how we’ll build websites for the decade to come.”

Marcotte is credited with coining the phrase Responsive Web Design,  which he introduced in his A List Apart article, "Responsive Web Design" and evolved in A Book Apart — Responsive Web Design. RWD will fluidly change and respond to any screen or device size. 

But adaptive web design (AWD) is another option to consider. The phrase was coined by Aaron Gustafson, who wrote the book on what some consider a more holistic approach to web design. AWD is a form of progressive enhancement that also takes into account varying levels of markup, CSS, JavaScript and assistive technology support.

What is the Difference

Both AWD and RWD allow websites to be viewed in mobile devices and various screen sizes. So what are the key differences? 

"CMS tools have largely been built on a page model, not on data types," Gustafson said in an interview. "We need to be thinking more modularly about content. We need to design properties of content types rather than how it's designed."

Where responsive design is a model for addressing front end issues like fluid grids and images, adaptive design concerns back-end approaches that take into account both the form and function of a user's capabilities, he added.

Responsive design can improve how websites look on mobile devices, but adaptive design can help companies reuse existing content and allow it be viewed properly on even more devices.

One example here is an airport kiosk or a digital sign in a museum. Content that is built for the web may not look right on one of these displays unless it is adaptive. The responsive design approach may not solve this problem, but building content models that can be more easily reused in a wider variety of places could, Gustafson said.

COPE: Create Once, Publish Everywhere

Whether an adaptive design or responsive design strategy should be employed depends greatly on the context, Rahel Bailie, a content strategist, told CMSWire. Adaptive design has been the purview of web geeks for many years, Bailie said. It is becoming more mainstream now as site owners realize they have a problem that goes beyond responsive design and web content management systems (WCMS).

"Writing for the web is more than just addressing multiple channels," Bailie said. "Producing adaptive content is more a content build."

Content producers need to learn to COPE: that is, find ways that content can be created once and published everywhere. This need can readily be seen in the popularity of social media dashboards like Hootsuite.

Hootsuite can publish content to multiple systems at once, helping to solve an increasingly common problem. While there are certainly limitations to what Hootsuite can do, its popularity lays bare this basic problem of the multichannel world.

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Adaptive content will only become more important, so technologists should start getting serious about developing new standards. Image by Karen McGrane

"From a content management standpoint, up until now, we haven't had to think about content separated from its form," Karen McGrane, a user experience consultant, said in an interview. "The limitations of solving things client side are there. It's really now about the server side."

To truly offer the best multichannel experiences, content needs to be in one repository and then served to different platforms, McGrane said.

Responsive design is popular because it helps in many cases. But not always.

One organization that seems to know how to COPE is National Public Radio. NPR uses a heavily customized version of Drupal, McGrane said, and that allows it to produce more reusable content.

The Future of Content Management

What will content management look like in the future? We know content and presentation have to be separated, and some vendors are better at that than others. Drupal has this capability, but popular systems from WordPress and Adobe are less flexible.

Once content is separated from presentation, there needs to be flexibility in how content is described. The more ways it can be described, the more it can be reused. McGrane calls this the blobs versus chunks debate. One of the problems is that content is often produced in a design layout with a WYSIWYG editor that allows users to embed fonts and tables.

These unstructured blobs are not as reusable as structured fields of content that includes metadata. The challenge is to provide users who are comfortable with the WYSIWYG editors the ability to develop structured content. 

Are you exploring adaptive design? Let us know in the comments section below how this is working — or not —  in your organization.

Title image by marekuliasz (Shutterstock).