The most exciting thing about intelligent content may be that we are — finally — talking about it.

And talk we should. 

With the explosive growth of the digital world and its new technology, software, media and massive user populations, we have focused most of our attention on the delivery side, forgetting that what we deliver is based on content that must be designed, created and managed.

When the digital universe was young — a few years ago — the digital experience included primarily e-commerce sales, user messaging and marketing promotion data. 

So our failure to deal with content didn’t appear all that bad.

But as the digital world has broadened outside those confines, providers find themselves facing demands to include content they either don’t have or have created for other purposes, in formats that don’t fit the new interactive mold — technical specifications, troubleshooting data, user setup and operating instructions, maintenance ... and the list goes on.

The result, in too many cases, is a digital experience based on jury rigs that are considerably less than usable, too expensive to maintain and error prone.

'A Process Designed to Accomplish Something'

To talk about intelligent content is to understand the goals of the particular interactive digital experience being developed, and coming up with answers as to how that content should be designed and created.

One thing we might agree on: for content to be intelligent it must be part of a process designed to accomplish something. It is that process that defines, in each circumstance, what is and is not intelligent.

The goal is interactive, personalized relationships between content producers and their users, driven today’s by user demands, not by new technology and not, directly, by the content itself.

We hear much today about how to conceive and create really good intellectual property — structurally rich, semantically categorized, automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, adaptable.

But most of these descriptions, useful as they are, focus on the functional characteristics of the content — what should be — not on what kind of content meets those objectives or how it can best created and structured.

It Ain’t the '90s Anymore

Read the current discussions of intelligent content and you will also see descriptions of books, pamphlets and other fixed media falling under the rubric of “Single Source Publishing.”

Single Source Publishing grew from the automation of technical, maintenance and user documentation publishing of the 1980s and 90s, flowering with IBM’s publication of its Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) in 2001.

But while it can offer useful examples for those who have never dealt with it, Single Source Publishing as it has been practiced for decades, is neither new nor particularly “intelligent.”

The User Takes the Reins

What is new, however, is the level of detail to which today’s provider/user interaction aspires, the speed with which content must be organized and delivered, and the level of content granularity required to make it successful … all of it controlled by the users.

All of the previous efforts — and some current thinking — shared some important characteristics: they were based on stable, defined requirements, under the control of the providers, not the end users. Many were products of ponderous regulatory processes, providing plenty of time to get ready before actually changing anything.

That has changed radically as the growth of the electronic world has put user needs and preferences in control of what must be made available and how it must be presented.

The primary impact of this shift has been a massive increase in the level of granularity at which content must be structured and presented, making the solutions of the '90s, although still useful in some settings, no longer adequate.

Component vs. Embedded Solutions

A critical question this shift to high granularity and interactivity has confronted content providers with is the dichotomy between component and embedded variant solutions.

Component solutions use the fragmentation and recollection of content elements to create personalized output. This approach, best represented by DITA, is based on storing content as pieces then recollected and delivered in varying formations based on the requirements at the time. An entire field of software has grown up around componentization (Component Content Management or CCM) complete with its dedicated systems, vendors and scholarly defenders. The software industry likes CCM because Relational Databases handle pieces very well, making the RDBMS an attractive solution element.

But DITA and other componentization schemes were originally designed for highly structured output, mostly in fixed delivery formats and while some of today’s content adapts well to componentization, some does not. The smaller, more numerous and more nested the components, the more complex and difficult CCM is to manage and the more expensive the tools required to manage it.

Embedded Variant solutions are based on the use of XML and its native software applications to tag content in ways that allow multiple output variants to be extracted from a single source of content. To some extent, this approach is one of degree rather than exclusivity. DITA, for example, though primarily based on componentization, provides some embedded variant tagging through its “conditional processing” facilities. The goal is the same, however: keep the primary content in a single, non-fragmented file and resolve it into the desired variant outputs when it is retrieved or published.

Hybrid CCM/Embedded Variant solutions use a combination of both approaches, componentizing content for large content structures, then embedding variant tagging within those components to widen their range of usability without increasing content granularity. In the right setting, this hybrid approach can provide the best of both CCM and tagged variants.

All the focus on the content itself — and there is plenty of it — tends to mask the fact that the reason for all of it is our need to support the rapidly changing world of digital experience.

In fact, if we’re talking about the mature world of fixed media like books, manuals, instructions and the like, there are plenty of tools, techniques and experience available. Content architectures, communities of interest and an array of software tools support protocols like S1000d, DITA, Docbook, NLM and others.

But none of these techniques were designed for the rapid-fire interaction of today’s electronic user world. And while they still have lessons to teach us, the new rapidity is changing the world of content in ways they can’t fully predict or handle.

Instead, we must look closely at the nature of the emerging provider-user interactions and craft content approaches to deal with it, putting the focus on function and letting form follow it

You might say that we are being dragged, kicking, into the age of User Experience.

The Experience is the Thing

The User Experience (UX) guys have normally been brought late into the design process to tune the interaction between system and user.

While their contributions in this role are important, they have not traditionally been part of the content design process itself. That was left to the technologists responsible for putting the tools to be used in place, tasking the UX people to optimize the results.

This approach no longer works well. Instead, how the intended users will respond is the best key to the design of the content to be delivered and to the technology employed to create and manage it.

In a technological world that prefers things to functions, this isn’t proving to be all that easy — note the intense focus on content “should-be’s” in the literature, with little or no discussion of how to accomplish them.

In the end, as users become more and more demanding of a finely tuned and highly interactive experience, if the content doesn’t support their demands in an efficient and cost effective way, we aren’t much better off no matter how elegant our content world becomes.

The answers to creating effective content for this new digital world are in front of us if we will only use them. Today’s higher focus on intelligent content, however it plays out, is a good first step.

Title image by Dmitry Ratushny