Human, not robot

Content management too often seen as a technology problem – one that an automated system can solve. With Lisa Maria Martin, I discussed how we can get past this blockage, and how far we need to iterate the conceptual shift in order to implement a system that really works…

Lisa Maria Martin

Lisa Maria Martin

Independent Content Strategist

Issues Editor, A List Apart

Site: The future is like pie

Twitter: @redsesame


Rick: As we said before, this industry is all about communication.

When we get back to those basics, we can put the technology aside, figure out what we’re doing, how we’re doing it – the human processes – and what we need of the system to support us.

Lisa Maria: I think that’s where a lot of people get lost – especially those who have spent a long time in big, old, and entrenched-in-their-ways organisations. It’s easy to forget how much we do outside of technology. Then we start thinking of the technology as the mechanism itself, as what makes the business happen.

We forget the technology is a tool.

Rick: I’ve seen a lot of that recently. Some environments end up being designed around the specific visual presentation of content, which results in massive duplication, and confusion between content types (not to mention failure on a responsive level).

Others go the other way, stripping it down to really basic building blocks – in order to be responsive. But in so doing, they lose much of the ability to represent semantics.

It’s as though organisations don’t trust their people to understand the versatility of content.

Lisa Maria: I think there’s a fear of too much human labour being involved. It’s a misplaced fear. We want to make things automatic. We want to streamline our processes. But we recognise that robots can’t do this job for us.

The human perspective – human thought and human curation – is needed at every stage of publishing.

Rick: So they make it all manual?

Lisa Maria: The issue is between having your CMS be overly defined and automated – so it’s robotic and doesn’t really fit anything – and having it too loose and free-wheeling – not structured enough.

A higher education organisation I worked for had that problem when they switched CMS. They sat down and generated ideas for fields; how things should connect. They created those requirements in a very generic way. It was an effort to create structure, but not contextually specific structure.

There wasn’t much discussion about specific cases; who would use what, for what purpose. Instead, they considered the university as a whole. Everything was generic.

Rick: One structure to serve them all?

Lisa Maria: Yes. They created structure that way.

After using it for six months, we has a system nobody could use, because it wasn’t created for anyone specific.

For example, a university has building. Buildings are important. Everything that happens has a building associated with it. So, there’s a dropdown field – on every page – where you can select a building for that content. But it was barely used – a fraction of a percent of pages needed it. But it was there, on every page!

It was so not needed.

Rick: But so familiar a story…

Lisa Maria: I think that was a really good example. They were trying to add structure. They were trying to automate. But the use case didn’t really bear out in the way people used it. There were tons of similar examples in that system.

Rick: So how can we do better? How do we avoid that situation?

Lisa Maria: Start by generating personae if you have to: content-management user personae. What tasks do they need to accomplish? Build things for the specific cases rather than the generic.

Rick: That makes sense.

I think the other side of this is governance. Look at it from the perspective of the content as subject. Why does it exist? What purpose does it serve? I hope to talk to Rahel Anne Bailie about this at some point, because the model I use evolved from hers.

The approach basically supports the content with the metadata that tells it when it has done its job – when it is no longer relevant.

Lisa Maria: But how would you…?

Rick: When creating content, you have to categorise it. You identify what objective it serves; what end-user activity it supports. When the objective is achieved, the content is redundant and can go.

Lisa Maria: It still comes down to the human aspect of governance, though. The authors still need to categorise the content. Don’t they?

Rick: Absolutely.

Lisa Maria: So it’s still about getting people to understand…

I mean, I’ve had clients where we’ve established very clear goals up front. All the content is validated through that. But six months down the road, and the end of the project, validation is a box you tick. Whatever. Just move on.

Rick: Been there. Someone has told them to put the content up, and they just can’t be bothered to fight it.

Lisa Maria: Yeah. Fourteen pages on the history of the company.

People aren’t going to be able to use that validation effectively without proper training. You need buy-in, at all levels, to one editorial vision. The basic principles of content strategy need to be in place for that validation – built into the system or not – to work.

Rick: The content validation matrix is based on starting with top-level management buy-in to the whole process.

Lisa Maria: No. It’s based on top-level management sign-off. That’s not the same thing. All you have is a piece of paper you can go back with: “But your signature’s on this.”

Rick: Yeah. OK.

Lisa Maria: But you don’t necessarily have the cultural shift. The leadership isn’t communicating it down the chain. The people in the trenches aren’t necessarily hearing it from on top.

That’s what I’m talking about.

Rick: Is it necessarily management’s role to communicate everything down in person? As the consultants – or as the in-house content strategist – helping set this up, it’s our job to be that communication channel from upper management.

Lisa Maria: Sure.

Rick: We do the communicating on their behalf. We help carry the message between layers in the organisation. We explain the overview to management and get buy-in. We get objectives from middle management. We help the people creating and managing the content get the tools to do their jobs properly – to create the content that supports the direction set from above. We make sure the information flows.

You may have to hit a few people over the head along the way.

Lisa Maria: I think making sure there are systems in place to support what you’re saying after you’re gone, is also tricky.

You can be the communication between on high and the trenches. But when you’re done, how will that sustain itself six months or a year down the road? Who replaces you as the communication channel?

I can see things falling apart. It’s the fundamental challenge of getting the changes we recommend and the things that we implement to have staying power, across all levels of an organisation. I don’t have an answer.

Rick: Isn’t the starting point of that, for us, not to do as much?

By which I mean, not be hands on. Our role is to guide, and to educate. Not to do all the work.

Lisa Maria: Right. That’s very true.

Rick: Once they’ve done it – actually practised it – and got stuff up and running, then they’re used to the process. They understand it. And we adapt the process to suit the organisation.

Lisa Maria: Yes. Absolutely.