Content Types in an Agile World: From Structure to Consistency and Usability

The idea of structuring content based on a set of containers to facilitate reuse and the development of various presentation means is well-rooted in the early days of Web 2.0, but has seen remarkable growth in the last few years. Nowadays, developing a long-lived, coherent online presence without content types is almost unthinkable. Separating content (text, images, product descriptions) from the way they are presented (CMS pages, product listings in an online store or in a mobile app, all of them based on the same data) allows for unmatched flexibility, eases the design and development process of the entire system and makes data mining and analysis easier and more efficient.

Content Types in an Agile World

Content Types in an Agile World

But this wide-scale use of content types also comes with a new set of challenges. The types you develop will be in use for a long time – months, maybe years – and need to provide the foundation that you'll use to respond to new trends, new content requirements, new products, new offerings. How can you make them general enough that they won't require a complete rework two years from now, but still particular enough that they remain relevant, are still easy work with and do not require overly complex storage schemes? How do you structure the information so that it is easy for both content creators and developers to use?

A Team-Integrated Approach to Content Type Building

If you look at most post-2013 websites that use content types, you'll see that the great promises of content type use – consistency, dynamic reusability – haven't really come true for everyone. What gives?

The root problem in most of these cases is the same: the separation of content and presentation has been extended to the team as well, separating the concerns and the discussions of the parties involved in content creation, strategy and, respectively, presentation. This limits creativity on all levels.

On the content creation side, any model inherently embeds a view over the subject as well. For instance, the content type for a biography embeds the importance given to a person's place of birth by simply including a “Place of Birth” field or not. Content creators and strategists who are not involved in the creation of the content types, or who participate in it only through feedback given for largely finished works, will often fail to understand the importance of each piece in the broad picture and will be unable to plan content type usage over long periods of time. They will cope by asking for every imaginable piece of information to be added, resulting in unwieldy models that are difficult to integrate in the presentation layer and that content creators end up filling up just partially.

On the presentation side, failing to integrate developers and designers in the development of the content type often leads to types that are inadequate for cutting-edge presentation options, or which make it difficult to integrate alongside other types in the same page, making a consistent design almost impossible.

Furthermore, while it's tempting to think that presentation somehow “follows” content just because it looks logical (first we write the content in a given structure, then we use the structure in this or that manner), great user experience happens when feedback and ideas move both ways. Content creators who can facilitate design and development efforts result in an user experience that's easy to tune when usage data from real users becomes available. Giving developers and designers the ability to work with, and explain their vision to content creators helps the latter come up with content that “fits” more presentation options, enabling better content reuse and improving the consistency of the entire experience.


Agility is Communication

Many project managers and strategists prefer to separate teams because it leads to fewer long discussions. They hope that “being agile” will somehow compensate for this, but it doesn't: decisions are still based on our-of-sync views, this is just hidden from sight because it happens at a micro scale. Smooth communication translates in a smooth, consistent user experience and a framework that encourages teams to explore the richness of the content and present it in new and relevant ways, rather than forcing them to work in “molds” that are now several years old and keep the presentation classic and conformant.

Want to learn more about the evolution of content types in an agile world? Come join us at the UX+Dev Summit in February, 2017. The most respected thought leaders in the industry will be at an event you can’t afford to miss.