Last week, I wrote a piece called, “A Hierarchy of Information Needs.” It described one way to think about how an information seeker’s question, problem, or interest at any moment can, in effect, blind him or her to other content, no matter how it’s formatted, nor how much the content’s creator wants it to be seen. Usually, the need for the “ephemera” of life becomes the dire matter to be resolved first.
That got me thinking about how else one might use the idea of a hierarchy, which led me to this pondering:
Consider how often a content owner would like for your content to be the most important thing in front of an information seeker at a moment. Let’s say, further, that the content is a full, well-created, powerful “story,” which will bring lasting value to the information seeker, if only you could get it to shift down the hierarchy, from “story” to “reference,” to “ephemera.” If only your content could be fleeting, you reason, and if it could wink out of existence as soon as it’s served its purpose, then it would be seen, explored, and valued in all its fullness and glory.
Content “Declension,” or manifesting your content at each level of the “Hierarchy of Information Needs”
I’m going to call this process—of setting off a content cascade through the hierarchy—“Content Declension,” which I will further call just one process of “Content Grammar.”
In many languages (other than English), nouns “decline” to suit the context in which they’re used. They take different prefixes and suffixes, and sometimes they take on entirely different forms, in order to communicate their role in a sentence, roles that are called “cases.” As a basic example of how this process works, you’ll recognize the vestiges of this process in English:
He is the subject, and the subject is about him, and his story is fascinating. (Nominative case he declines to dative case him, and then to genitive case his…)
OK, it’s a thin example, but Content Declension is the process of establishing patterns and formats for the different cases (or “contexts”) in which your content appears.
When you are creating content, it is vital to consider how it will be able to satisfy your information seekers’ most immediate needs, while providing paths deeper into the whole content. In one sense this is about creating useful, meaningful abstracts of your content, but it’s also about establishing consistent formats for each level, so that no matter what the underlying content, it will be clear how it all fits together, and where you are at each level of the content’s inherent “hierarchy.”
Let me use a blog post as an obvious example. This is easy-peasy on a printed page, since the article appears in a fixed position and format. In digital publication, however, the content declensions are complex.
When we think of the full article, standing alone on an HTML page, the answer is easy: We have the full “Story” form, with all its parts, in all their glory: All the text, the byline, the images and videos, as well as the comments, contact links for the author, and perhaps legal information, too.
At the side, however, is another box, called “Related Stories,” which is a “Reference” content component. With a glance, you can see other content you may want to read, but you don’t have to go there if you don’t want to. Inside that container are the stories’ “Ephemera” declensions. They probably include the headline, a thumbnail, a lead-in blurb, and maybe the byline. It just depends on how the designers chose the elements.
So all together, in this example, we have to plan three declensions of the same content: The full Story, the Reference, and the Ephemera— the same content, in three case forms.
It is vital to consider all the contexts in which your content will appear to the information seeker: In sidebar lists, in search results, in printed documents, in content links, and even in URLs. The more you can plan for the contexts in which your content appears, the better you can present it in a form (and format) that will suit the seeker’s present need.
Why is this important? It’s another step in making your content “adaptive” in preparation for “responsive design.”
But there are contexts, and there are contexts.
For the content of our time, there are infinite possibilities for what content is going to show up where, on what platform, in what physical context, and on and on, as we as content strategists are painfully aware. We have also been introduced recently to “responsive design” as a method of resolving some of that uncertainty and “adaptive content” as a way to teach the content about itself, so it can communicate its topics and other meta-properties to the design, so that it can shift.
But I would say that there is an additional property that we have not yet systematized, which is “content context.”
- What happens when this content is called as a “link?” What do you, the content designer, want to present as the properties in the link?
- What if the “link” is in a “related links” container? Should it be the same “link” as when it appears in the “Search Results” list? How can the metadata communicate which content ephemera should appear when it appears in one context or another?
- How can we ensure that when this story is called from a blog post, it declines in one way, and when it’s called from a Twitter feed, it declines differently?
- What if you want to provide hooks for other contexts, so that related content is served up in some contexts, but not others, when someone else is specifying the display?
A Call for the Next Evolution of Standards: Content Grammar
Content declension, as a standard, would need to address two issues. First, it would require that content experience designers imaging the functions and contexts in which a full version of content might appear, so that a responsive design could address differences in display for different contexts.
But it would also require that we establish a standard system to name these contexts, like any other evolution of markup. We would need to say that a link.related-links would be different from a link.search-results, to be followed by the fields, attributes, or properties that should appear in those cases. Something like that.
As Content Strategy is evolving, we are uncovering new questions and puzzles related to the “substance” of the digital universe, and I think this is an important next phase, like the “semantic web,” we might call it the “grammatical web.” I expect that if we sit here some more and think at it long enough, we’ll come up with more “Content Inflections,” like “Conjugations.”
Let me know what you think.