Sara Wachter-Boettcher has become a vocal advocate for “future-friendly content.” What’s that? It’s content that offers a fantastic user experience on tiny as well as gigantic screens. It’s content that’s versatile enough to work well on devices that don’t yet exist. As part of her work as a content strategist, Sara has also spent a lot of time thinking about content as part of a system and organizing it accordingly.
Sara recently took a break from editing A List Apart and from promoting her book, Content Everywhere, to discuss product page content and how companies can make sure that their e-commerce content is “future-friendly.”
“All Content Needs to Be Database Ready”
content26: What do you see as the biggest issue surrounding content at the moment?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: I think the tremendous challenge people are trying to deal with is how to make their content ready for mobile.
content26: So what’s the best way to develop content for mobile?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: There isn’t one single solution to it.
The ways people are using devices are expanding constantly. That means we need to make all of our content and features available to everybody, regardless of how they happen to be accessing our site. It’s not about saying “a mobile user would never want that!” because that assumes you know what your user wants better than she does.
“Most companies are still thinking about content in a very print-centric way; they’re focused on where the content will be located on a page. They think of it as a canvas of a specific size.
If you start looking at your content with that mindset, you can make better choices—not just for your mobile content, but for all your content.
content26: So how can companies create better content at a product-page level?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: I think it requires looking at content not just as a page, but as something more modular. We need to be creating content that is database-ready. What does that allow us to do? Well, if content is ready to go into a database, it will be organized in multiple little pieces—price, name, description, specs, etc. Because each of those little pieces can be handled separately, it becomes much easier to configure it to whatever the display need is, mobile or otherwise.
content26: How can brands that sell products online use a modular approach to content?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Products are inherently structured items, so in some ways product-based content is already ahead of the game. Products already have the name, price, and all these other little elements of content that make up that product description.
It’s not that far off to break that down a little further and say maybe we need to create chunks of content for more than product and price. Maybe we need to create chunks of content for the product description, features, and benefits.
This modular approach really makes sense for companies that know their product information is going to go to a lot of different websites. Each website needs all those elements, but each of those chunks might be reconfigured differently.
“The more content you have in messy, unstructured places, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to react to new opportunities and new types of devices.
content26: So what’s keeping companies from taking a more mobile-friendly approach to content?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Most companies are still thinking about content in a very print-centric way; they’re focused on where the content will be located on a page. They think of it as a canvas of a specific size. This should be top left. This on the bottom right.
That wasn’t a great approach in the days when we used desktops to access the web, but it worked, mostly. Yet it does’t work on small mobile screens.
But behind this problem is an organizational problem about how companies are structured. Content might get stuck in the communications department or the technical writing department. When that happens, people produce content for their silo, rather than thinking about it as a more interconnected system.
Companies haven’t made it a priority to have a central repository for information. They haven’t thought about how to improve workflow and decrease inaccuracies. That means that every time they want to create new content, they’re starting from scratch. What they should be doing is plugging content directly into a database where it lives alongside other product information.
These are not easy changes, but I think doing this is going to remain critical because the more content you have in messy, unstructured places, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to react to new opportunities and new types of devices.
content26: Do you think people expect less content or different content when they’re researching products on their mobile phones?
“If I’m looking at a product, I don’t want to read fluff; I want to read useful information.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: I tend to believe in the “as much content as necessary” camp, which is different than the “as much content as possible” camp.
You need to know your users, buyers, and customers. And you need to understand what information is valuable to people and give it to them.
I do think it often means shorter, but not just for mobile. A lot of the time, we should have been writing shorter in the first place because it’s all we ever needed. If I’m looking at a product, I don’t want to read fluff; I want to read useful information.
content26: But sometimes that useful content takes up more space than what would comfortably fit on a mobile screen.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Well, I think that if you look at content through the lens of mobile, then you can also do interesting things with it. If it’s important to have more content, then we need to think about how to prioritize it.
“Writers need to understand that their content is really part of a system. The best way to make content come to life is by understanding the system.
The most important content needs to display right away. Other content can require opening a tab. Not all content has the same priority level. So just like on a larger display, where you might have sidebars or other secondary content areas, you can have the same on a small screen—those secondary areas might just be tucked away behind a swipe or tap.
content26: How can companies get started on creating smarter content?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: One of the places you have to begin is to go back to all content you already have and take stock. You need to think about what you really need and what you can get rid of.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to start collaborating more across departments and groups. You need to begin interacting with the IT department and designers so that you can begin designing content that is truly cross-platform.
Writers need to understand that their content is really part of a system. The best way to make content come to life is by understanding the system.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher is an independent content strategist, writer, and editor based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her work focuses on designing systems for flexible, adaptable, future-friendly content, with a heavy interest in making content mobile-ready. Her first book, Content Everywhere, is out now from Rosenfeld Media. She also serves as editor in chief of A List Apart, a magazine about web content, culture, and code.