From mobile-first Web design to contextually aware WCM

While digital publishing requires mobile-first Web design, don't stop there. For the best customer results, WCM systems need to be contextually aware and deliver the content for multichannel experiences.

Even if you're a seasoned Web content manager, mobilizing your website is a new challenge. You've been publishing by default to a full-screen Web environment. The mobile revolution now requires understanding how to deliver multichannel experiences on smartphones and tablets.

More is at stake than simply shrinking a Web-based experience into a smaller form factor. In fact, mobile experiences are going to be a lot more task-oriented and context-sensitive. So, what do you need to do to get started? Web content management systems will help you publish more quickly and adjust to multichannel environments, but you also need to enlist other approaches, such as a mobile-first strategy, responsive Web design, and in the future, responsive app design.

Designing for mobile and contextually aware apps

One popular maxim is "design for mobile first." While this sounds great in theory, the devil is in the details. Focusing on mobile-first Web design begs the question about the kinds of experiences you're delivering in the first place. From my perspective, it's best to go back to basics and identify the high-value tasks you're trying to accomplish.

Of course, developing task-oriented experiences is not a new idea for customer-centric design. As we've seen, highly rated e-commerce sites do more than simply present information as product catalogs. Rather, we engage in "I want to buy items like this" conversations and seamlessly find the information we need to complete purchases. Not surprisingly, it's easy to view various alternatives on a full-screen Web browser: Designers have the visual real estate to present many options that link to different tasks.

When it comes to mobile experiences, the screen size is more constrained and there are different contexts; sometimes a user will view the apps on the go. Rather than presenting many options, successful apps have just a few options that target the task at hand.

Moreover, these apps will be contextually sensitive and aware of what users are trying to do. Some of this information will originate in devices themselves; geocoding should be part of any location-based application. Some of this contextual information will come from the increased personalization of stored content in back-end systems, as well as access to big data applications.

Adopting a mobile-first perspective

Here are some initial steps for mobile-first design:

  1. Begin with a content audit and take stock of all the content delivered to customers and constituents.
  2. Create task-centric maps of about four or five of the most important actions you expect end users to take when accessing your site.
  3. Consider how these tasks change when you mobilize them.
  4. Track the role of location, calendar appointments and other data stored on the device itself.

You'll be surprised by how customers and constituents use the information you present.

Responsive Web design

Many websites begin as publishing experiences. Back in the days when print publishing cost a lot of money, newspapers, magazines and newsletters competed for audiences and content niches. The Web disrupted this industry; we're awash in content -- editorially vetted, curated and even user-generated.

Responsive Web design can accelerate the processes for mobilizing these publishing experiences. Modern WCM systems manage the structural elements of digital content -- the headlines, bylines, section headings and sections -- through a series of predefined templates. With responsive Web design, responsive templates adapt to the screen size and device characteristics to optimize the viewing experience. They support easy reading and navigation while minimizing panning, resizing and scrolling.

Most popular WCM systems have plug-ins and extensions that support responsive design. As a result, you can continue to develop your content once, manage it in a central repository, then automatically publish it on various devices. Font sizes and images look great on tablets with a high screen resolution, smartphones with low resolution, and full-screen Web browsers. Articles are optimized for particular devices and displays. Thus, articles published on a smartphone can begin with a list of headlines linked to the stories, while articles on tablets can include linked headlines plus lead paragraphs.

Notice that responsive Web design results in publishing the same content on multiple devices. While certainly a step in the right direction for formatting and navigation, there is no attempt to deliver different content in different contexts. Multichannel experiences need more than responsive Web design templates.

Preparing for responsive app design

In fact, developing and delivering multichannel experiences will remain a challenge for another year or so. Today's alternatives include using native mobile apps that run entirely on mobile devices or relying on mobile Web apps where Web-based experiences are managed through mobile browsers.

There is an emerging trend toward responsive app design -- where knowledgeable end users can develop mobile apps without programming support. These next-generation mobile app development tools -- which Forrester calls low-code platforms -- add application development capabilities to mobile templates and will enable multichannel experiences.

It's best to prepare for the coming transformation, the advent of task-centric mobile apps designed to support targeted business purposes. At minimum, get your Web-based content in order by exploiting the capabilities of your WCM system. Invest the time and effort in your information architecture, where your content categories (and tags) are linked to your business-related tasks. You'll be well-positioned to take advantage of HTML5-powered experiences and semantic-based mashups.

Next Steps

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This was first published in August 2014

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