Digital content crisis in the public sector and why you should care about it

French Textiles, 4657, Maison Robert, firm, Paris; Ducroquet, Victor, 1863

#1 of 4 of the series on Digital content crisis in the public sector

Sources of the crisis| On accountability, governance and multidisciplinarity |

I wanted to publish a Digital Content Manifesto, but realized I had too much to say and too much to explore before I could finalized it. I decided to be incremental and get the discussion started. This is the 1st part of a 5 part reflection on the challenges of digital content in the public sector.

Ontology of content — what is content

No matter what industry you are in, you create artifacts and resources for others. We create learning objects, safety videos, environmental policies, recruitment presentations, health portals, accounting statements, tax forms, voting ballots, community consultations, marketing materials, financial statements, archival repositories, services for seniors, data backgrounders, webinar about small business loans, employability infographics, exhibition proposals, city planning portfolios, medical brochures, community surveys, job postings…

From the perspective of each industry, these are unique products influenced by the parameters, beliefs, best practices and intellectual rigor of its specific fields of study.

From a broader perspective, especially in the digital realm, all of these creations are essentially content — words, structures and messaging, or “information products”, as Ann Rockley describes them in Managing Enterprise Content.

In 2015, at the J.Boye Conference on Digital Workplace, Hilary Marsh made a brilliant observation that the concept of ‘content’ may not resonate with many industries and professionals for the reasons illustrated above. At the time, as a new digital content specialist, it was an eye opening statement for me and it led me to believe that I needed to change how I talked about content with my own clients. In order to get them on board with improving content, I thought I should use their terminology, instead of talking about ‘content’. It didn’t work out for me, but it was a good strategy, in theory. Or was it?

One thing I know for sure, I am not the only one who has been experiencing an existential content crisis:

all the time we talk about the Content we do our clients a big disservice. Content is poorly defined. It looms over a project completion point like an unscalable (in the sense of a dozen stacked Kilimanjaros), seething, massive, singular entity. The Content.

Think contents, not the Content. Think of contents as smaller units, or as a plural. The Content is what you have at the end. The contents are what you are creating and they are easy to break down. You are no longer scaling the unscalable.

- Relly Annett-Baker, Extracting the Content, 2011

The Content void

Having worked in and participated in the digital community for about 5 years now, I have been noticing that:

  • Content design and information architecture (the organization, structuring, labeling and navigation of information systems) have a very small footprint or are entirely missing in design teams and user experience training programs that educate and support these teams
  • Content strategy is largely absent as a concept from many large scale initiatives such as citizen experience improvements (CX), digital transformation across government organizations or other types of UX or service design initiatives.

We don’t understand Content. We have no idea where Content beings and ends. Content has fallen through the cracks. It is such a mess. We are missing the right content. We are missing the right people doing the Content work. We have no time or resources for Content. We always compromise on content.

the Content. It is spoken of in the hushed tones usually reserved for Lord Voldemort. The-thing-that-someone-else-is-responsible-for-that-must-not-be-named.

If we can’t talk about it, how can we expect people to be doing it right and not making stupid mistakes? That being the case, how do we talk about Content? Let’s start by finding a way to talk about it without blushing and scuffing our shoes. And there’s a reason I’ve been treating Content as a Proper Noun.

- Relly Annett-Baker, Extracting the Content, 2011

Let me elaborate, as I can already hear many exclaiming in dismay at such a statement.

There are areas in our organizations that care about content:

  • Content is very important to communication and marketing areas, but their objective is to support the business-side of the organization and to use language to influence not to serve users and their needs.

Too much focus on content marketing results in two separate streams of content. Marketers create and manage polished, SEO-rich but shallow content. Subject matter experts create the organization’s products, programs, services, tools, and other offerings. This content is deep and useful but isn’t always created with an audience in mind.

- Hilary Marsh, Content strategy before content marketing, 2018

  • Content is also acknowledged and accounted for, to a certain extent, on user-centred design projects, when a usability test points to a problem or user research indicates the need for a change.

But at large, as a system of interconnected ideas, messages and meaning that help organizations deliver their services, digital Content has no real, consistent and tangible place in the daily workflow. Gerry McGovern describes the situation with great precision:

A lot of the work involved in delivering an excellent customer / user experience is boring.

Reviewing and removing out-of-date content is never going to be as exciting as creating and publishing new content. Getting involved in a project to create a marketing video is always going to be more interesting than writing a clear and easy to follow set of instructions on how to install a product.

In most organizations, those who sell and market are the ‘creatives’ and the stars. Those who service and support are outsourced and ignored.

- Gerry McGovern, Keeping digital teams happy versus keeping customers happy, 2018

Following in the footsteps of Relly Annett-Baker, I too am using Content as a Proper Noun with purpose. Each organizational has a very large digital Content ecosystem, composed of many content types, which are made up of multiple contents. It is not surprising then that we have accumulated mountains of content debt, yet no one is dedicated to managing them.

The Disconnect

Over the span of the last 20 years or so, Information Architecture and User Experience and all of the work we do in digital has become mission-critical. It’s now not just part of the enterprise, it’s often the most important part.

- Peter Morville, On planning and design, 2018

If each industry focuses only on their own understanding of what they are producing, responding to and framing it within the concerns and practices of their own discipline, their efforts will not resonate with the end users. The outcome may be failure, critical mistakes, lost time, wasted resources, diminished trust…

In the digital world, everything is content and digital content is a universe full of interconnected complexities that has its own set of principles and questions to be asked. It is a system that is interconnected and cannot engage with each piece in cold isolation. It is a system where agility needs to consider the impact on its surroundings. One seemingly minor change can cause a major collapse somewhere else.

You can say too much, you can say too little, you can say it in a way that no one but you will understand, you can say what someone else already said elsewhere creating an incomplete or contradictory multiplicate (there is never just a duplicate, there are many, many copies of the ‘same but different’).

French Textiles, 4731, Maison Robert, firm, Paris; Ducroquet, Victor, 1863

Words matter, their order matters, where you put them and how you arrange them matters. The devil is in the details — and there are many.

We cannot produce services, programs, presentations, brochures, training, forms, surveys, chatbots, or voice interfaces that do not account for their essential element — digital content.

AI needs IA. A weak grasp of natural language will only go so far. Alexa doesn’t understand meaning or context, so our “conversations” require organization, placemaking, and multimodal interaction. The textbots are just as limited. Messaging apps depend upon the structural design of cross-channel user experiences. Bots are but a part of the conversational ecosystem.

- Peter Morville, Conversational Information Architectures, 2016

We also can no longer work within the limiting confines of our individual disciplines. For example, a training object needs to incorporate:

  • training and learning principles
  • digital content principles
  • subject matter that is being taught
  • technical considerations of design and delivery

When working with content, we need to encourage the culture of convergence and collaboration where many perspectives and skills come into play.

Effective digital content requires a huge breadth of expertise. It hinges on understanding of its users, information systems, information seeking behaviors and techniques, search and its interfaces, writing for the web, graphic and user interface design elements, communication channels, communication methods, teaching and learning methodologies, and technical writing among other components.

Information design, cognitive load, content strategy, content modeling, semantic markup, content types, “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” (COPE) approach, plain language, writing for the web, information architecture, information governance, channel definition and strategy, metadata, indexing, controlled vocabulary, taxonomies — these should be the buzz words everyone talks about, but isn’t.

Why is that?

Have we been failing to talk about content?

Have we been talking about things that are less messy, less political, more visible?

The Broken parts

An organization’s top leaders need to see that content is the way its work is manifested in the world — that ultimately, content is an essential business asset.

- Hilary Marsh, Your content challenge is really a people challenge, 2017

Currently, in the public sector, we prefer talking about UX, CX, Human-centred design, design thinking, agility and lean innovation. These are all excellent approaches to creating and improving content. But the content is rarely mentioned and I find as an output, it often ends up in the margins, despite seemingly being at the centre of it all.

French Textiles, 4531, Maison Robert, firm, Paris; Ducroquet, Victor, 1863

I see a broken system that needs to stop and reflect on its priorities, resources, planning and the state of digital literacy of our organizations (I am happy to see that important efforts are being undertaken by the Canadian Digital Services in collaboration with the Dalhousie University to identify the digital skills and training that the public service needs).

In my attempt to articulate what is broken, I’ve identified 3 themes that I believe have been contributing to the diminishing status of content in our organizations (I will speak about each one of them in a separate article in the coming weeks):

  1. Content has many accountabilities across an organization, which means no accountability (as Lisa Welchman has eloquently pointed out in her book Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible)
  2. Content has faded into other facets of user-experience design, becoming invisible; this is reflected in the industry’s digital training and the composition of in-house digital teams
  3. Content design is a large discipline broken up into different and sometimes overlapping professional streams (content strategy, information architecture, copywriting), making holistic approach to content challenging and potentially resulting in some critical content-work gaps

If you are still unsure of why any of this is a crisis or you do not see any implications for you or your organization, then maybe you haven’t given the subject enough thought.

It is also possible that, maybe, I am mistaken in my assessment and there is no crisis at all. After all, my perspective is limited of course by my experiences and encounters, so perhaps the situation is different depending on the field of work or industry.

But what if I am not?

What is the cost of not talking about the ignored?

Great leaders consider communication a core competence, so why don’t more businesses? Manufacturers spend millions on safety training to get people to wear hard hats, but spend very little to make sure their safety critical work instructions are written clearly. […]

It’s not easy to talk about writing. Certainly not in business. Writing, even writing in public arenas, is always personal. It exposes the writer’s ideas and ability (or inability) to navigate language. Writing is vulnerability.

- Kyle Wiens, Your Company Is Only as Good as Your Writing, Harvard Business Review, 2013

More importantly, what is the cost of not doing anything about “le non-dit”?

Sep 2019 update

This amazing talk Content is service — Service Design presentation given by Chris Govias (Chief of Design, Canadian Digital Service) at Design & Content Conference 2019 is an excellent illustration of why government needs to care about content!

:: digital content specialist — passionate about open learning + inclusion + collaboration + systems + stewardship + learning design + reflective practice ::

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