Book Review: Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile

I became interested in reading Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane after I read her article on A List Apart titled “Responsive Design Won’t Fix Your Content Problem.” I appreciated the clear approach and writing style and was looking for more advice on practical application. As a content professional who tends to write and build rather than being on the front end strategizing, I get lost in the sea of content strategists’ presentations, frameworks, and debates, often agreeing with their statements but not knowing where to start.

Rather than just reading the book and taking notes, I kept in mind the current content challenges that I’m facing based on frequent clients and projects.

I design, develop, and publish eLearning content often, content which is now even more portable with all of today’s available devices and platforms. Learning management system (LMS) systems often don’t publish (at least not well) to HTML5. Interactive elements break, pages are hard to scroll, and quiz data gets lost. Similar to the debates involving content strategy in general, there are also debates around content and learning strategy for eLearning and mLearning. I wanted tips on how to assume less about devices and outputs and apply a more “responsive” design approach to learning and writing products.

I was hoping to get past the debates on “mobile first” vs. “no separate strategy for mobile” vs. “all content must work everywhere” vs. “no one wants to do that on mobile anyway so we can ignore it.” I was looking for examples and practical guidance for how to apply content strategy anywhere, not just on mobile devices. And in this book, that’s exactly what I got.

Mobile Content Strategy Doesn’t Exist

She had me at page 1 in the Introduction: “THERE’S NO SUCH THING as content strategy for mobile.” I realize it’s a pretty bold statement to start your book on mobile content strategy while also hoping people don’t throw the book in the junk pile. However, it is the exact point I wanted to see made.

“Mobile” isn’t definable as one thing. Mobile access to content can on a tablet, smartphone, or even on a smart wristwatch. As McGrane points out, though, “mobile” is the buzzword that gets people to pay attention, so it’s a good start for a platform.

The Value of Any Content Strategy

The real value of a strategy is to create better products and better customer experiences without wasting time and effort. Designing a new content strategy just for mobile, when “mobile” can’t be condensed to a few limited screen sizes or print outputs, just leads to additional content creation within silos that needs to be maintained and updated in multiple locations. It is too time-consuming and costly to develop a content strategy for just the new hotness, in this case, mobile.

But thinking about the potentially limited screen sizes and functionality of mobile devices helps pare down wordy content, remove jargon, organize into reusable chunks, and store unformatted content in one location.

McGrane suggests taking the time to do a content inventory and audit, determine the best methods for chunking and reusing content, and … now so you will be better prepared to deliver flexible content later, no matter the device. She also explains that it’s better to start small and even put incomplete solutions into place if you’re losing users who leave when locked to desktop websites.

Assumptions You Can’t Make for Mobile

Remember when it was easy enough to design for print, even for a few monitor screen sizes? Not the case anymore. We can’t assume we know where or when people want to find specific information or perform certain tasks.

McGrane included a great example within the advertising industry. After watching a compelling TV ad on the couch, people are more likely to grab a mobile device to find more information, make a purchase, or share social content. If the mobile device doesn’t support the content, or worse yet, gives the Flash error message, they’re less likely to leave their comfortable seating arrangement to pull up a desktop version of the content.

Reaching Underserved Markets

An accessibility opportunity I hadn’t considered deals with underserved markets. When having to choose between expensive connections and the ability to access Wi-Fi in many locations on a mobile device, people with limited means choose the latter. By providing a robust, meaningful mobile experience, underserved populations can suddenly access essential information about their cities, schools, and health resources.

When You Need Alternative Content, Provide It

This statement is one of the biggest takeaways for me. I’ve often thought that content strategy articles and presentations seemed to focus on just creating one piece of content and ensuring that it works the same way everywhere. That’s just not always possible because certain types of content don’t translate well to a smaller screen or when the user action switches from a click to a tap. Instead of just publishing that content poorly for that device or format, we can provide a similar experience with alternative, yet well-designed content to serve multiple purposes. It creates a bit more work, but still much less than creating from scratch for every instance, device, location we can think of, and more importantly, creates a better user experience.

It’s about optimizing the mobile experience, not necessarily making it the exact same experience or content as the desktop web version. You might include all of the same content, yet rely on usability testing data to determine the best approach for prioritizing it.

Metadata and Managed Reuse Are Essential

Content is often developed in silos, stored everywhere, and published before reviewing. Multiple Word documents, completely different formatting done by hand or the occasional locked styles, and CMS issues create an amalgam of findability and usefulness problems. Chunking the content into smaller, “reusable” parts is good, but if there’s no way to search by title, date, author, or version, then the content gets lost once again. Requiring content professionals to add all of these details in metadata tags provides the organization and context for reuse.

Technology Isn’t the Big Problem

A final takeaway from Content Strategy for Mobile is that the CMS, mobile devices, and other technologies are not what stop people from producing useful content without wasting time or money. For any content strategy to succeed, the people and processes need to change. The best approach is to find out what works in your organization, hierarchy, and team. Some groups respond to the ROI and financial statements while others respond to the ability to increase volume and market share.

Conclusion

Content Strategy for Mobile is an easy-to-read, accessible book full of short descriptions, screen shots, examples, and links to additional resources. McGrane’s recommendation to start somewhere and continue to improve over time minimizes the fear that you’re not doing it right or fast enough. The tips are easy to start applying to any content-related project.

Title: Content Strategy for Mobile
Author: Karen McGrane
Publisher: A Book Apart
ISBN-10: 1937557081
ISBN-13: 978-1937557089

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Jill Parman

Jill is the owner of ForWord Consulting, LLC, which provides instructional design, technical communication, and business analysis services. She is a master of useless trivia, has a slight obsession with Pilot fine tip pens, and spends her free time chasing around a toddler and two dogs.

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