The printing press was the most important technology for the distribution of content — until it wasn’t.
Now print is seen as increasingly irrelevant, usurped by digital distribution methods.
We know this. And yet some people still obsess more about the technology than the content.
My response to a recent conversation on Twitter appeared to create some confusion. It seemed as if I had to persuade some content designers that content is more important than technology.
Content is more important than code.
— Duncan Stephen (@DuncanBSS) March 25, 2021
So I thought I’d take the time to explain what I mean by that.
What I don’t mean when I say content is more important than code
A focus on technology is understandable. Most content designers today work in multidisciplinary digital teams. That’s because it’s currently the most effective way of publishing content that meets users’ needs.
Many of our colleagues are passionate technologists. They take great pride in their code and what it helps us achieve together. They are right to do so.
So I am definitely not saying that content people in a team are more important than developers, or anyone else in the team. Bringing the right content to the right users at the right time is a truly multidisciplinary team effort.
With that point made, here comes the but…
Technology focus is a trap
Because we’re in multidisciplinary teams, we find ourselves having many conversations about technology. These conversations are often very important.
Many of them are not very important, but they are interesting — at least to the technologists among us. So we trap ourselves into having conversations that focus on the technology first, over the content — and certainly over the people.
We end up tricking ourselves into thinking that our purpose is to deliver a piece of technology, which happens to have content inside it. But almost always, that technology wouldn’t have to exist if we didn’t need to deliver content.
Content isn’t created for the purpose of having code.
Code is created to help us deliver content.
That’s why content is more important than code.
But it’s not even as if the content is that important in the grand scheme of things either. People’s needs are.
Understanding people’s needs is more important than both content and code
Content shouldn’t be created just for the sake of it. Content also only exists to serve a need that someone has.
Yes, we can only create code if we know what content needs to be delivered. But we also only know what content needs to be delivered if we understand what people need it for.
Code serves content. Content serves people’s underlying needs.
Why it matters — lessons from technology dinosaurs of the past
Many people are familiar with case studies such as Netflix usurping Blockbuster, or digital photography sinking Kodak. These are often described as examples of “digital disruption”. The lesson is often taken to be about the importance of technology (even by me in the past).
But study the examples carefully and you realise the reasons Blockbuster and Kodak failed was not about the technology. It was really a failure to understand what their users needed, and therefore what their businesses were really about.
After all, Netflix began as a DVD rental service just like Blockbuster. And Kodak invented digital photography, but were unable to capitalise on it.
The mistake that both Blockbuster and Kodak made was tying their businesses to very specific technologies.
Despite inventing the first digital camera, Kodak couldn’t conceive of a world without film.
Blockbuster thought it was in the video rental business. When Netflix arrived as a competitor, not much changed at first.
But things changed when Netflix realised they weren’t in the video rental business. Netflix understood that what their customers actually wanted was an easy way to be entertained in their own home.
That realisation led Netflix to become the video streaming giant they are today. But because Blockbuster was so fixated on the idea of being a video rental firm, they missed the opportunity.
The technology turns out to be almost irrelevant.
People just want the most convenient way to meet their need. Fixating on technology makes people miss this simple idea.
Today’s content needs to work with multiple technologies at once
If you pick a technology, it’s highly unlikely to be the only way the content will need to be delivered.
The same content, meeting the same need, could appear on multiple channels: a website, a mobile app, email, social media, digital signage… you name it.
Even within channels, there are different ways of consuming content. For example, with web content, users commonly view it in their browser. But they may alternatively use an RSS feed to access it. Or they might use a reader mode in their browser to remove a distracting front-end design. Many people use assistive technologies such as screen readers. APIs are commonly used to feed content from one technology to the other.
We also need to consider future, unforeseen technologies.
Preparing your content for future technologies
Karen McGrane has highlighted how the US magazine TV Guide came to this important realisation back in the 1980s.
They decided to free their content from the constraints of the printed page, which was the most important technology of the time. By creating their TV listings content in a reusable structured format, they positioned themselves ideally for the future.
That content was ready to be used once the first set-top box electronic programme guides were created. Later, it could be used on the web. And then on mobile apps.
These content structures turned out to be the key to the longevity of the business. By thinking about their content and the needs that content served, TV Guide avoided the same fate that Blockbuster and Kodak faced.
Study BBC News stories, and you will see they are always structured in very particular ways. For example, each story has to be fully summarised in the first four paragraphs.
This is a legacy going back possibly as far as the 1970s. BBC News website content originally came from the same source as their teletext platform Ceefax, which had strict character limits. But these content structures are still used today by the BBC to publish their news stories to different platforms.
When we create content, we need to think of it in a platform-agnostic way. Considering users’ underlying needs helps us do this.
What this means for our content today
Content can appear to different people in different contexts through different technologies.
How it looks on a modern web browser is one thing. But we also need to consider how that content will come across to users of assistive technologies, voice interfaces, future technologies… and maybe even print.
This is why we must not have conversations about technology that make content an afterthought.
This is what is meant by content-first design.
But we shouldn’t even be content-first. We should be user-first.
Once we understand users’ needs and contexts, we can consider how we need to meet those needs. Often, content is the key to meeting those needs. Only once we’ve established that should we make decisions about technology.
It’s not that technology isn’t important. But if we centre our conversations on technology, we make the same mistake as Kodak.
Technology exists to serve content, which in turn exists to serve users. Understanding this helps us future-proof our work as well as better meeting users’ needs.
Thank you to Lauren Tormey who edited my bad words.
Header image created with the help of edit.tf teletext editor.