“It’s all about content. It’s not about content” - Giles Colborne’s IA Summit Redux at London IA

 by Martin Belam, 22 May 2012

Last week we had the latest London IA evening, featuring a packed programme with an IA Summit theme, as Tim Caynes and Johanna Kollmann reprised their talks from New Orleans, and Giles Colborne provided an overview of the event. As ever, Sense Worldwide were our hosts, and Zebra People our sponsors. Here are my notes from Giles’ talk.

“It’s all about content”

Easily the most popular presentation of the event, he said was Karen McGrane’s. She gave her talk twice to packed rooms - from the viewpoint that “it’s all about content”.

Karen compared the internet to the newsstand 100 years ago. Publishers much prefer the scenario where everything is rigidly organised, the news vendor acts as a gatekeeper, and you get paid for everything. The internet has blown much of that away, and even the little community noticeboard the newsstand may have had has migrated online.

Then Apple introduced Newsstand, and everyone in publishing breathed a sigh of relief. They recognised this. As Karen McGrane puts it: “All I see is entire organisations screaming ‘we want to live in the eighties goddammit!’”

At the IA Summit Karen introduced the audience to NPR’s COPE strategy - “Create once publish everywhere”. It has allowed them to rapidly grow their mobile traffic, compared to publishers like Conde Naste who have “trapped their static pages behind glass” in apps, which are delivering a declining sales yield.

As he presented what Karen had been talking about, in London Giles added that at CX Partners they were increasingly taking an approach that moved away from making rigid wireframes and content flows, and instead have moved towards something much more fluid. You have to get away from the idea of beginning with a web page.

One problem for print organisations trying to adapt is that they often still hold the original print version of content to be “perfect”, and that all the other versions on mobile, on the web and in apps are somehow “cut-down” and “inferior” to the polished print layout. This means they naturally focus a disproportionate amount of effort on that version at the expense of the others.

Karen’s talk repeated Ethan Resnick’s assertion that metadata could be “the new art direction”, rather than something that the IA in the corner frets about alone.

“It’s not about content”

Giles counter-pointed talking about Karen McGrane’s presentation with an opposite viewpoint put forward by Stephen Anderson in “What’s Your Perception Strategy? (Why It’s NOT All About Content)”.

Anderson argued that elements like presentation and ordering where vital influences on how you understood a message. A survey that asked “Are you happy? How much are you dating?” would get very different answers to one which asked “How much are you dating? Are you happy?”.

Another example given was the effect of typefaces on reading a legal document. Some typefaces enable you to read faster, but slower reading aids cognition and recollection. In a court case, you’d be better off being represented by someone who had taken longer to read the documentation if it meant they could muster better arguments.

Stephen Anderson was saying that as well as a content strategy, you need a perception strategy too. Design details can radically effect how your message is perceived. Giles said that one of his take-away points from the conference was a better understanding of Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message”.

Giles said that in his experience, websites have a lifespan of three to five years, and publishing systems a lifespan of ten to fifteen. If you are working on either of those right now, you need to make sure that you are building it to cope with a massive shift to mobile and away from reading and producing web pages at a desktop computer.

He finished with a plug for the next IA Summit in Baltimore in 2013. Giles is helping put together the programme, and spoke about “the sense of mission” that going to a conference can give you. “A conference is about congregation.” he said. “It isn’t just about the ideas. The presentations are all up on SlideShare, but you get so much more from a room full of people where you can talk about it with your peers.”

Please note that Giles was giving a talk based in part around other people’s talks. He was very careful to present it in that way. If I have mis-credited any of the ideas or comments in the course of this article, the fault is mine alone.

Useful links


I’ll have my notes from Johanna Kollmann and Tim Caynes’ talks at London IA later in the week. The next London IA event will be on 19 June, in a new format and at a new venue for the summer.

London IA: Notes from the talks
Martin Belam, foreword by Ann McMeekin Carrier
London IA is a network of designers, information architects and thinkers. Since 2009 the group has been holding regular meetings featuring talks about UX, or of interest to UXers. This ebook is a compilation of my notes from those evenings, featuring talks by Andy Budd, Giles Colborne, Cennydd Bowles, Claire Rowland, Jason Mesut, Ben Bashford, Chris Heathcote, Dan Lockton, Relly Annett-Baker, Michael Blastland, Margaret Hanley and Richard Rutter amongst others. Topics covered range from ubicomp to psychology, from learning how to sketchnote to how to write a UX book, and how to improve digital design through diverse routes like copy-writing, designing for doubt, learning from music technology or taking care of typography.
London IA: Notes from the talks is available for Kindle for £2.47.

1 Comment

Am having a hard time getting my head around the shift to mobile as a massive shift. It just seems so user unfriendly to be surfing the net on a screen that fits in the palm of your hand. Realize the need for a mobile-friendly website, but is this shift going to make designing for the desktop obsolete? I just don't see it happening. Maybe part of me refuses to accept it, but I hate surfing the net on my iPhone. Articles will need to be much shorter if this shift is to happen.

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