Cleve Gibbon

content management, content modelling, digital platforms, technology evangelist.

From Design Skimping to Design Thinking

Mini CooperThis post has been on my mind, on and off, for about ten years now.  I know, I know; I’m slow.  It’s about the wide and numerous assumptions people make about design when creating digital products and services. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years now, and to sum it up, we just don’t spend enough time doing design.  We pay good lip service to design, but by and large, design is under valued, under sold and always under scrutiny.  This is blood boilingly crazy when clearly the likes of Apple, GE, Google, Tesla and Netflix are founded upon the results of great design. So why do the rest of us skimp on design?

 

Defining design

Design is problem solving.  Take digital transformation. The challenges businesses face here are gnarly, but we tend to use words like complex and multi-dimensional.  There are no single convenient solutions. Equally, there are no completely wrong answers.  Instead, we live in the grey where success and failure depends upon how we identify, approach and ultimately solve complex problems.  This is design.

About 15 years ago, when you discussed design with (web) sponsors and stakeholders, design always meant creative design.  Nowadays, that has marginally corrected itself to be more inclusive of architectural design, system design, content design, operational design, and so on.  Sadly, we don’t carve out enough time for designers to design. Increasingly that sees us solving the wrong problems and/or cranking out mediocre solutions.

Solutions should be useful and useable, otherwise they are still problems.

Designers Design

A designer solves problems within a set of constraints – Mike Monteiro

Not everyone can design.  We have artists, writers, musicians, athletes for a reason.  We also have designers.   Countless times I’ve witnessed projects fail because the wrong people are doing design. How many times have you seen subject matter experts / stakeholders, and others solving problems rather than articulating them for designers to solve?  This is a dangerous misuse of everyone’s time and core skills, resulting in the wrong set of outputs and outcomes.

Some designers ignore the constraints.  Recently, I sat across the table from a project manager responsible for co-ordinating the efforts of her creative team responsible for designing the customer experience for a set of web sites.  I was representing the technology team tasked with designing the digital platform that will ultimately bring these customer experiences to life. I asked when we should arrange for the creative team to get familiar with the target medium.  To get an early heads up on some of the downstream constraints.  The implication was that was an activity beneath the creative team’s pay grade, and it was highly unlikely that they would ever entertain the notion.

I call this exclusive design. I get it.  Some people like to design without constraints in order to explore the adjacent possibilities in a constraint free world.  Then adapt and rein it back into reality.  I’ve seen this  “sort-of” work but it had to be well-managed through continuous open and honest dialogue; we were designing.  If not, there will be a very expensive ‘undo and rollback to reality’ exercise.  A constraint free world?  Only when I’m dreaming!

A designer solves problems they have to help identify within a set of ever-changing constraints: without authority – Ian Fenn

I prefer inclusive design.  Where teams co-create, embrace and overcome the constraints together.  An all for one, one for all musketeer-like approach to design.  These multi-disciplinary teams develop rich symbiotic relationships from the get go.  Your shit, is my shit, like agile pigs in shit (see below).   Here content strategists, technologists, operations, creatives, and support all have a design voice and are committed to the design effort.

Scrum Pigs and Chickens

Design is about continually finding and over coming ever-changing constraints.  This is difficult to do in isolation. I’ve found the best results come by working to the second law of velocity: it’s easier done than said, where seeking forgiveness on your failures rather than permission to do anything yields higher returns in the long run.

Design Complexity

For every complex problem there is a simple solution that is wrong – George Bernard Shaw

Fred Brooks coined the term ‘essential complexity’ back in 1986 in his seminal article entitled No Silver Bullet.  A must read. It’s a software engineering classic that lends itself to just about any discipline.  Essential complexity is baked into the very problem being solved; you cannot remove it.  As a designer, your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to  design a solution to a problem without adding ‘accidental complexity’.

Accidental complexity stems from not really understanding the problem and/or approaching the problem in the wrong way.  Accidental complexity is avoidable but seldom is through a lack of design.  For example, the majority of content management solutions being implemented today, right now, will not have afforded the right amount of time to understand (strategy) and design (architecture) for content to deliver the right-time experiences that their consumers yearn for.  So in addition to what is already a mind meld of essential ‘content’ complexity, we are adding an unhealthy and avoidable serving of accidental ‘content’ complexity through a lack of design thinking.

Design Time

We need to sell design.  Both internally within our organisations and externally to our clients.  The internal sell is exhausting but rewarding. When a project management lifecycle doesn’t have a design phase, that’s a hole that needs to be plugged.  Sometimes design artefacts are crammed into discovery or requirements phases.  Personally, design is sufficiently important to warrant it’s own time and place in the delivery process.  Not surprisingly, every organisation I’ve ever worked for, I’ve had to fight to either get design into the process and/or afford it the time to do it well.  Again, internal and external forces factor make this challenging; skills, budget, time.

I believe in agile software development.  But its just the how.  Lean is why we do what we do in agile.  Lean philosophies around the continuous improvement of working practices (kaizen) and getting out of the office and working with the customer (gemba) are just two important terms we lend from lean.  Lean thinking needs design thinking to deliver true agility.  However, witnessing first hand the number of agile software development  projects that lead with a short two-week design and then heads down sprinting into two-week  build iterations is not sustainable model for future success.  The level of essential complexity is rising within today’s digital problems.  Design thinking needs to supplant design skimping if we are going to succeed at the speed and scale that our clients want to engage with their consumers.

Design Thinking

Design is how we operate. It is human-centred.  It defines how things work long after that amazing launch party comes that no-one can recollect; good times!  Design establishes rationale and helps gauge efficacy through set of guiding principles that governs the solution over the long term.

BMW invested heavily in design thinking.  Soon after they acquired Rover back in 1994, they started producing Mini Coopers.  I was drafted in to train BMW engineers in emerging software technologies required to automate key systems for manufacturing faster, cheaper, better Mini Coopers.   What I witnessed first hand at BMW was design thinking across the entire organisation.  As an example, during the Rover days, as a car progressed through the assembly line, engineers got under the car, completed their task, and moved on.  With BMW, they obviously re-visited the problem and designed a completely new system where the car was raised, lowered and rotated to match each and every engineers perfect working conditions as it progressed through the assembly line.  The impact of design on efficiency and effectiveness was clear for all to see.

BMW are not alone.  Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs surrounded themselves with smart people to progress design.  The design thinking links in the references section talk directly to this.

Design Wrap

We are living in a complex world that’s changing at break neck speeds. We have designers from multiple domains innovating in the overlaps.  Where development meets operations (devops), digital meets content (experience), people meet products (engagement).   However, we are seriously under investing in design thinking.  My advice to you is to fight for the right to design because it’s never something you’re given but is absolutely something you should take.

Design Thinking References

Grow Slow or Die Fast – Confab 2014

Remember Blockbusters?  What about Kodak?  Popular dinner time talking points for digital blunders.  Then the ranting starts.  I ain’t going down like that.  Not me. No way.  No how. Not on my watch.  This kind of corporate fear fuels popular grow fast or die slow digital agendas so convincingly that common sense doesn’t get a look in.

I'm speaking at Confab Europe 29 September - 1 October in Barcelona

I’m going to Confab Europe Barcelona in September.  Ahh, beautiful Barcelona, to join content strategists, managers, executives, designers, and others who believe that we have to think hard about content in order for it meet rising digital expectations.  For content to flow seamlessly across multiple channels, formats, and devices, to truly get everywhere it needs to be to engage with YOU, we must think big, but start small. Or, put another way, to grow slow or die fast.

Some things just can’t be rushed.  Baking. The waltz.  A good port.  I’ve seen many try and the majority fail with catastrophic consequences.  We all have our own war stories but our ability as an industry to learn from past mistakes is painful and predictably repeatable.  It would seem that taking a sensible approach to sustainable content is immediately at odds with business expectations to achieve that. What to do?

First of all, book your Confab Europe 2014 tickets and get yourself over to beautiful Barcelona.  All done, good, let’s move on.

It’s the way that you do it.

Remember Fun Boy Three and Banarama? Of course you do. Eighties pop groups that came together to give us this:

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do pretty much sums up the problem nicely. I’m a massive fan of starting small and continuously delivering value back into the business. It keeps you honest. For me, growing slowly at the start makes solid business sense.  The strategic tactician in us all should paint the big picture but move quickly to discover, design and deliver the immediate first step from all the competing adjacent possibles.  To focus.  With that step built and firmly down in the ground, it’s time to step up and take in the new landscape.  Check out the new horizon, it will look different.  Your new will give you new capabilities that means you can potentially do things differently.  Then see how this fits into the big picture.  What’s changed?  Shall we pivot or preserve on our current trajectory?  Big picture okay?  No, then fix it.  Done? Good, then make the decision and get one with making the next step.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that but even the mention of this common sense approach doesn’t sit well within some organisations.  It’s just not how they operate.  Some pay lip service to think big, start small, whilst others openly kick it into touch.  And when I say organisations, it’s people in organisations.  People struggle with agility.  Some have been badly burnt. People don’t have the confidence or courage to embrace change.  Or more likely, people don’t have the safety or support to learn from failure or admit they ever failed.  And so we protect ourselves and push to see the return before investing any time, effort or resources.  The fear factor is palpable.   I ain’t going down like that.  Not me. No way. No how.

Come to Confab 2014

In Barcelona we talk through the pros and cons growing slow using examples wherever we can.  Please bring your own. Why? Because building sustainable content and the digital infrastructure around it to get content everywhere is hard.  So let’s put our heads together and figure this stuff out.

See you there.

Fish out of water

Ooooh, it’s all a bit different in here isn’t it? This seems to be a place about managing content yet this post is written by someone whose role isn’t about content management. My role is CONTEXT management.

Let’s explain; Cleve has signed up for a Secret Santa blog post and I’m the post he gets. It’s written by a learning and development (L&D) professional who knows a bit about IT and is interested about other functions which make my job easier. That’s why reading up on content management is such a challenge – there is a whole industry in creating and managing content in the L&D field which is a reason the industry won’t change.

To me, Content Management (CM) is a misnomer outside the world of content management. In the world of L&D, context (as I mentioned previously) matters more. It’s interesting to read through the ‘rules’ of how content management do their jobs and it seems to be more of what L&D is calling curation.

Have a look at this post from Ben Betts, one of the leaders in curation within the L&D field. Now compare and contract with our host’s post from July about getting back to basics. There are a few points worthy of consideration.

I like Cleve’s ACT mnemonic. The idea of building for the audience is an interesting one; in context management (XM) the audience are not passive and will have higher expectations from the content being presented to them. A quick glance at the uptake of MOOCs in the world of L&D demonstrates that it’s not so much about the audience; – if they don’t like the content they’ll soon stop interacting.

The content in Cleve’s ACT mnemonic needs to be a bit different when curated. The ‘obvious’ piece of content may not be the piece that people need to have delivered to them. There’s a surge in gamification in L&D – what about making your user work for the content? In learning terms it’ll be more meaningful.

Lastly, Cleve talks about technology and how his CMS wasn’t fit for purpose. In L&D there’s a seismic shift away from Learning Management Systems – LMS – as a way of delivering content. You can’t count everything that counts and a new way of measuring engagement with content is coming for L&D in the form of the Tin Can Api. I’m not convinced by Tin Can yet for reasons too long to detail here but if you work in CM you need to understand about how it might change your role forever.

Anyway, I need to get back…nice to visit and thanks to Cleve for hosting.

Merry Christmas.

No model survives first contact with real content

At Content Strategy Forum 2013 in Helsinki, in a great presentation on “Deblobbing in the Real World”, Jeff Eaton said something that resonated deeply with me:

No model survives contact with real content.

explosion

I whole-heartedly concur.  But, something was still not right.  A week later, all became clear.  I  needed to tweak the sentence, just a little, to make things right with the world again. So here goes:

No model survives first contact with real content.

Better. Definitely expand “first contact” to mean the first few encounters with real content, but it’s an important distinction to draw out for anyone designing structured content. Why you ask? Read the rest of this entry »

Content Management: Back to Basics

One of my clients is about to go-live with the first phase of their content management programme this Summer. It’s not called that of course, it never is, but that’s what it really is. I’m made up for them. And after three hard years defining, crafting, and defending their business case, it took only one year to deliver.

My client is a media publisher; content is their business. They engaged us just over two years ago to help nudge their business case over the line and implement the content managed solution. What was supposed to take a couple of weeks ticking contractual boxes and reviewing requirements, ended up taking twelve months of real hard work trying to answer a very simple question:

  • What is content management to you and how do we do it effectively?

Time to ACT.

Here’s the thing, we needed to consider Audience, Content and Technology in that order, to ACT. I can’t remember where I first heard this term, but I believe is was something to do with Deane Barker. In our case:

  1. Audience. Our customers were mobile, digital savvy, and everywhere; yet we were not reaching them.
  2. Content. Our content was great and growing; yet we couldn’t get content everywhere it needed to be fast enough.
  3. Technology. Our home grown content management system (CMS) was mission critical; yet we knew it was no longer fit for purpose.

So we went basic to basics, embraced ACT, and focussed on content management.  We dropped the word ‘system’ from CMS. We also refrained from replacing ‘system’ with ‘strategy’ because we needed to understand and define what management means to the business, before planning to do it effectively. So, all our attention was on management.

We then embarked on a journey of discovery. It wasn’t positioned as that at the time, more like a series of experiments (kaizens) that we  ran one by one, to learn by doing. Easier done than said.  We looked at the strengths and weaknesses across the business, then very quickly separated content management into three distinct areas; production, management and delivery. We also pulled together our collective experience gained working in the content business and concluded:

  • As a publisher, we knew how to produce great content, but were ill equipped for multi-channel delivery.
  • As an business, we were digitally immature but were getting more experience producing (structured authoring) and delivering (responsive design) content.
  • Across the board, we were struggling with content management that was negatively impacting both production and delivery.

Production and delivery systems rely upon a clear content management vision that defines how content is structured and accessed.  With a clear vision, production gets content in, delivery gets content out, and  management lies at the core.  The glue between these systems is not just the content.  In fact, in the first instance, the structure of content proved to be more important than the content itself.

CMS-ProductionManagementDelivery-600

Production.

We needed to get content in, from multiple sources, and to reduce duplication, for similar content to be single-sourced. Multiple content sources included other systems, other people, other companies, that were both internal and external to the business. Also, when referring to a specific piece of content, we needed a master that was always the single source of truth. That is quite a big ask we made of the content production team. However, that’s precisely what we needed to prevent garbage-in, garbage out scenarios arising in content production.

So we equipped our editorial teams with author-assisted tools to support the creation and assembly of structured and meaningful content.  These content production systems used metadata, taxonomies and content models to bake intelligence directly into the structured authoring tools that policed and punished all attempts to create bad content.

Delivery.

We rely on raw, self-describing, and modular content. It’s simply not sustainable for our management system to be tightly coupled to every possible outbound delivery channel. Both new and existing delivery system needed to be able to discover where and what content is available.  The delivery system is ultimately responsible for providing the optimal channel experience that it is supposedly the expert in. That separation of concern, content from format, truly brings focus, and with focus comes scale. Our role within content management is to equip our delivery systems with the means to self-serve well-structured and meaningful content, and then get the hell out of the way and let them do their job.

Management.

In both cases, if we are to effectively manage content, we need to define, design and structure content first. Then make that structure accessible to all.  Production and Delivery rely upon us getting management right.

So, back to the business case. That’s how we approached the problem. We went back to basics on content management. We parked production and delivery to begin with and focussed purely on management.  We defined our content architectures to structure and store content. Hypothesised about future content. Worried (a lot) about how best to store it (this is not the same as management; you don’t have to own what you are responsible for managing). Kept the content raw, self-describing and modular. Created content models, lots of content models. Built APIs to get content in, but just as importantly, to get content out. We had fun.

Then, with a clear content management vision, the originally planned CMS became a web publishing tool within the delivery tier. A decision was made to roll our own structured authoring web-based tool that used all the accessible metadata and structured content. The content itself was not stored in a CMS but elsewhere.  And so many other things fell into place.

Decisions were not as daunting to make now, not with a working understanding content management. That is not to say everything is solved now and the future is set in stone. It’s a works in progress. But content management is a tangible thing now, which goes a long way to getting decisions made and facilitating change.  That really helps.

Onto phase two…

Content APIs: A is for Access

Please watch this two minute video. It does an amazing job of describing the utility of APIs using a deck of playing cards.

Content APIs are on the rise because we need ubiquitous access to content.  For a while now, I’ve felt like our content management systems are being deployed as Roach Motels (see resources at the end), where content checks in, but it doesn’t check out. Forever locked into a single (web) channel with no easy way out.

A couple weeks backs, I explained why content APIs are becoming critical to those in the content business.  They help mitigate the Roach Motel problem.  The big guns are already reaping the rewards of their early investments in content APIs. Take Netflix, after just two years of deploying an API, it’s seeing a x37 increase in API usage, the majority of which is through internal consumption.

Today, let’s walkthrough through a couple of examples to drive home the point that APIs lower the bar to making content accessible: available to people, processes and products that potentially do not to contribute to the production or ongoing management of the content.

Read the rest of this entry »

CSForum 2013

So hot off the tails of a couple of amazing Confab conferences in both London and Minneapolis, comes CS Forum 2013.    This year CS Forum comes to Helskini with a Facebook community to boot.

I must confess; I’ve haven’t spent enough time in Helskini.  Always passing through.  Kinda silly really, given that it’s only a couple of hours away.  Time to right that wrong.

This will be my third CS Forum.  So, if you’re interested in content, and I know you are, come join us. It’s always fun and there so many smart folks to meet and learn from.

Get involved and see you there.

Why Content APIs

Have you been hearing a lot about APIs recently? Or maybe the Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE) thinking that came out of NPR? It doesn’t matter whether you have or haven’t really. What’s important is that we understand why APIs are on the rise.

Why did the big guns invest heavily in APIs and are now reaping serious benefits. Netflix, NPR, Twitter, Facebook, Expedia, Guardian, Google, to mention a few, have well established APIs that grant third parties, that’s people like you, me and other companies,  controlled access to their functionality and content.  That’s right, these companies have created a playroom filled with shiny new toys (content and functionality) and have given us the key (API) to play with them.  But why?

What value do these companies see in APIs? Why do they continue to invest in them?  And how do I get me some API action?

Read the rest of this entry »

Meaningful HTML

Today you’ve been asked to create some meaningful HTML.  What’s that you ask?  We’ll get back to that.

However, you knew that this day would come and prepared for it.  You have a very simple, but workable content model jammed packed with meaning and structure.  You’ve already done the hard content modelling work and identified the key content types for your business.  For for each content type, you have:

  • A name.
  • A one line description of its purpose.
  • A list of its attributes and a one line description for each.
  • A clear understanding of the relationships it has with other content types.
  • Open and transparent agreement, across business, UX and technology, on all of the above.

So, back to the meaningful HTML task.  HTML was never designed to convey meaning.  It’s a display language. However, search engines, web crawlers and browsers need meaningful content to better display search results and deliver awesome customer experiences.  They can’t do that with a display language.  Microdata, RDFa and Microformats are popular Internet specifications that add semantics to HTML to make it meaningful.

You have a content model.  Let’s put it to work.
Read the rest of this entry »

I am not bored

David BeckhamOn Thursday, 16th May, David Beckham retired from the beautiful game.  Unplanned, I joined him.  I was out playing 7-a-side football that Thursday, scored the first goal. A left-footed scorcher into the top-right hand corner, and was turning up field to collect a second.  Then smash, someone took me out.  Hard.  I heard a massive pop deep down in my left leg.  I turned around to give some young scally a right dressing down but no-one was there.  I tried to lift my left foot and it was like jelly.  Game over.

Read the rest of this entry »

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About Cleve Gibbon



I'm Cleve Gibbon, CTO at Cognifide where we are passionate about digital content.

My sort of up-to-date cv tells you my past, linked in shows you my professional network and on twitter you can find out what I'm currently doing.

This year I plan attend a number of events. Hopefully I'll see you there. I'm easy to find as I'm always laughing. Find out more about me and get in touch!
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