5 Critical Questions for Digital Content Creation

From self-published bloggers to the New York Times to the world’s largest publishing houses, every modern digital publisher faces the same core problem today: how to enable digital content creation that will work beautifully in multiple formats, on multiple devices, often built upon different underlying technologies and standards, both now and in the future.

Whether you’re embarking on projects big or small, we’ve found that there are a few critical questions to ask before starting, if you want your modern digital content to be successful in this brave new “create once, publish everywhere” world.

These questions have formed the backbone of our approach to solving content architecture problems with large publishers like Pearson, Elsevier, and McGraw-Hill, but we think they’re broadly applicable to just about any digital content creation project.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it should provide a good jumping off point.

5 Critical Questions:

  1. What are the most important outputs and formats for your content?
  2. What existing content assets do you already have to build upon?
  3. If your assets were originally created for print, how will you translate them into successful digital forms?
  4. How will you meaningfully enhance content to take advantage of the interactive capabilities of digital?
  5. How will new technologies and tools impact your current workflows?

1. What are the most important outputs and formats for your content?

Gone are the days when editors, authors, and designers could build for a single medium. Building a beautiful, high-quality print book was never easy, but it did have the benefit of one consistent output. Since the rise of quality page layout tools like InDesign and Quark in the 1990s, what content creators saw on their screens really was what they got on the page inside the covers of their final print products.

That WYSIWYG world is no more. Now, your content needs to work on a variety of devices: not only on desktop computers, tablets, and phones, of course, but also perhaps, in the near future, on glasses, watches, car dashboards, refrigerators, thermostats, and who knows what else in the emerging “internet of things.” (And let’s not forget that print will remain a valuable distribution channel and powerful reading “technology” for most publishers, as well.)

Besides needing to support all these devices, your content also will likely need to work in a variety of file formats: InDD for export to print, HTML for the web, ePub in its multitude of variants to work on Kindle, Nook, and other eReader devices, or even perhaps your own company’s proprietary XML or XHTML markup for storing and serving content.

The possibilities are endless but also potentially overwhelming.

“Create once, publish everywhere” is a useful mantra, but there is also truth to the counter-notion that optimizing for “everywhere” is the same as optimizing for nowhere. You need to make smart choices about what matters most to you and your business, and then make content architecture choices that smartly align with those priorities. If 95% of your sales are going to happen via Kindle, then it’s not smart to build in a bunch of interactivity that isn’t supported by Amazon’s platform. If print and digital outputs are equally important to your business, you’ll want to choose a more print-friendly content model than you would need to use if you never plan for your content to be rendered in ink on paper.

Of course, each possible distribution technology comes with its own benefits and limitations, so make sure to do your research up front to clarify the audience and requirements for each format. Even as you’re digitally “publishing everywhere,” some specific outputs will always matter most to you and your organization. Identifying those before you start, and building your content accordingly, is the single smartest thing you can do when starting a new digital content project.

2. What existing content assets do you already have to build upon?

While there are an increasing number of digital-first eBooks out there, to say nothing of the multitude of digital-only web- and app-based content products, many of your digital projects are likely to be rooted in some legacy print content that already exists. This can be a good thing, since it’s much easier to start from something instead of nothing. Before you start, then, make sure to do a content audit to take stock of all legacy text and image assets, as well as any pre-existing multimedia assets such as video, audio, assessment banks, and so on. Not only can you often include many more media types in digital projects due to the lack of space restrictions found in print, but you can also give old static assets new life. A beautiful photo rendered in monochrome in print can now be shown in high-resolution color. Multiple-choice quizzes that once pointed to answers in the back of the book can now be made interactive, with links back into the source content for reference.

Often, editors hear words like “multimedia” and “interactive” and think that they signify major additional production work;  in reality, valuable legacy assets may already be sitting around, waiting for you to leverage them on new digital platforms.

3. If your assets were originally created for print, how will you translate them into successful digital forms?

So, you’ve decided on which output formats you want to optimize for, and you’ve figured out what assets you have on hand and what new ones you need to create.

Now here’s the hard part: how do you turn the latter into the former?

Many publishers envision a simple one-to-one conversion, where someone hits a button (or more likely, hires an overseas conversion service provider) to turn print content into digital. This works okay for fixed-layout formats like PDF but becomes much more problematic in a world of reflowable content designed to work in a multitude of outputs.

If (like most of us) you’ve spent most of your career focused on print formats and fixed layouts, it can be hard to get into the mindset of reflowable design, the most popular approach for digital content creation, based in HTML. While reflowable layouts have the potential to render beautifully on just about any device, they lack the high-touch control of print layouts. For example, the beautiful fleur-de-lys design flourish you placed to fill the white space near the bottom left margin of page 63 in the print edition now has nowhere meaningful to go, because there is no “page 63” on your reader’s iPhone and that white space no longer exists as the content reflows to be readable on the device. If your digital conversion process retains the fleur-de-lys and tries to match the print edition exactly, your digital readers will wonder what the heck it’s doing there on their screen, breaking the flow of their text and junking up their reading experience for no obvious reason.

Because of this, here at Inkling we describe the process of turning print assets into a quality digital product as one of translation, rather than simple 1:1 matching conversion. A competent translator of any spoken language into another understands that the grammars and idioms of English and Mandarin and Spanish are each different, and that faithfully translating meaning from one tongue to another is a creative endeavor that is different than simply matching each word. On y va is French for “one goes there,” but that’s not really what it means.

Translating from print to digital requires a similar approach, in terms of creativity and care. You can perfectly match every single element of a print page via an error-free conversion process to a reflowable digital format and still end up with a woeful result–the equivalent of a French poem translated into English via babblefish.com in 1999.

So, what’s the solution, especially in a world in which you no longer need to translate merely from one language to another but instead from one to many (as that is the inherent logic of “create once, publish everywhere”)?

The key, which will feel intuitive if you’re used to working on the web and perhaps counterintuitive if you’re used to working in print, is to separate content from its presentation via structured authoring–the process of creating structured content that is format-independent and easily reconfigurable via a semantic markup language.

That’s a mouthful, but the underlying idea is simple. In print, it’s enough to say that the banner headline on this page is Helvetica Neue, 72 point, royal blue #3878a8. It will always appear as such on the page, and its meaning is signified by its appearance. But on your Kindle device, royal blue #3878a8 may not be a supported color, and Helvetica Neue may not be a supported typeface, and that huge 72 point font may carry your headline right off the edge of the tiny screen. In other words, on your Kindle device, your headline’s meaning may no longer be signified by its appearance. However, if your process of translation from print to digital didn’t simply match the headline’s appearance but instead described it semantically as an <h1> HTML element, your Kindle will know how to display it in a way that your readers will understand that it still a banner headline, even if that device-specific representation no longer looks anything like Helvetica Neue, 72 point, royal blue #3878a8.

The principle of structured authoring–that every content element should be described in code according to its semantic meaning rather than according to its appearance in any particular output medium–is built into every feature of Inkling Habitat. At Inkling, we  see any piece of content as a series of semantic patterns, which are especially useful at scale when converting large libraries of content. For example, in a recent project with Elsevier, in which we updated over 850 complex medical titles to be readable and searchable on any mobile device or the web, we were able to preserve much of the original styling from print using patterns and some nifty software tricks, which you can read more about in this post about our eBook stylesheet innovations.

Pro tip: learning just little bit of HTML will go a long way to understanding how structured content works in the digital world. (Our cloud publishing environment Habitat doesn’t require any familiarity with HTML code, but any savvy digital editor in the future can only benefit from basic literacy in HTML markup.) For editors, just think of it like the next wave of proofreaders’ marks for a new age–a language of markup that clearly describes exactly what your content will do on all its various digital outputs.

On y va.

4. How do you meaningfully enhance your content?

Depending on the format you choose, the possibilities for interactivity within your digital content can be very exciting and inspiring–now, all of those multimedia elements which were once relegated to ancillary websites, CD-ROMs, archived files, or just your imagination can be incorporated in context, right in the main flow of your digital book.

However, just because your projects are unbound from the constraints of page limits and static technologies doesn’t mean you should simply cram as many interactive elements as possible into the product. If you add too many bells and whistles without asking “How does this interactivity aid understanding?” you risk giving your readers cognitive overload and obscuring their main reason for using your product, namely the information in the content. At Inkling, our approach to content architecture and instructional design has leaned heavily on the work of educational psychologist Richard Mayer, who advocates for approaches that reduce extraneous cognitive processing (i.e., figuring out how the system works) so that the learner can focus on core processing (i.e., the content she’s trying to learn).

Long story short: be judicious in your use of interactivity, adding enhancements that meaningfully improve core processing of the ideas in your content while avoiding meaningless widgets that only add to your readers’ extraneous cognitive processing burdens.

5. How will new technologies and tools impact current workflows?

This is the final question on our list and the one whose answer is hardest to arrive at. New technologies inevitably introduce new processes and workflows, disrupting old ways of doing things. Historically, the print production process tended to be a serial workflow, with sequential steps driving toward one outcome, a print product. If, in your answers to the first question above, you’re planning to produce more than a print book, then your serial print workflow is likely to be affected.

While a lot of the impact on your organization’s workflow can be hard to predict until the rubber meets the road, there are potentially exciting possibilities when using a modern structured authoring tool like Inkling Habitat to establish new iterative and/or parallel workflows to break through old organizational silos and serial processes. Among the publishers we’ve worked with over the last few years, we’ve seen processes develop that are more collaborative, cross-functional, and creative.

For example, we recently partnered with Elsevier to re-launch their popular Expert Consult and Student Consult sites with more than 850 medical titles transformed into beautiful, cross-platform interactive eBooks. One of the most exciting parts of the launch for Elsevier is their new ability to push content updates to any of their titles. For the first time, their authors and editors are actively updating the digital versions of medical references and textbooks outside of edition cycles with the most current new research, to say nothing of error corrections, and those updates get pushed out automatically to all users who own those books. Here’s a great example of some recent updates by an author. In fact, by the end of 2014, Elsevier expects to have updated around 40 titles with fresh content.

There’s a lot to chew on here, and we’re excited to delve into each of these questions more deeply on their own in future blog posts. We’d also love to hear what you think in the Comments section below. If you’re interested in learning more about how we at Inkling have put these principles into action, our Sales Team would love to walk you through a demo. Otherwise, stay tuned for more posts about best practices for digital content creation!