Why You Should Test Drive Your Content Before Production

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At Inkling, we believe there’s no reason for digital content to be any less meticulously crafted than the print version, and yet, oftentimes, it can be enormously difficult to maintain that same high level of quality across all digital products and outputs. In this series, written in collaboration by a team at Inkling dedicated to solving that question, we’re exploring the concept of content quality. While the first post introduced and defined content quality, this post digs into one of the most useful tools we’ve found to date for ensuring content quality from the start: the production sample. Here’s why you should begin testing before ebook production even begins.

In the automobile industry, before Ford or Toyota roll out thousands of expensive new cars, they make a pre-production model. This pre-production model is used for evaluation and demonstration. Not only do you get a frame of reference for what the real deal will be like, but you also get to test the limits of the car so that the mistakes are less costly and fixes less weighty. With the pre-production model, automakers can find the flaws early, before thousands roll off the line. Though building the pre-production model adds some upfront cost in terms of money and time, it can save the automaker those costs many times over in the long run.

At Inkling, we take a similar approach. For each new content project, before we begin, we create a production sample: a small scale model that is meant to capture the basics of the whole. From content architecture to design and structure, the production sample is like a mini-me of the whole project. Using the production sample, we can stress test the system, seeing how it behaves under pressure. Once we have decided that the sample can stand the strain, it becomes our frame of reference for the lifespan of a project, shared and referenced across different teams in different locations.

So, how do you create a useful production sample? We’ve found that it generally takes four main steps.

Step 1: Identify repeated elements in the content

Most content is not totally heterogeneous. Rather, editors and designers repeat elements and designs throughout complex content in order to mark transitions, call out important information, and generally guide the reader, which makes the content cohesive as it ensures a consistency of layout and functionality. To create a production sample, the first step is to identify those repeated elements: image grids, sidebars for additional content, or titles paired with subtitles. These are the elements that give  content structure and coherence.

Step 2: Design basic patterns to capture these elements

Once you know your common elements, you can design patterns with a skeleton of CSS and a skin of placeholder text in an attempt to capture the basic element. These patterns should be rigid enough to be applied throughout the project, but also flexible enough to allow for variation. Perhaps some image grids are three by two and others are three by three, or maybe the sidebar occasionally includes graphics, or some subtitles are so long that they wrap to a second line. You need to account for these differences, and create patterns tensile enough that they can stretch and condense, adapt, and even interact with nearby content.

Step 3: Test, test, test

Once you have patterns in your production sample, put them to work! Place the patterns next to each other to mimic how the completed content might look in different presentations. Begin to bend and twist the sample to see how it holds up under pressure. An important Inkling principle is that content must reflow, so that it looks great for any output. We try to ensure that these fluid pieces play well together as they shift shapes from “landscape” to “portrait”, from a small type font to larger, and we check this using a tool in Habitat, our cloud-based structured authoring environment, that resizes the content for common mobile and web browser proportions.

It is important to note that, just because this is a sample, we expect no less of content quality. If pieces fragment or overlap, the design is unfinished, or a particular type of functionality broken, these issues must be resolved before the production sample is considered complete and the project can move forward. It is much more efficient to iterate in a controlled space, instead of spotting flaws later that require mid-project adjustments, often forcing cascading changes and unexpected consequences.

Step 4: Agreement and sign-off

This final step is critical, especially for projects where the stakeholders might be outside vendors as well as internal team members. By getting agreement and sign-off from all parties on the production sample, it then becomes the rulebook for the rest of the project. Easy to reference, with real examples that function properly in the project’s ecosystem, the production sample makes working with teams at different locations infinitely easier. With a production sample, a seasoned editorial team can spot potential problems by drawing on past experiences and their familiarity with the platform. The sample becomes a reference manual shared between designers, editors, and developers. It ensures unity of presentation throughout the content, leading to content that will hold up across devices with a variety of text, assets, and interactivity. It also ensures that the collective group has the same mutually agreed-upon understanding of what the output for this project should look like.

Like the pre-production car for the automotive manufacturers, the production sample is a critical step in the process. With a production sample, it’s much easier to ensure content quality across devices and formats from the very start. In the next post, we’ll explore different methods of proofing digital content once it’s been built, namely vertical proofing and horizontal proofing. In the meantime, if you want more information on how to produce great digital content, check out this how-to eBook on “5 Mission-Critical Questions for Digital Content Creation.”