Skip to our site navigation Skip to the content

Responsive Web Design


Episode 123: Spotlight: Michael Andrews

Continuing our series of conversations with the people who make responsive designs happen, we chat with content strategist Michael Andrews, who tells us how metadata will make your content future-ready.

The beauty of thinking about content as a flexible body of material is that you always can keep evolving it, and always be thinking about different ways it can be used.

If you’d like, you can download this episode’s audio file. Additionally, you can follow us on iTunes, or subscribe to our RSS feed.

Buy The Books

Everything you need to go responsive, in four short books. Save 15% on all four!

Work With Us

If you’re grappling with some of the responsive design challenges discussed on the show, Karen and Ethan offer a workshop on responsive design. Why not bring it to your company?

Contact Us!

Subscribe Now

Want the latest episodes? Fire up your favorite podcasting app, and subscribe to the podcast via RSS or on iTunes.



This Week’s Guest

Michael Andrews

Content strategy consultant

Michael Andrews is an independent content strategist currently based in Hyderabad, India. He is author of the new book, Metadata Basics for Web Content, which is available on Amazon. Michael has an academic background in user experience. He’s an advocate of technical and creative collaboration in interaction design, and believes that metadata offers a big opportunity to improve how audiences experience content. He also has a keen interest in the international dimensions of content, having lived and worked in five countries on three continents.


Episode Transcript

Karen:

Hi, this is a Responsive Web Design Podcast, where we interview the people who make responsive designs happen. I’m your host, Karen McGrane.

Ethan:

And I’m your other host, Ethan Marcotte.

Karen:

And this week, well, as you might have you noticed, we’re doing a little bit different things here on the Responsive Web Design Podcast. We’ve got a short series where we talk to the people who make responsive designs happen, and we’re speaking with independent designers and developers and content strategists about their work. Today we are thrilled to be joined by Michael Andrews, who is an independent content strategist and a globe-hopping one as well. Michael, thanks for joining us.

Michael:

Well, thank you, Karen. I’m really excited to be here with you and Ethan.

Ethan:

But before we dive in, a few words about our sponsor. I couldn’t be happier to have Gather Content back as a sponsor on the podcast. You see, Gather Content is a content collaboration platform. It helps teams plan, organize, and produce all their web content in one place. They provide structured templates and simple workflows to make collaboration and production easy without the shuffling around of Word documents and unnecessary emails. Centralizing the editorial process will make approval of content easy, so everyone knows what they’re responsible for and when they’re responsible for it. And what’s more, Gather Content has recently published a free online guide to Content Strategy for Website Projects, which they’ve written for all the people who want to make smarter, content-led decisions on their designs. So every responsive design, I believe, benefits from a content-first approach. But as Gather Content’s guide says, that doesn’t mean waiting until all the content is written. Instead, it means considering and thinking about content at every single stage of your project. And Gather Content’s guide can help you do just that. So whether you’re working in an agency on client websites or maybe you’re working on an in-house team, Gather Content’s guide should help you more effectively contribute to your digital projects. You can read it online for free at gathercontent.com/RWD, or check out Gather Content’s products at gathercontent.com.

Karen:

Well Michael, I’m really thrilled to have you here. I have a lot of respect for your work and I think it’s very interesting. Maybe for the benefit of our responsive web design listeners who may not be familiar with the type of work that you do in content strategy and metadata, give us a little bit about your background.

Michael:

So, I’ve been working for the past fifteen years in the area of user experience and content strategy. I’ve worked as a consultant for different-sized consultancies, I’ve occasionally done some work directly with large companies like Verizon, and for the past three or four years I’ve been working as an independent content strategist. My wife has an international career, which means that I move around a bit. In that situation, I’ve been working independently, kind of working on a variety of projects where sometimes I try to work in the country where I’m living and sometimes I’m supporting some projects that are based in the United States.

Karen:

I’m very envious of all of the places that you’ve gotten to live in.

Michael:

[laughs] Yeah. I’m currently living in India. I live in a city called Hyderabad, which is in the south central part of India. It’s a very large city, it has about ten million people, and it’s kind of a big tech center, so for people who use products like Microsoft Office or Google Maps, a lot of that development work is done here in Hyderabad.

Karen:

One thing that I think is also interesting is that you’ve got a new book out called Metadata Basics for Web Content. Maybe you could say a little bit about that, and then I have a number of questions about how the work that you do with metadata might actually translate to decisions on the front-end in a responsive design.

Michael:

Yeah, so I just published a book, as you said, called Metadata Basics for Web Content, and it is the first survey of all the kinds of metadata that web publishers can utilize to essentially make their content more effective. I wrote this book because no one else had done this, and a lot of people seemed interested in the topic. Metadata is one of the most critical factors for the success of content that’s being published online. You can do so many things with it as far as supporting how you create content, how you deliver content, how you assess content, how you manage content—these are all things that metadata help support. Really, metadata itself is not a new thing, it’s been out there awhile, but what’s happening is that there’s been a tremendous growth in standards relating to metadata. This is really exciting because the standards help publishers basically connect their content with other people, other organizations, other platforms, and it makes the content far more flexible when you’re using metadata standards together with your content. So the book really is an opportunity to kind of catch people up on what’s happening in this field, give them some ideas about the kinds of things that they can do with metadata, and hopefully encourage them to kind of evolve their practices, where they can do more using metadata in a much more coordinated way.

Karen:

That is music to my ears. I’m a big fan of thinking about web content that way, and one of the reasons that I personally think this is so interesting and I wanted to have you on the show is because I think there’s a really solid case to be made for the importance of structured content and metadata in helping organizations transition to a multi-device future. While it may not seem like the quickest route to go from metadata standards to responsive web design, I actually see a pretty clear relationship there. Could you maybe talk about that? Do you agree with me? Am I right?

Michael:

Oh, you’re absolutely right. I think we haven’t even really begun to have a large conversation around this topic yet. There are so many points of interface between metadata and responsive design and making content future-ready. One obvious point is, with responsive design, you’re often dealing with different kinds of media, photos and video and things like that. To make that work well, obviously you need to have those content assets really described well with metadata—this is something called technical metadata. But that gets into all kinds of things where you’re giving your whole code some cues as far as whether it’s going to be the most dynamic experience for people, where it’s going to have the best performance. So, that’s one very obvious way that this works.

There’s also kind of a trend going on where we’re looking at what I’d called the “app-ification” of content. It’s not web apps, it’s not your sort of something you’d have to download from an app store type of thing. I’m talking more about using web standards but having the experience on the screen be a little bit more app-like, where you’re able to do actions with the content. This is something where the web standards are really moving in this direction of allowing you to take a piece of content that’s being described with metadata and perform an action on it. This is really making the content that much more useful.

Ethan:

Michael, say a little bit more about that, because as a designer/developer/something, when you mentioned web standards, I’d love to hear a little bit more about how that intersects with your work. How does that actually help you plan for managing some of these different content tasks?

Michael:

Well, this is very much an evolving area. There aren’t a lot of companies that are implementing this, particularly with using the actions. It’s mostly Google that’s leading this now. I follow a lot of the standards development; one of the things I do is I get involved with the community lists and things like that and I get a sense of the things that are being introduced, have recently been introduced, or are shortly to be introduced, and you get a sense of where this is all heading. What I think any publisher needs to be thinking about is how do I keep my content future-ready. There’s so many different things going on in the industry right now. How I use this is I look and I say, alright, what do we have, where are things going, and then I advise clients and I say, “Well, these are things you need to be planning for because you don’t want to be playing catch-up with them, you kind of want to try to bake in how you’re thinking about your content, how you’re structuring your content to accommodate these things when they come out.”

Let me give you an example of something I think publishers ought to be thinking about, and that is this whole area of voice-activated internet. It’s a big growing area; people are very aware of things like Amazon’s Alexa, and Google has their product, and a lot of people are looking at this area, and some people are saying this could be a multibillion dollar industry. Well, there are web metadata standards that are starting to address this. Schema.org—which is a w3c community, it was set up by Google and Microsoft and Yahoo several years ago and it’s kind of evolved into a much larger community now—they’re in the process of setting up a speech specification standard, where there will be metadata that you can indicate, “This is something that can be said aloud.” One of the things about content is when you look at being responsive, you want to have the content in a way that it sounds right for the medium, or it looks right on the medium. Karen, I know, is a big critic of truncating content on small spaces. Well, that’s a really great example of the kind of situation that you don’t want to be forcing content in a box where it doesn’t fit. We’re going to even have to be thinking about this with audio content, that maybe you’re going to have to create a slightly different type of audio content and tag it as such so that it works right when it needs to be presented in an audio interface.

Karen:

Michael, I’m so glad that you brought that up, because honestly I think the transition to more audio or even chat-driven interfaces is probably my best example that I have right now of why thinking about this kind of structured content and metadata is so important. Can you maybe say a little bit more specifically about, like for an audience that may be less familiar with this, what does that actually mean? If you’re thinking about creating content for the web that might previously have been in a very print-centric model, sort of locked up in a page, and now you’re thinking about content as something that is structured, that is intended for reuse, that, as you said earlier, is more flexible—what would they be doing? What does that actually mean?

Michael:

Well, what it means is that you start by thinking about user stories, of how people are trying to get information. So, let’s break down the idea of content into the idea of just chunks of information people want to have. They may want mini chunks of information that collectively become a big document or something, or they may need just little tiny bits of information. But if we start thinking about some user stories around the kinds of information people need in different scenarios, we start seeing that there’s some commonalities. In different scenarios, people are needing some of the same bits of information, and then other times some people need lots of information, and then some people only need a little bit of information. So, it gets into thinking about scenarios, where the different customers or the different types of people are trying to get at this information, thinking about how to sort of break it into chunks or modules. Once we do that, the next step really is how do you indicate to a computer what this chunk or module means, and that’s where the metadata comes in.

So, the metadata, really I like to think of it as it gives your content a superpower, and that superpower I would describe as content connectivity. It lets your content connect with whatever it needs to do. The computer code, which is the metadata, kind of allows it to provide instructions to computers, where it can be routed to a certain person if it needs to go to a certain person, or get on a certain device if it needs to, or render a certain way, or let you combine it with something else, and that sort of thing.

Ethan:

Michael, could you tell me a little bit more about how that kind of granularity might then feed into the work that a designer or developer is doing? In working with folks like Karen on a few projects, I’ve really appreciated how that really well fleshed-out content model can help plan for more interesting opportunities for design on my end. But I’d love to hear how that actually plays out in your work when you’re working with a team that’s going responsive.

Michael:

Well, there are many different kinds of content that organizations produce, and so it’s hard to give one example that’s going to be relevant to everyone. A lot of people produce articles, and that’s an interesting thing—we once lived in a world where we had web pages, and a web page was exactly the same thing as an article, which was exactly the same thing that a screen looked like. We eventually kind of moved into an area where there’s a disconnect between a page—if you’re doing web analytics, you’re measuring page views, and that’s a little bit different than what an article is, and that’s a little bit different than what might be on the screen. So metadata is one of these things that can actually help to come up with a common denominator for describing these different outputs that are people on a web team are focused on, and give them sort of a common language to evaluate and coordinate what they’re doing.

But maybe a good example to give you, Ethan, about how a developer or a designer can think about metadata is a lot of people have an experience of looking at an automobile website for a car maker, and most of these websites will have some sort of configurator widget on it, where people can kind of design their fantasy car that they want to buy, check out the different colors and the different wheels, and all these sorts of things—the different options in sun roofs—and get a sense of what it would look like and how much it would cost, and things like that. Well when you’re designing something that interactive, like a configurator widget, that’s really, really using metadata. You’re kind of drawing that in from a different source, and it depends how that data is configured and how it’s described as far as how it actually comes onto the screen and things like that. But what is interesting is to think about—you had that information that’s sitting there on a server somewhere and it’s coming on a screen, a device, maybe a tablet or a smartphone or whatever, and people are interacting with it. Really, the opportunity with the metadata standards is that you could be able to have a common way of describing all that information that’s moving back and forth between the server and the client and also tie it in with, say, your SEO work, or your analytics work, or your copywriting, to sort of evaluate what people were looking for when they got to this screen and what are they spending their time fiddling with, and is there something that we want to change as far as how we write up this content that’s going to give them a more interesting and valuable experience. Those are the kinds of connections I think are possible with using web standards metadata.

Karen:

Michael, one of the things that I noted you stated very clearly in your book, and was actually one of the reasons that I thought it’d be so interesting to have you on the show, is that you very explicitly say that your focus is on metadata for web content, and that it’s not something that applies necessarily to many of the other domains that we think of metadata as operating in. And maybe even more so that there really hasn’t been much attention, or no one’s really called out what metadata for web content as being the important topic that it should be.

Can you perhaps say a little bit more for our audience about what’s unique or different about creating metadata or creating structured content for the web, and why some of the principles that we might have learned from metadata for other platforms or other content types don’t necessarily apply here?

Michael:

Yeah, I’d be happy to. So, metadata really started out as a way of managing databases, essentially. People needed to keep records about things—records about documents, records about books, records about transactions. It was sort of a record-keeping purpose behind metadata, and people came up with their own unique ways of doing that; a lot of the metadata was using kind of a proprietary or customized approach. And then we entered the world of web content, and web content has evolved quite significantly over the past couple of decades. The thing about web content is that it’s intrinsically messy. There’s no one standard for web content. People create it in all kinds of different ways. Look at it from the consumer’s point of view: they will read things that are long, read things that are short, they’ll watch videos of different lengths, they’ll listen to podcasts like this, they’ll use interactive maps, they’ll be going through carousels full of photos… All these things are web content, but there’s just so much variation in that web content, both in terms of the form and format of the content as well as the topics they address.

So, a big part of web metadata is getting very specific about what topics are being discussed in the content. Of course, it could be anything from religion and politics, to e-commerce, to the weather. It’s all over the place, what people are looking at. So, it gets to be very challenging, you can’t just come up with a very simple template and say, “Alright, everyone can use this and it will be easy to do.” So, really there’s been a lot of learning that’s been going on across the whole industry, where people have been trying to figure out how to do this. There have been some false starts, too. I think probably ten years ago, fifteen years ago, people were excited about the idea of the semantic web, and that was going to be this game-changing thing, sort of the way people talk about artificial intelligence today. That was sort of an idea built around metadata, but people really didn’t understand how to connect that idea to web content, which is intrinsically a very messy thing that exists in many different forms.

The good news is that there’s been a tremendous amount of progress over the past five years in particular, trying to identify what are really the important things to describe in web content using metadata standards, and these standards have developed. Now it’s still evolving, but there’s a lot of good material out there for publishers to use and they can really start getting very specific about what’s in their content, what it looks like, and that gives them the opportunity to connect it in many more ways, much more flexibly.

Ethan:

Just to kind of piggyback off that, Michael, I’d love to hear if you have any advice for any of our listeners who maybe they’re about to start their own responsive redesign or their own big web content initiative. What’s one or two things that you’ve seen in your practice that they should be keeping in mind right now?

Michael:

Well, I would say, Ethan, that people need to really play around with different scenarios with how their customers might want to use their content. So, I’ve seen some really good cases where people have done some live prototyping with content, and there’s some interesting things where you can kind of create the illusion of people using real content by kind of just hooking up essentially an Excel spreadsheet to a bit of JavaScript in your browser and then having it show up on a phone or something. I think it’s really, really helpful to first experiment with content in different scenarios, to be thinking about it not just, “Here’s my content,” but think about it as a living entity, that it has its own energy, that you need to be thinking about the different ways that energy is going to be fluctuating—and to play with that for yourself, but also to get it in front of people and get their reactions.

Oftentimes when you have your customers, if you’re doing some user research, you get some additional ideas about things that you might want to do with your content. I think the beauty of thinking about content as a flexible body of material is that you always can keep evolving it, and always be thinking about different ways it can be used. You can think about it as you’re building essentially a piggy bank that you can use again and again.

Karen:

I think that’s great advice for anybody who is maybe new to the subject of metadata for web content, or, like me, a huge fan of it and was thrilled to have you on the show. Michael, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to talk with us. I personally take it as a badge of honor to bring these topics to a wider audience, and I’m glad you are, too.

Michael:

Well, thank you very much Karen, and thank you, Ethan. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

Karen:

Thanks to everyone for listening to this episode of a responsive web design podcast.

If your company wants to go responsive but you need help getting started, we offer a two-day onsite workshop to help you make it happen. We also offer these workshops to the public, so please go to responsivewebdesign.com and see when we’ll be in a city near you.

If you want even more from us, you can sign up for our newsletter, subscribe to this podcast, and read full transcripts of every podcast episode at responsivewebdesign.com.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back next week.


Skip to our site navigation; skip to main content