Everywhere All at Once: An Interview with Sara Wachter-Boettcher

March 12th, 2013
Published on
March 12th, 2013

Print design is not web design. This we know. And a design that works well for the web may not translate to mobile and handheld devices. True, true. But is there a way to ensure that content – the “stuff” around which design orbits, after all – can be communicated effectively regardless of the medium in which it’s presented? This isn’t a problem limited to visual designers; it affects the entire organization. Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s new book, Content Everywhere, charts a path away from the web’s previously popular, one-size-fits-all approach.

The motto guiding NPR’s API is abbreviated COPE: “create once, publish everywhere.”

Now, there’s an idea. Wouldn’t it be nice to publish everywhere, rather than once for desktop, once for mobile? Once for this app, once for that one? Robust content frameworks such as COPE challenge the rather simplistic notion that designers can create templates beforehand, into which content is added after. They come from a place where content strategists, information architects, and visual designers – the entire organization, really – work together in preparation for publication; where content is viewed as a system, rather than a two-dimensional “deliverable.”

Sara’s philosophy frees content from its container.

And the book bringing this idea to a broader audience? Content Everywhere by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. We jumped at the chance to read it and, afterward, implored her for an interview to better understand her perspective. What, exactly, is the ethos guiding this movement? And how does she see it affecting content strategy as a profession?

We don’t blame you if you’re just as fired up as we are. And if you haven’t had a chance to read the book just yet, don’t worry: we’ve got details on how you might win a copy after. Enjoy!


Hey Sara, thanks for taking the time to chat! What inspired you to document your understanding as a book? Are there other mediums you’ll use to share Content Everywhere, well, everywhere?
It all started in the summer of 2011. I’d long been thinking of the content I worked on as a system, not just a series of pages. I was pretty involved in decisions around content structure and architecture simply because I wanted the content to work – to be more usable and easier to find. I’d never formalized any of that thinking, though, or really even considered that it might be something other content strategists weren’t doing.

Then Ethan Marcotte’s book came out and I realized the time was right. Responsive design makes it nearly impossible not to deal with content in a substantial, deep-dive sort of way. So I wrote some blog posts and started to talk about this stuff when I was subsequently approached about writing a book.

Of course, I’ve given conference talks and workshops about this idea (I try to keep my Lanyrd up-to-date); I’ve written articles where I can. But one of the most important ways I spread this thinking is simply by bringing this ethos – that content is a system, and that we have to change not just templates but our practices—to everything I do. It’s changed how I tackle projects, talk to and educate clients, and collaborate with project teams.

So how would you say this notion intersects with other user experience design concerns: findability, accessibility, aesthetics, etc.?
Clear, purposeful content is also well defined, structured, and organized. This benefits everyone. Metadata and content chunks make content easier to find because they enable things like faceted search and also give you better deep linking – not to mention more ways that you can jigger your internal site search engine to give more relevant results. Clear labeling of content – according to what it is, rather than big blobs of text – tends to aid accessibility as well.
In order to “chunk” content you’ve proposed content modelling, a process frequently employed by information architects. As content strategists take on tasks such as content modeling, where do you see the line between IA and Content Strategy?
I don’t. That’s not to say that they’re the same discipline – or that they’re interchangeable – but content strategists and information architects have many shared concerns and practices, and I don’t see a problem with that. In fact, we should share concerns. You can’t have too many people on a project who care about content. You just have to be willing to cede control over some of the things you could do, but the other person might be better equipped for – and vice-versa.

I’d also like to point out that information architects adopted content models from database developers in the first place. It’s not like any one discipline has a lock on them. In fact, precious few IAs – or content strategists, for the matter – are currently using them, and that’s a shame, because they’re really a great, cross-disciplinary tool. I suspect it’s because we’ve placed a lot of priority in recent years on interaction design (IxD) rather than IA. IxD is an important discipline, to be sure, but lovely UI patterns alone won’t solve the problems so many sites have: content that’s buried, lost, disconnected, and generally difficult for users to find and use.

Many of the things for which you advocate – metadata, for example – feel poorly handled by today’s basic, off-the-shelf Content Management System (CMS) software (such as WordPress). Do you believe that architecting and maintaining a robust system of content necessitates that companies build their own CMS from the ground up?
I specifically don’t advocate for any one technical solution in the book, because I don’t think you can make decisions about how to store and publish content until after you’ve figured out (1) what you’re doing, (2) why you’re doing it, and (3) what sort of content structure and systems you’ll need to support that. Well, that and the fact that I’m not a CMS expert.

WordPress works great for lots of small businesses, and it works fine for my oft-neglected little blog. Many startups operate with no CMS, but they also often have tremendous engineering resources at their disposal and don’t really publish that frequently. It works for them to hard-code copy changes. But for the sorts of organizations and content challenges I’m talking about – in industries like media, higher education, nonprofit, and government – a CMS is pretty critical.

Some organizations do well with completely custom CMSes. NPR, for example. They’ve built lots of structure into their CMS interfaces, so their content can easily make its way into the NPR API. They’ve also invested in their CMS’s interface, so writers and editors can focus on their job rather than getting an overwhelming desire to walk out into traffic every time they log in.

But you can get structured, reusable content out of many, many existing CMSes – from open-source options like Drupal to enterprise-style products like Sitecore and Vignette. Their features and benefits (and drawbacks) vary, but they’re all capable of being configured to support many things for which I advocate: metadata, content modules, and the like.

The problem is that, quite often, CMS purchasing and configuration decisions are made by an IT person with a checklist rather than someone with deep knowledge of the content being managed. The content crowd is oftentimes too daunted by the technical bits to try to poke their nose into the conversation.

What I want is for content people to see that CMS decisions affect the success of their work, and to get comfortable enough with the vocabulary that they can be an advocate for users, and for the content itself, when CMS decisions are made. We could talk all day about the flaws with the CMSes that exist on the market: crummy code, bad text editors, broken user interfaces, baffling configurations. But they’re not going to get better unless people like us understand enough to know what to ask for.

So what advice would you offer designers, writers, architects – or even developers – who want to make content strategy part of their wheelhouse?
Content strategy, at its best, is more than the high-level goals and messages or the copy on a few key pages; it’s being able to design and work with your content as an interdependent system of assets, and about keeping that system of assets functional even as the site grows and changes. This means understanding both the big picture and all the little details that might stand in the way.

For writers or editors interested in doing more strategic work, this often means pulling off the blinders and looking at a broader scope. For example, you might be used to assessing the narrative within a single story, adjusting structure and pacing to make it work. In content strategy it’s the same skill, but you’ve got to apply it a plane or two higher: how does this individual piece affect the narrative of the broader content system, and where does it fit? Is every piece of content serving a purpose, or are some things just filling up space?

For people who come from design, UX, or development, there’s often the opposite gap to fill. While you might be used to thinking about systems, you might not be used to getting really, really close to the content that will go into that system – or considering how that content might change the way you design the system in the first place.

Wherever you come from, getting strategic about content demands that you can do both – even if you’re always going to be stronger in one side than the other.

Final question! With so many noteworthy books coming out recently, it’s almost impossible not to wonder: what’s next? What do you think is the next big thing for content strategy?
The more we tackle content, the more we realize just how many of our problems start not on the website or even in the CMS, but in the very way our organizations are structured.

So many people imagine content as living in “their” sections and belonging to “their” department, rather than thinking of it as a system of information another human (who almost certainly does not give a damn about said department) has to find their way through. And it’s hard to blame them. If your job description has always been tied to checking “content tasks” off a list, then that’s how you’ll see your role. We have to show people at all levels of an organization, C-level on downward, that they need to think of the web as more of an organism than a repository.

The problem of silos isn’t new – it’s been coming since the internet started fundamentally changing both the way people live and what they expect from organizations. But the problem of disconnected companies is now impossible to ignore, because it’s being exposed, often painfully, by mobile and multichannel. If we want our content strategy work to be sustainable – to last once daily operations take over – then we’re going to have to keep unsnarling these messy organizational issues. There’s no other way.


Closing thoughts

Many thanks, again, to Sara for sharing her strategies with us. If you have a question that wasn’t answered above, please ask it in the comments below – we’ll do our best to make sure Sara sees it!

Want to get bust some silos and create great content for your company? Head on over to RosenfeldMedia.com and purchase Sara’s book with discount code UXBOOTH.

But if “free” sounds better to you, you’re in luck. We’ve got five books to give away courtesy of the fine folks over at Rosenfeld Media. To enter for a chance to win, simply follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave a comment below. Be sure to include your twitter handle and tell us a brief story about the content strategy (or lack thereof) at your current organization. What problems have you solved? What problems might Sara’s book help you solve? We’ll randomly draw five members in the next week, and contact you over Twitter. Good luck!

About the Author

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

​Sara Wachter-Boettcher is an independent content strategist, writer, editor, and the author of Content Everywhere from Rosenfeld Media. When she’s not helping clients embrace flexible, mobile-ready content, she’s serving as the editor in chief of A List Apart; contributing to the Pastry Box Project; and speaking at conferences worldwide. You can reach her at sarawb.com.