Remember the good old days of, maybe, 2007? The transformation of publishing from print to digital was well underway then. Book publishers were putting PDFs online, trying to learn the new-fangled ePub standard, and at the end of the year learning that Amazon was releasing Kindle hardware that would use a proprietary ebook standard.
In the last 10 years, things have improved mightily for digital content users. Now users expect digital content to provide exactly the information they need, when they need it, on any device they choose to use, and do it all intuitively. This is not just adapting publishing to new physical formats, it’s fundamentally rethinking publishing. This was the reason why Dan and I invited Bill Detmer of Unbound Medicine to give one of the keynote talks at last year’s Doody’s Digital Workshop. While Bill is a medical informaticist by training and his company offers a medicine-related digital publishing platform, what Bill said is generalizable, and in our ongoing consulting work Dan and I keep running up against some of the challenges Bill described.
Here, as filtered through my own thinking, are some of the principles that Bill Detmer articulated so well last Fall:
For the contemporary digital publishing environment, intelligent and extensive planning is a key to success. As you’re planning a digital resource, you need to determine who your users will be, how they’ll use the resource, and what kinds of information they will expect to get out of it. Often, it’s not enough to ask your potential users – you also need to watch them looking for information, ideally by embedding with them for hours or even days. Your planning team should include an expert in informatics in your discipline – medicine, chemistry, subatomic physics, and many others have one or more intricate systems of nomenclature and classification.
Only after you understand all of this about your users and the structure of information in your field, you can develop the content with a focus on the real user needs. Then comes some digital magic: You have not just the capability, but also the obligation, to apply metadata to the content. Well conceived metadata will make the content more powerful and more useful. Often metadata includes an overlap of one or more controlled vocabularies, semantic organization that builds on these vocabularies, and cross-links through the content. Other types of metadata can aid with search engine optimization if visibility across the general Web is important.
As noted earlier, you need to be sure that your content works visually on screen sizes that range from television-sized down to standard cellphones, bearing in mind that screen sizes of monitors, tablets, and smartphones all continue to evolve, at least by fractions of an inch at a time.
One further insight from Bill Detmer: All of this is asking a lot of your organization, especially for our many readers who work in organizations whose primary missions are not publishing. So you want to ease into this. Choose a low-risk first project – presumably something small and something that isn’t mission-critical to your organization. Make your mistakes and acquire your learnings there, and then you can move to the big platform that’s going to serve your users well into the future. This is a lot more complex than getting words on paper or onto a PDF, but the end result will be an immensely satisfying contribution to your field.