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The makeup of smart content

Smart content takes a common data model, DITA, to the next level: it keeps the structural components without the older, slower XML and XSLT technologies.

Customer preferences

The average American interacts with customer service an average of 65 times per year, which is more than five times per month.1 And by almost every measurement, the majority of customers are most likely doing so online and particularly through their mobile devices: they want self-service.2

Content is the best way to reach the consumer, and to create customer experiences that promote self-service and thus brand engagement. Companies must first optimize the delivery of the content their customers are looking for. This refers to not only ensuring easy, effective accessibility through either medium, but the usability of the content itself. 

The industry is moving away from older, slower technologies and toward systems that are more usable, flexible, and agile. The common data model DITA is also semantically rich, topic-level content that’s structured, but is notoriously difficult to implement. Smart content takes it to the next level: it has the same components in terms of structure and architecture without the older, slower XML and XSLT technologies.

“Semantic structure” is an organization created in a way that allows others to infer meaning from its contents.

Semantic structure

Smart content’s semantic structure organizes microcontent in a way that complements the brain’s propensity to separate content into smaller pieces and arrange it into mental folders, sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders.3 Humans excel at absorbing information but only if they can break it down.4 The basic term “microcontent” came from the intention to provide an easier way for people to learn: the concept was to create succinct pieces of content a person can read and digest quickly and remember for a longer period of time.

In the same way Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is in part an homage to Darwin’s theory of evolution, building on the concept of heredity, smart content is to this concept of “chunking” in cognitive psychology. What the mind does naturally when ingesting large quantities of information is to automatically segment it into small bits, classify those and chunk them together, and encode them for storage in memory.5 This is how our brains turn information into knowledge.6

These classified sets of information are stored in “mental scaffolds,” which resemble file cabinets filled with folders and sub-folders that help us keep and access information when needed.7 This automatic categorization is part of the basis of smart content, enabling the reader to process and therefore understand the substance of the content, even supporting their ability to recall it later. The result is the opposite of a flat hierarchy, but an intuitive, logical hierarchy that—while structured—can also be easily updated.

During a content search, smart content allows the customer to navigate through those folders and subfolders until he/she arrives at the precise information needed. The hierarchy is what makes the semantic structure of the content effective. The concept of semantic web and the actual, physical structure (the HTML code and the metadata behind it) both tie in to the same goal: that the structure of the page make sense in the site’s overall hierarchy. And with the organization and functionality of smart content aligning with how a human processes information, the likelihood that content will resonate with the customer increases.8

Hierarchy Examples

SEO impact

Semantic structure also makes it easier for search engines to find articles by understanding the page’s contents to figure out what that article offers, boosting SEO and therefore the chances of that article showing up higher in search engine result pages (SERPs). This is made possible by tags that label the subject matter and components of the content, but also by JSON code that presents information about a page that is not part of the content itself: a description, category, and other data associated with the page.

Microcontent also plays into better SEO. By breaking down the bulk of content a company already produces and offering it in the form of microcontent—short articles that clearly communicate a topic, which is what search engines prefer—smart content can more easily reach customers throughout the customer experience.9 The benefits of higher rankings and better SEO are undeniable: “The first law of e-commerce is that if users cannot find the product, they cannot buy it, either.”10 

  1. Joe Gagnon and Jason Dorsey, The Aspect Consumer Experience Index: Millennial Research on Customer Service Expectations, Aspect Software and The Center for Generational Kinetics, April 2015.
  2. Mobile Path to Purchase: Five Key Findings, Google/Nielsen, November 2013; Google/Ipsos, Consumers in the Micro-Moment, Wave 3, U.S., August 2015, cited in How Mobile Has Redefined the Consumer Decision Journey for Shoppers, Think with Google, July 2016; and Dave Chaffey, Mobile Marketing Statistics Compilation, Smart Insights, October 26, 2016.
  3. Eric Johnson, Columbia University, in Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (London: Random House Publishing Group), March 8, 2016, p. 405.
  4. Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better, 2016, p. 404.
  5. Saul McLeod, “Stages of Memory: Encoding Storage and Retrieval,” Simply Psychology, 2013; Chunking Strategy, The Peak Performance Center; and James Plafke, “Scientists discover how our brains categorize and map everything we see,” Extreme Tech, December 20, 2012.
  6. Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better, 2016, p. 405.
  7. Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better, 2016, p. 404. 13
  8. George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” Psychology Review 63 (Princeton University: Princeton, N.J.), March 1956, pp. 81-97; Chunking Strategy, The Peak Performance Center; and Connie Melamed, Chunking Information for Instructional Design, The eLearning Coach for Designing Smarter Experiences, 2009. Interestingly, this whole operation is related to the Information Processing Theory, which compares the human mind’s approach to processing information to that of an actual computer. This theory has its detractors though as 1) a human obviously incorporates sensory, memory, emotional, and biological response`s to information when categorizing it; 2) humans have the capability to process multiple inputs in parallel as a computer engages in serial/linear processing; and 3) humans and computers have different capability limitations when it comes to amounts of information processing and storage. See Saul McLeod, “Information Processing,Simply Psychology, 2008.
  9. Brian Dean, We Analyzed 1 Million Google Search Results. Here’s What We Learned About SEO, Backlinko, September 2, 2016.
  10. Jakob Nielsen, Usability 101: Introduction to Usability, Nielsen Norman Group, January 4, 2012.
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