Recorded version of Olive SmartLayers webinar
The future of digital content on the road

What is “adaptive content”?

That’s a question a few people asked me via email after a webinar I co-presented last week. I briefly mentioned it on one of my webinar slides but I didn’t spend a lot of time digging into it. 

I talked about how the concept of layering enables publishers to turn their static e-products into dynamic, premium offerings. Layering is just the first step towards adaptive content. I’ll also admit that my definition of adaptive content is different from what you’ll read elsewhere.

A quick Google search shows a variety of articles and opinions on the definition and future of adaptive content. I’m not suggesting the perspectives found via those links are wrong; I just believe they’re not going far enough.

You’ll find plenty of people who talk about adaptive content in the context of distribution channels and devices. (The latter, btw, borders more on responsive design IMHO.) What you don’t see much of in the existing dialog on adaptive content is the actual user, the person reading the content.

So when I talk about adaptive design I’m envisioning it not from a channel or device POV. I’m thinking more about the user, their experience, tendencies and interests. That sounds creepy, I know, but it’s going to happen. Twenty years ago most people would have balked at the notion of an email app that presents you with ads based on subjects it deems relevant to the contents of your inbox. Today, however, Gmail does just that and reportedly has hundreds of millions of users.

At some point down the road digital content apps (including your web browser) will use similar capabilities to present that how-to ebook or e-zine in a manner that’s completely tailored to you. And you’ll never have to tell it a thing for it to spin up that custom experience. Our devices (and the apps loaded on them) will constantly track your behavior and use that information to dynamically present the next piece of content.

Let’s say you and I are building decks and we just bought the same digital how-to product with step-by-step instructions and videos. Your tablet knows you’re quite familiar with power tools and construction projects because it’s noted that you’ve contributed several knowledgeable (and highly-rated) answers on one of the popular DIY forums. Your tablet also knows that you regularly read the most popular DIY e-zines and that you tend to focus on articles covering lumber construction projects. 

I, on the other hand, hardly know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver and my tablet is well aware of my lack of knowledge on the deck-building topic. 

So the content and pace of the digital how-to product we both bought is presented in one manner on your tablet and in a completely different manner on mine. The source content is all the same and you can certainly drill down into more of the basics that I’m presented with, but the app assumes you’re beyond all that.

This changes everything, of course. Content must be written in a more granular manner and it must be richly tagged to ensure it’s presented properly in every use-case. Equally important is the need for the app/device to pay attention to how the content is then consumed by all these different users and make adjustments for future users. Maybe nine out of the first ten novices jump to a later topic that appears later in the product; the app should learn from this and rearrange the content sequence for the eleventh novice.

Yes, this type of model will require users to opt in and privacy advocates will completely freak out over the possible consequences of such a platform. The benefits will far outweigh the risks though, and I’m convinced this vision of adaptive content will become a reality down the road.


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