Adaptive Content: Three Approaches

Adaptive content may be the most exciting, and most fuzzy, concept in content strategy at the moment.  Shapeshifting seems to define the concept: it promises great things — to make content adapt to user needs — but it can be vague on how that’s done. Adaptive content seems elusive because it isn’t a single coherent concept. Three different approaches can be involved with content adaptation, each with distinctive benefits and limitations.

The Phantom of Adaptive Content

The term adaptive content is open to various interpretations. Numerous content professionals are attracted to the possibility of creating content variations that match the needs of individuals, but have different expectations about how that happens and what specifically is accomplished. The topic has been muddled and watered-down by a familiar marketing ploy that emphasizes benefits instead of talking about features. Without knowing the features of the product, we are unclear what precisely the product can do.

People may talk about adaptive content in different ways: for example, as having something to do with mobile devices, or as some form of artificial intelligence. I prefer to consider adaptive content as a spectrum that involves different approaches, each of which delivers different kinds of results.  Broadly speaking, there are three approaches to adaptive content, which vary in terms of how specific and how immediately they can deliver adaptation.

Commentators may emphasize adaptive content as being:

  • Contextualized (where someone is),
  • Personalized (who someone is),
  • Device-specific (what device they are using).

All these factors are important to delivering customized content experiences tailored to the needs of an individual that reflect their circumstances.  Each, however, tends to emphasize a different point in the content delivery pipeline.

Delivery Pipelines

There are three distinct windows where content variants are configured or assembled:

  1. During the production of the content
  2. At the launch of a session delivering the content
  3. After the delivery of the content

Each window provides a different range of adaptation to user needs.   Identifying which window is delivering the adaptation also answers a key question: Who is in charge of the adaption?  Is it the creator of the content, the definer of business rules, or the user themself?  In the first case the content adapts according to a plan.  In the second case the content adapts according to a mix of priorities, determined algorithmically.  In the final case, the content adapts to the user’s changing priorities.

Content variations can occur at different stages
Content variations can occur at different stages

Content Variation Possibilities

Content designers must make decisions what content to include or exclude in different content variations.  Those decisions depend on how confident they are about what variations are needed:

  • Variants planned around known needs, such as different target segments
  • Variants triggered by anticipated needs reflecting situational factors
  • Variants generated by user actions such as queries that can’t be determined in advance

On one end of the spectrum, users expect customized content that reflects who they are based on long-established preferences, such as being a certain type of customer or the owner of an appliance. On the other end of the spectrum, users want content that immediately adapts to their shifting preferences as they interact with the content.

Situational factors may invoke contextual variation according to date or time of day, location, or proximity to a radio transmitter device. Location-based content services are the most common form of contextualized content.  Content variations can be linked to a session, where at the initiation of the session, specific content adapts to who is accessing it, and where they are — physically, or in terms of a time or stage.

Variations differ according to whether they focus on the structure of the content (such as including or excluding sections), or on the details (such as variables that can be modified readily).

Different point of content adaptation
Different forms of variation in content adaptation

Customization, Granularity and Agility

While many discussions of adaptive content consciously avoid talking about how content is adapted, it’s hard to hide from the topic altogether. There is plenty of discussion about approaches to create content variations, however.  On one side are XML-based approaches like DITA that focus on configuring sections of content, while on the other side are JSON-based approaches involving JavaScript that focus on manipulating individual variables in real-time.

Contrary to the wishes of those who want only to talk about the high concepts, the enabling technologies are not mere implementation details. They are fundamental to what can be achieved.

Adaptive content is realized through intelligence. The intelligence that enables content to adapt is distributed in several places:

  • The content structure (indicating how content is expected to be used),
  • Customer profile (the relationship history, providing known needs or preferences)
  • Situational information from current or past sessions (the reliability of which involves varying degrees of confidence).

What approach is used impacts how the content delivery system defines a “chunk” of content — the colloquial name for a content component or variable. This has significant implications for the detail that is presented, and the agility with which content can match specific needs.

Different approaches to delivering content variations are solving different problems.

The two main issues at play in adaptive content are:

  1. How significant is the content variation that is expected?
  2. How much lead time is needed to deliver that variation?

The more significant the variant in content that is required, the longer the lead time needed to provide it.  If we consider adaptive content in terms of scope and speed, this implies narrow adaptation offers fast adaptation, and that broad adaptation entails slow adaptation.  While it makes sense intuitively that global changes aren’t possible instantly, it’s worth understanding why that is in the context of today’s approaches to content variation.

First, consider the case of structural variation in content. Structure involves large chunks of content.  Adaptive content can change the structure of the content, making choices about what chunks of content to display.  This type of adaptation involves the configuration of content.  Let’s refer to large chunks of content as sections.  Configuration involves selecting sections to include in different scenarios, and which variant of a section to use.  Sections may have dependencies: if including  one section, related detailed sections will be included as well.  Sectional content can entail a lot of nesting.

Structural variation is often used to provide customized content to known segments.  XML is often used to describe the structure of content involving complex variations.  XML is quite capable when describing content sections, but it is hard to manipulate, due to the deeply nested structure involved.  XSLT is used to transform the structure into variations, but it is slow as molasses.  Many developers are impatient with XSLT, and few users would tolerate the latency involved with getting an adaptation on demand.  Structural adaptation tends to be used for planned variations that have a long lead time.

Next, consider the assembly of content when it is requested by the user — on the loading of a web page. This stage offers a different range of adaptive possibilities linked to the context associated with the session.    Session-based content adaptation can be based on IP, browser or cookie information.  Some of the variation may be global (language or region displayed) while other variations involve swapping out the content for a section (returning visitors see this message).    Some pseudo personalization is possible within content sections by providing targeted messages within larger chunks of static content.

Finally, adaptive content can happen in real-time.  The lead time has shrunk to zero, and the range of adaptation is more limited as well.  The motivation is to have content continuously refresh to reflect the desires of users.  Adaptation is fast, but narrow. Instead of changing the structure of content, real-time adaptation changes variables while keeping the structure fixed.

It is easier to swap out small chunks of text such as variables or finely structured data in real-time than it is to do quick iterative adaptations of large chunks such as sections.  JSON and Javascript are designed to manipulate discrete, easily identified objects quickly.  Large chunks of content may not parse easily in JavaScript, and can seem to jump around on the screen. Single page applications can avoid page refreshes because the content structure is stable: only the details change. They deliver a changing “payload” to a defined content region.  Data tables change easily in real time.  Single page applications can swap out elements that can be easily and quickly identified — without extensive computation.

Conclusion

Content adaptation can be a three stage process, involving different sets of technologies, and different levels of content.

The longer the lead time, the more elaborate the customization possible. When discussing adaptive content, it’s important to distinguish adaptation in terms of scope, and immediacy.

A longer-term challenge will be how to integrate different approaches to provide the customization and flexibility users seek in content.

— Michael Andrews