On paper, Hans Sprecher is a web developer based in Seattle. On further investigation however, Hans has a somewhat unique position in the web community.
An Ivy League trained philosopher, Hans has published various innovative critiques on web strategy from this perspective. Talking publicly about agile product development, responsive web design, and more recently about the need for responsive content, I was extremely happy to get the chance to talk to this rather unique man about the rather unique concept of “The Philosophy of Content Strategy”.
As pointed out by Hans, since information architecture and content strategy are so highly concerned with an understanding of human logic, there already exists a natural relationship between CS and philosophy. It was brilliant to get the chance to talk in depth to Hans about this, to see how an active consideration of philosophy might help us understand requirements for content more effectively.
Angus : Are there any specific practices that you involve in your daily work which you see as coming quite directly from a knowledge of philosophical principles?
Hans : At university, I studied logic and philosophy of science. Surprisingly, these fields are closely related to computer science. Modal Logic, for example, was an upperclassman course. Aside from a handful of philosophy and math majors, it was full of computer scientists.
Understanding formal logic allows quick and accurate decisions to be made. It also leads to street cred in an industry where everyone wants to be either Sherlock Holmes or Dr House.
I was always drawn more to analytical philosophy than continental philosophy. Analytical philosophy works to decompose problems into propositions and then combine these propositions into formal proofs. These skills are useful when developing or doing product management. When a manager requests something, analytical reasoning helps determine a path develop the proposed feature or figure out if the request is impossible given the current product constraints.
About a year ago, I was asked to help develop a map plugin. Our clients wanted to show nearby businesses like coffee shops, restaurants, and schools. Although simple, analyzing the feature shows some important considerations:
What businesses should the map show? Is there a programmatic way, gathering local business information from Google, or should the client curate a list of businesses? A series of luxury condos might want to show proximity to fine dining while an apartment building aimed at families may want to show nearby schools. Because of this, a curated list of businesses delivers more relevant information to the users.
Where is the business? Does the client have to know the latitude and longitude of each business or can we just query by business name or address?
Will the map be kept updated? Too often websites get neglected once they are launched. In this case, clients must understand the importance of maintaining their map. This is particularly important for listing businesses that have higher turnover rates, like restaurants.
This simple mapping widget contains hidden complexities. Understanding these concerns allows developers to implement more versatile plugins, and logical analysis leads to creating quality products.
Angus : You’ve previously worked as a product manager and have a very active interest in product development. Do you find that these analytical concepts work in an ongoing sense to guide projects?
Hans : When I was a product manager, one of my coworkers called me a ‘web philosopher’. He’s right. Product management often seems to be applied philosophy. There are two reasons for this.
Product management is a tricky concept when it relates to online products. If a company makes anything physical, understanding the term ‘product’ is pretty simple. What is the product of an online company? Sometimes it’s a piece of software, or a website, or even a SaaS.
During Philosophy 101, the professor lectures on definitions. “Define a chair,” she asks. It’s easy to understand what is a chair and what isn’t a chair. Ask a six year old—they know. More difficult is defining what inherently gives a chair its chairness. It’s the type of question that can keep a group of philosophers happily entertained for an evening. A similar discussion circles around product.
Luckily, philosophy teaches us how to approach ethereal issues. In each company, ‘product’ means something slightly different. Students of philosophy are well-suited to define product as it best fits the company and the role they’re in. A key to mastery and autonomy in a job is understanding what the company truly requires from your role.
The second area where philosophy applies directly to product management is in the day-to-day tasks. Oftentimes, product managers, especially technical product managers, are asked to manage queues:
The backlog: A list of upcoming features or product ideas.
Task lists: Stories and tasks that break down larger concepts from the backlog and implement them.
Analytical philosophy is breaking down large concepts into atomic propositions. These propositions can be composed into proofs. Similarly, items in the backlog are broken down into tasks by the product manager and development team. These tasks are then put together so that they may be completed in a certain order and deliver the feature once they are finished.
Perhaps calling product managers ‘web philosophers’ is appropriate after all.
Angus (now the Web Philosopher at GatherContent) : Thinking specifically in relation to content strategy, do you think there are ways that philosophy can help us plan information structures and understand requirements for content more effectively?
Hans : Taxonomy and semantics. Web professionals aren’t strangers to these words. The Greek philosophers were some of the first to create and document taxonomies of botany. A content strategist, following in the same footsteps, should gather all the necessary content for a website and discover underlying patterns in the content.
Gathering all the content is a critical step. An incorrect taxonomy may be created from looking at content that doesn’t completely represent the website’s final content.
Once the content’s structure is understood, it must be marked up semantically. This doesn’t just mean using the right HTML tags. This means having a place to store the content in semantic containers. Good CMSs do this. In fact, this is what I find most interesting about what the GatherContent team is creating. By breaking the page up into a series of named sections, it makes it easier to restructure the underlying content if the content strategy ever needs to be tweaked.
A good example of this level of semantic breakup is creating blog posts in WordPress. WordPress has a feature that allows users to draw a line in their content, defining everything above that line to be a summary or lead-in to the whole article. Most people won’t read the whole article, so putting important information up top leads more users to read it.
The next step, as web developers, is to make our semantic systems available to users of the website. Up until now, most of the higher-level semantics are done only in the back end. Some projects, like Schema and Microformats deliver better semantics to the front end too, giving content creators ways to mark up standard types of content—reviews, contact information, events. Search engines and third party apps can then harvest and deliver this information to users.
Angus : I’m curious about your thoughts on content maintenance. You’ve talked in the past about the need to prune content, do you have any other thoughts on maintaining project content?
Hans : For content maintenance, I think ethics is the main thing that comes to mind. Here’s a general principle:
Creators of content have an ethical duty to maintain it.
Keeping things like phone numbers, operating hours, and menus current is better for users.
The problem comes when a business has to weigh the cost of maintaining content and running a content-maintenance debt. Having incorrect information can become a barrier to having people do business with you—like if your phone number is incorrect—or appear unprofessional and tarnish your brand image.
But there’s also an enormous cost to maintaining content. One way of keeping this cost down is to have your content properly laid out in a CMS. Another way is to create less content. Focused content may be better for users, who are unlikely to spend large amounts of time on your site consuming each paragraph you create.
Angus : On a final note, do you see any general, kind of overriding philosophical ideals that it would be helpful for web professionals to adopt?
Hans : Web professionals should read about standard philosophical processes. The Oxford University Press puts out an amazing series of books with titles containing. A Very Short Introduction, including one on Logic. Also of particular interest to the web professional are deductive logic, analytical philosophy, and epistemology. There’s another set of books called ‘Philsophy 1’ and ‘Philosophy 2’. They cover these in detail as well.
If the opportunity arises, take a course in epistemology. Gems of computer science are often found in the philosophy department. Two of my favorite lectures at university were delivered by Christopher Hill in his epistemology course. One of these lectures was on Turing Machines, the other was on the Halting Problem.
I’d like to thank GatherContent for taking the time to chat about web philosophy with me. In recent years, philosophy has gotten some great coverage in The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. It turns out that philosophy is a great course of study for undergraduates, particularly those looking to go into business or law. A bachelor’s degree in philosophy gives students a statistical edge in their future careers, especially when compared to other humanities.
As for me, I’m starting to think about the philosophy and ethics of data use in applications. In particular, I’m curious how developers can use HTML5’s local storage in order to make applications that not only respond quicker but are also safer to store data in. I think there’s some good articles in this area, and I just need to take the time to write one.
You can follow Hans Sprecher on Twitter @honzie and you should also check out his personal website for updates and plenty other provocative articles.
Thanks for reading, now on with the philosophising.
Angus is the Product Director at GatherContent where he spends his time taming the product roadmap and dreaming of a world without Word documents.
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