Reuse Assumes Granularity and Modularity
How relevant is content reuse? Is reuse part of your current content management strategy? It’s worth considering, because reusable content saves time and reduces overall effort. Furthermore, reusable content makes it easier to support multiple content formats and distribution channels. Content reuse can involve plug-and-play content (reuse as is), repurposed content (reuse with some modification), or a combination of both.
Regardless of how we leverage existing content, the level of granularity of content is critical. However, granularity alone does not ensure that we can stretch the shelf life of our content. To get more mileage out of content, it must be modular.
More specifically, granularity enables modularity and modularity enables reuse. This is an important point to make because it highlights the interdependency between these content design principles. If reuse is our primary goal, then granularity and modularity should be part of our design objectives.
For example, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) tackles content reuse, granularity, and modularity. Although DITA initially focused primarily on technical documentation, it has become a more widespread model for other content types as well. It is one of several methodologies to address content reuse.
What is Granularity?
Regardless of the content type and applied model, granularity is at the core of any content design that emphasizes reuse as a goal. One common challenge is choosing the right level of granularity, which can be tricky if we do not define what content granularity is.
One way to define granularity is to look at detail density and content unit size. For instance, detail density defines the amount of information detail included in a content unit. The size of the content unit could be a phrase, sentence, paragraph, section, chapter, an entire document or another self-contained piece of content (e.g., image, chart).
This approach gives us two measures to define granularity:
- Information detail
- Content unit size
If we convey highly detailed information, we could use a larger content unit size to maintain a desired density level. Or we could simply spread the amount of detail across multiple related, but self-contained smaller content units.
Because detail density impacts readability and comprehension, we can also control the effectiveness and ease of use of our content. This approach implies that granularity is flexible and that we can adjust it to fit our needs.
What about Modularity?
I indicated earlier that ensuring granularity is just the first step toward enabling reuse. The second step is to create modular content. The idea of modularity implies that content units must fit together and be related somehow. The purpose of the content unit could be contextual, functional, procedural, or descriptive and define how units relate to each other.
To use a simple analogy, let’s say we want to build a model house made of LEGO bricks. We could use the shape and the color of the different LEGO pieces as our criteria for defining “fit.” Let’s also assume that we do not have all shapes in all colors and not all colors for all shapes.
As we start putting together the LEGO pieces, we will notice that some pieces (physically) fit together, but the colors might not match. Other pieces might not fit at all, but the colors match. Since the goal is to complete the LEGO house with the pieces we have, the physical fit takes priority over the color match. The result is a house with varying coloration and diverse sizes of LEGO bricks.
So how does this analogy relate to content modularity? First off, it tells us that just like LEGO bricks, content units can have different sizes and characteristics. The concepts of size and shape are easier to understand. However, other features might be less clear. For example, color as a feature of a LEGO brick could correspond to writing style and register (tone) for a content unit.
Essentially, modularity is the ability to separate self-contained content units and combine them into new, larger content segments. If we can reuse an individual content unit as is, it is fully modular. If we need to slightly modify a content unit to achieve reuse, we could consider it partially modular. In most cases, content consists of fully modular, partially modular, and non-modular units.
How to Choose Granularity
How do we choose the right granularity? This really depends on what we are trying to accomplish. For example, if we combine several related articles into an eBook, our granularity is at the article level. This means that we do not have to worry about sentence or paragraph-level granularity to achieve full modularity.
In contrast, if we prepare procedural information for a product line, we would likely benefit from sentence-level granularity. This would enable us to attain modularity at the sentence level and improve the overall reuse potential.
As a rule of thumb, use finer granularity for content that benefits from standardization and consistent terminology since reuse is a main goal. Apply coarser granularity for creative content since this content type tends to sacrifice reuse potential for content variation.
In general, though, choosing granularity is a strategic content management decision that we need to make. This decision is often part of a larger content management strategy. However, nothing prevents us from refining content as we go. This would be a tactical approach to improving the reuse of our existing content over time.
Granularity and modularity are fundamental principles of good content design. Without modular content, we would limit the reuse potential and shelf life of our content. This limitation has an even greater impact if we create content for global audiences. Modular, high-quality source content allows modular, high-quality content across target languages.
Therefore, choosing an appropriate level of granularity based on content type is critical. It affects our ability to achieve content modularity. Moreover, by managing detail density and content unit size, we can also improve readability and comprehension.
Content models such as DITA provide a framework for content creators, but these models still rely on content creators to write good and modular content. Therefore, content creators should understand and apply best practices when creating modular content. Concepts such as minimalism and appropriate writing techniques can significantly improve our ability to achieve modularity.
Granularity enables modularity and modularity enables reuse. This symbiotic relationship is at the heart of effective content design. It is a strategic decision that should be part of our content management practices. It is never too late to start creating modular content. However, it requires our conscious commitment to make it a daily routine. More importantly, content does not write itself. Choosing granularity alone does not automatically result in modular content and enable reuse. Technology and content models rely on our ability to create good content. This means honing our writing and content-design skills is key to achieving granular and modular content.