Category Archives: Content Integration

Why visible organization is not content structure

There is widespread confusion among various parties involved with user experience about how to design content. Many UX professionals, information architects and even some editorially-focused content strategists make a fundamental error. They confuse the visible organization of content presented to users on the screen, with the actual structure of the content. This confusion causes many problems for the content, rendering it inflexible.

An event earlier this week highlights the confusion. Someone asked in a content strategy forum about how to organize content that involves long corporate policies. I have worked with such content before, and am aware that there can be a mismatch between how the policy is written, and how it needs to be used. I suggested analyzing the content to determine what specific topics are addressed by a policy, and what common tasks would likely be impacted by it. Other people in the community offered suggestions that had little to do with the substance of the content. They suggested organizing the policy using tabs to break up the content. This advice about the form of the content might be helpful, but it assumes the content has a structure in place that allows it, and that it would deliver benefits to users beyond disguising the length of the policy.

How information architecture and content strategy differ

Information architecture (IA) and content strategy (CS) are closely related, and many people note their seeming overlap. IA and CS use similar sounding terms, and in some cases claim similar objectives. As it becomes common to have both roles working side-by-side, it is useful to understand how they differ. I’ve done both roles, and feel they are different in important ways.

Information architecture is about how to organize content as it is presented to users. IA looks at how to best describe and present the organization of content users will see in a way that users understand. Content strategy is about how to structure all content so it is available to users when and where they need it. CS isn’t focused on specific manifestation of the content such as how it appears on a screen; it is focused on extensibility.

The strength of IA is bringing the user’s perspective to how content is grouped on the screen. IA tries to uncover the mental models of users — how different users think about the relationships between content items — and uses card sorting and other techniques to determine how users group content, and label content items. These findings are reflected in the site maps, and wireframes that information architects produce.

Appearances and reality

Even though information architects talk about structure and organization, they don’t actually review the content in detail. They focus on creating containers for content, not on how to assemble content element together. Content strategists look at the details of all content, to determine how it can be assembled together in various scenarios.

The structure of content is deeper and more complex than what appears on the screen to users. Content requires two stages of organization. First, behind the curtain, content needs to be structured and organized to be available dynamically. Second, on stage, the assembled content needs to be placed into the right containers on the screen in a way that it makes sense for users. These two stages are the responsibilities of the content strategist, and the information architect, respectively.

Unfortunately, many people confuse appearances with reality. They see a site map, and assume that it describes the content precisely and comprehensively. Many people will even describe a site map, which variously determines folder structure and navigation, as being a taxonomy governing the content, seemingly unaware of the multiple roles a taxonomy performs. These people make the mistake of designing content from the outside-in.

In his book, The Discipline of Organizing, Robert Glushko at the University of California Berkeley notes that a solid conceptual foundation for content requires an inside-out approach based on modeling its core elements, in contrast to the “presentation tier” focus of an outside-in approach.

Separating presentation from content

It’s long been best practice to separate the presentation of content, from the content itself. But many web professionals incorrectly assume that the presentation tier is just the styling provided by CSS. In fact, the presentation tier covers many UI elements, which may or may not be rendered in CSS. These include more structural elements to aid navigation such as menus and tabs. They also include orientation content such as labels and even specific phrasing used on screens. All of these items are important, but none of them are fixed, and might need to be changed at any point.

When UI elements, including the menu system, define the structure of the content from the outside in, it produces a brittle framework that cannot be easily adapted.

Why current practice is an issue

Unfortunately the problem of outside-in content design is not limited to a handful of UX folks. The very content management systems that drive many websites encourage such thinking.

I’ve worked on projects using well known CMSs such as Drupal and Ektron and discovered these CMSs had very specific ideas about how content could be structured, and how it could be used. They might assume that a central “taxonomy” drives the site folder structure/breadcrumbs and the labels that appear in the navigation. These systems use a tightly coupled integration between the content repository and the presentation of content.

The conflation of navigation labels, site map, and taxonomy makes changes difficult. If you find out that users prefer a different navigation label or different location for the content, you have to change your taxonomy. It is difficult to use a single taxonomy term to support contextual recommendations, or faceted search capabilities.

Visible organization is not the same as real organization

Information architects do a great job simplifying the organization of content that is presented to users, so that users only see what they need to see. This simplification saves users from being overloaded with unnecessary details. The terms used in labels, and the grouping of terms, reflects the way specific audience segments think about the content.
While this work is essential, it is important to understand its limitations. There is no one best way to describe a category that works for everyone (a phenomenon known as the “vocabulary problem.”) The essence of categories can change as content is added or deleted. Fashions change regarding the containers used to present content: tabs, accordions, hovers, peal backs.

The way content is presented will always be subject to change, but the underlying structural foundation of the content needs to be solid, able to withstand both redesigns, and content migrations.

Fixed presentation can’t represent dynamic content

We are slowly emerging from the era of WYSIWIT: “What You See Is What Is There.” In the past, IAs and CMS vendors could count on knowing the contours of the content through its superficial organization. But increasingly, visible organization does not reveal the structure of content relationships. Content presentation has moved away from detailed navigation, which taxes the user’s attention and fails to cope with the proliferation of content. Instead, content is presented on a just-in-time basis, combining content elements with behavioral logic.

I have previously argued for the importance of thinking about content on three levels: the stock of content, the behavior of content, and the presentation of content. Audience needs are driving variation in how content is presented, and the stock of content be sufficiently must be structured to allow it to be repurposed in many ways.

A single content repository must serve multiple audiences. While this has been happening with localization for some time, it is becoming more common to adapt terminology and other elements to specific audiences who nominally speak the same language. I worked with a biomedical research institute that needed to provide the same information about clinical trials to both doctors and patients. The information was controlled by a common taxonomy vocabulary, but the different audience segments would see different terminology.

In many cases users only see a subset of content. The rise of personalization means that individuals may view a personalized landing page that will have a curated set of content options, rather than exposing all options. Adaptive content that adjusts to different devices such as smart phones also means the visible organization must be elastic. Some content may not be needed on a smart phone. Missing content should not harm the integrity of how overall content is represented, but it often does.

The amount of content is presented determines the level of detail used to describe it to users. Deep content requires finer distinctions using very concrete terms. Broad and more general content needs categories that describe what is included (and provide clues of what isn’t). While a hierarchical taxonomy can manage these differences on the backend well enough, it may not provide meaningful labels to users, especially when a generic label describes a few assorted items that aren’t closely related.

These examples illustrate how relying on fixed terms or fixed organization for users may result in a poor user experience when the content displayed is dynamic. Information architecture is about presentation, and needs to adjust to changes in content.

Conclusion

Audiences need to know what content is available specifically for them, and how these items relate to each other. Content creators and publishers need to know what content exists for all audiences, and the full range of relationships within that content. Both sides are better served when there is a separation of the structure of content as represented internally, from the organization of content presented externally. It does involve some extra overhead, especially since some CMSs currently do not offer this capability out of the box. But given the growing importance of content variations and customized content, future-ready content will need to be flexible enough to cope with changes in navigation and other kinds of organizational containers.

— Michael Andrews

Content sources across the customer journey

Customers are always on the run, checking information, making evaluations, and tracking how well and quickly they are getting things done. This momentum — being always on and always moving — has profound implications for content strategy. The best way to gain a holistic view of what’s involved is to look at the full customer journey, and the various services needed to support that journey, whomever provides them.  At different stages, the user has different tasks, and needs content to support these tasks.  When brands examine the journey from end to end,  they often discover that they do not have some of the content needed to support many of the user’s tasks.

Content comes from many different kinds of sources.  Brands are a major creator of content, but so are individuals, communities of people, as well as governments and non-government organizations.  Content can take many forms as well: it can be articles and videos, but also items of information commonly described as data.  One shouldn’t make a artificial distinction between authored content and factual data when these resources need to be visible and are meaningful to users.

To see how to join-up different sources of content to support user journeys, let’s consider a scenario.  Neil is a 41 year American software developer, recently divorced and living by himself in Research Triangle, North Carolina.  He recently had his blood pressure checked, which was found to be a bit high.  He is told he should consider modifying his diet to reduce his blood pressure.   Neil is someone into “lifehacking” so he decides to dig deeper into the topic to find out what’s best for him.

Step one: Goal setting with personal content

Neil reviews his device’s app store to see what’s useful.  He finds a healthy living app that can track his diet and makes recommendations on how to improve it.  He enters what he eats and drinks for a week and graphs the results.  The app flags his coffee and processed food consumption as areas he should watch — processed food contains a lot of sodium.  He likes the taste and convenience of processed food, but decides he should try to cook more for himself.  He fiddles with some parameters on his healthly living app and gets some recommendations on kinds of foods he should consider eating.  He likes some recommendations, hates others, and believes others are worthy but difficult.  He sets some goals for eating, and will track these in his app.  At this  goal setting stage, the content is personal to Neil: his recommendations based on parameters he selected, his goals, and his behavioral data.

Step two: Planning using community-contributed content

Neil doesn’t particularly enjoy cooking, because in the past he’s found it time consuming, and his results have been disappointing.  He searches for a source of recipes that are easy to make and don’t sound awful.  He finds a recipe community that specializes in easy to make dishes.  Community members submit recipes they like and can vote and comment on ones they’ve tried based on taste, ease of making, ease of storing ingredients, and ease of saving leftovers.  He likes the reputational dimensions of the community: members get recognition for their submissions and the votes cast and recieved.  Neil can link his healthy living app to this community, so that he can compare his profile goals with those of other community contributors.  He scans pictures of dishes that match his criteria and notices that some are favorites of people who follow protein rich diets and avoid carbohydrates.  On closer inspection of the ingredients, he sees these dishes avoid starches.  Neil likes his carbs, so filters out these options.  He looks for people more like him who are most concerned with the sodium dimension, and looks over their favorities.  He finds a couple of cassorole dishes that sound easy to make, and easy to save as leftovers.   For planning his meals, Neil has relied on community content: what’s popluar, and with whom it is popular.  He saves these recipes to his “to try” list in his healthy living app, so he can track when he has them.

Step three: Evaluation using public content and open data

Neil has two dishes he wants to make: a tuna casserole, and a Mexican casserole.  Both use ingridents easily obtained with a long shelf life: things like cans of tuna, cans of onion soup, cans of beans, bags of chips, jars of salsa, and processed cheese.  He hates having to worry about food spoiling in the fridge.  He notices a new detail about the ingredients: he must use low sodium varieties of these ingredients if the dish will qualify as low sodium.  Neils starting to feel overwhelmed: his supermarkets seems to have endless varieties of similar items, and he finds it a pain to read the tiny nuitrial lables on products.  He’s been warned that advertised claims of “reduced salt” can be misleading.  He wants to be able to search across different brands to find which ones have the lowest sodium.  Fortunately he finds a new website that is aggregating nutritional information of food products from many brands.  Ideally the USDA would aggregate all the information from nutritional labels of food products, and make it available in an open format with a public API.  But the USDA does not offer this information itself, so instead Neil uses a website that relies of voluntary submission by vendors, or the scrapping info from their websites.  The information is useful, though incomplete.  Neil is able to search for food products such as salsa, and find candidate brands that are low sodium.  He exports this list of brands to his shopping app on his phone.  He has relied on aggregated public information to evaluate which brands are most suitable.  Third party aggregators are credible providers of such information.

Step four: Purchase selection using company content

Neil now feels ready to visit his cavernous supermarket.  He chooses to shop at a supermarket that is employing new technology that allows shoppers to use their mobile phones to navigate through the store and check inventory.  The supermarket has it’s own app that can link to Neil’s shopping list.  It tells Neil which brands it has in stock, what the prices are, and what isle they are located on.  The store only carries one brand of low sodium salsa, but has three brands of low sodium beans, and he can compare the prices on his phone before hunting for them on the shelf.  Also the app shows photos of the items, so Neil knows what to look for.  So many products look similar, so it’s important to be sure you are picking up the one you really want, and not something that’s similar but different in a critical aspect (e.g., getting the extra spicy low sodium beans, instead of unflavored low sodium ones).  For the purchase phase, Neil has relied on company provided content.  He is motivated by ease of purchase, and individual retailers are in a primary position to offer content supporting such convenience.

neils content journey

Insights and lessons

Neil’s journey illustrates three major issues audiences and brands face when integrating content from different sources:

1.  technical constraints and functional gaps that create friction

2.  fuzzy ownership of responsibilities across the customer journey

3.  balancing the financial motivations of the brand with the incentives motivating the customer

Gaps, constraints, and friction

Everything in Neil’s scenario is technically feasible, even if parts seem magical compared with today’s reality.   For the user, a journey like this is often fragemented across many separate sites and apps, which may not share content with each other.  Users often rely on different kinds of content, from different sources, at different stages.

When Neil moves between apps or sites focused on different primary tasks there is obvious potential for friction.  As a computer professional, Neil is able to take content from one task domain and use it in another, using tools like IFTTT.  Other users, however, may have to manually re-enter content from one task domain to another, unless content linking and import is built-in.  Such built-in functionlity requires common exchange formats and APIs.   There are microformats for recipes, government-mandated nutritional information follows a standardized format, and retailers track products using standardized nomenclature such as UPCs and SKUs.  But content addressing higher level tasks such as dietary goals or ease of preparation do not follow open standards, meaning the exchange of such information between applications is more difficult.  In these cases, forging partnerships to create own’s own format to exchange content may be the best option.  Obviously, any connections between task domains (sharing log-in credentials, and sharing data) will help customers carry forward their journey, and help to drive adoption of your solution.

Whose problem is it?

The scenario highlights the fuzzy boundaries surrounding who offers the right solution for Neil.  In many cases, such as outlined in this scenario, no one party will orginate all the content needed to support a complex user task journey.  From a user perspective, it may seem desirable to have a “one stop” solution where he or she can perform all the tasks.  Such an approach would eliminate hopping between applications and websites, and potentially enable users to see connections between different tasks and their associated data and content.  But it isn’t obvious that one solution can obtain all the content needed to support the user.  Typically, integrated solutions do not offer the best content available.   Rather they offer content that is easy to obtain, or content that selectively promotes the goals of the brand behind the solution.  If you want to buy a camera, reading customer reviews on the Walmart website isn’t your best source of customer evaluations — buyers can get more complete and higher quality review information from a third-party photography website.  If a customer wants recipes, your supermarket may offer some that use products that the supermarket is promoting, but these recipes are not necessarily the best ones, and will certainly represent only a small sample of what’s available.

Brands need to think about what kinds of content their customers seek and consider during their journeys, and figure out how they can be a part of the conversation.  The goal should be to make your content available at whatever stage it is needed.  Look at opportunities to incorporate outside content where appropriate.  Think about where is the main source of content relating to this user task.  Can the brand get the content itsself, or does it make sense for it to offer its content to that source?

Being helpful with your content

Jeff Bezos reportedly said why brands earn or lose customer love: “Defeating tiny guys is not cool” while “Defeating bigger, unsympathetic guys is cool.”  To earn customer love, brands also need to consider how they treat other parties’ content.  Do they seem to be freely sharing a great resource, or are they seeming to throttle choice and push their own agenda with what they present? Whether a brand chooses to incorporate other parties’ content into their solution, or offer their content to others (via an API), it needs to come across as generous, and unbiased, to earn credibility and trust.

Audiences invest time and effort evaluating content, saving content, and creating their own content, motivated by the value they derive from different content sources.  It is important to respect that effort.  Content linking and sharing is a classic example of a network effect, where the content becomes more valuable the more different task scenarios it can be used.   Brands need to consider the network effect dynamics when choosing what content to offer, and where to offer it.

There can be a natural tendancy for brands to want to only invest in content that shows immediate payoffs.  Consider the supermarket chain.  It did not choose to submit the nutritional information of its house brands to the third party website.  As a result, its house brands were not part of Neil’s consideration set.  When it created its in-store app, some members of the supermarket exective team didn’t want to include photos of the products.  They reasoned that it was an unnecessary expense.  The price and inventory information were already available in their inventory system, but that system didn’t store photographic content.  But by making the investment, they improved the customer experience, and greatly increased adoption of their app.

The supermarket executives also debated how to understand more fully what their customers wanted to buy, so they could better forecast demand.  Their prior attempt to tie their loyalty card with their own recipe app, offering coupons, didn’t result in much adoption.  They were interested in figuring out how to get people like Neil to give them his dietary goal setting information.  While this is valuable content for the supermarket chain, helping them better target ads and offers, it isn’t clear what Neil would get in return for providing this information.  More coupons?  Neil gets a clear benefit using his goals to plan his meals, but the value of providing his goals to the supermarket after he’s already decided what he wants to buy isn’t clear.  The supermarket needs to think how Neil can use this information in the context of his relationship with the supermarket, so that Neil is in charge of what he does with the information, and derives value using it.  Perhaps he could be rewarded for participating in a program to test new products that are aligned with his dietary goals.

Final thoughts

Brands, especially retail brands and service providers such as banks, hotels and airlines, are thinking more about omnichannel communication with their customers.  Customers can need help at any point, can seek content through many channels and from many sources (including those of rivals) and expect answers instantly.  A strategy that shares content across tasks is the best approach to meeting customers needs as they arise.  If customers are doing a task that involves other sources of content in addition to your own, your brand needs to figure out how customers can integrate both kinds of content to provide the level of support they increasingly expect.  Having your content play well with others is not just a nice thing to do, but a business imperative.

— Michael Andrews