If you put two things together side-by-side, what do they have in common? The answer depends on the point of view. Alternative viewpoints mold content identity differently. Designers of content experiences, such as content strategists and information architects, can use these viewpoints to surface different kinds of content relationships.
Three actors shape the identity of content: the author or curator; the audience; and the thing or things discussed in the content. Each brings its own perspective to what content is about:
- Content identity as interpreted by an author or curator
- Content identity as interpreted by the audience
- Content about things that reveal dimensions of themselves
Each perspective plays a different role in framing the content experience.
Scene setting: the Curatorial Perspective
Scene setting lets people understand common themes in content that aren’t obvious. An author or curator draws on their unique knowledge to construct a theme that unifies different content items. Such themes set expectations about the relationship of content to other content. It is didactic in orientation.
A common label used to announce a theme is the series — for instance, a TV series, or a narrative trilogy. Sometimes the series is just a way to divide up something into smaller parts, but keep them connected: an article becomes a two-part article. A content series can express how different items are related according to the intentions of the author or the interpretation of a curator. They can be a sequence of items presented on a common theme. The series may present the evolution of the item over time, such as versions. A building architect might show a series of images starting with a sketch, then a foam model, and finally a photo of the finished building.
A series presents a collection of items and shows how they belong together. The author/curator draws on their intimate knowledge of the content to point out connections between different content items, which may not be self-evident. We find this in the museum world: an item presented is said to originally belong with other items, that have since been dispersed. A curator might indicate how several items embody a common theme, such as when similar paintings express a recurrent motif.
Any time items are defined by the values and judgments of the author (or curator), the audience must be willing to accept that valuation as relevant. So if a curator identifies items as “new and notable,” then the intended audience needs to buy that labeling.
Mirroring: the Audience Perspective
When mirroring, content reflects themes as seen by the audience. It represents concepts the way audiences think about them to support attraction to the content. Mirroring is different from the authorial perspective, which expresses the content’s intention. The audience perspective expresses how content is imagined.
Brand names are perhaps the purest example of imagined content. Brands have no intrinsic identity: they depend entirely on the perceptions of customers to define what they mean. Even a conglomerate that sells many brand products can’t dictate how consumers view these brands. The French brand house LVHM, which sells numerous luxury brand products, can’t control whether consumers consider Dior is more similar to Givenchy or to Louis Vuitton, even though it owns all three brands. In reality, Chinese consumers may have different opinions about these relationships than Italian consumers would.
High-level concepts that are meaningful to audiences should reflect how audiences perceive them. For example, people associate different kinds of experiences with different vacation activities. Is bungee jumping active-fun, adventurous, or extreme? It is best to work with the audiences’ framework of values, rather than trying to impose one on them. Card sorting is useful for eliciting subjective perceptions about the identity of things. Yet card sorting is less reliable when defining the identity of concrete things, since it shifts the attention away from the object’s specific properties. Better, more empirical approaches are available to classify concrete items.
Discovery: Perspectives based on Item Properties
Features of items can suggest themes. Object-defined themes let the things featured in the content to speak for themselves. This involves more showing, and less telling. Properties can define identities, and reveal commonalities between different items. It promotes discovery of content relationships.
Faceted search interfaces, such as found on e-commerce sites, are the most familiar implementation of property-driven identification. People choose values for various facets (properties) of items, and get a list of items matching these values. Using properties to identify items is especially valuable for non-text content. Some Digital Asset Management systems allow people to find images that match a certain shade of a color, regardless of what the subject of the image is. Properties can identify similarities and relationships that might not be expected from a higher level label. It can support more criteria-based consideration of identity. For example, when we think of travel items — things to pack — we generally have standard things in mind: toiletries, articles of clothing, etc. But if we start with properties, the universe of travel items expands. We might define travel items as things that are both small and lightweight. We discover small and lightweight versions of things we might not ordinarily pack for travel, but might enjoy having once we become aware of the option.
Leveraging Diverse Viewpoints
There’s more than one way to define the relationship between items of content. I sometimes see people try to make a single hierarchical taxonomy serve as both an authoritative or objective classification of content, and a user-centric classification that reflects the subjective perceptions of users, without realizing they are forcing together different kinds of content identities — one relatively stable, the other contextual and subject to change.
Content can be considered objectively as it is; authoritatively as it is intended; and subjectively as it seems to various audiences. These differences offer thematic lenses for looking at content. They can be used to help audiences connect different items of content together in different ways: setting the scene for audiences so they understand relationships better, reflecting their existing attitudes to promote attraction to items of interest, and helping them discover things they didn’t know.
— Michael Andrews