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.
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