Why IAs are needed in the kitchen
Better content management through information architecture
On the web, there are several debates about the future of information architecture. Some of the debaters warn us about the near death of the information architect (Joshua Porter). Others foresee information architecture 3.0 (Peter Morville) and then there are evangelists who believe that the future of information architecture will be about architecting massive networks, and even cities. (Shel Kimen).
"Three core activities they 'do best' (...) These activities are organizing, labeling and structuring."
Whatever the future of information architecture, it is reasonable to predict that the role of the information architect (IA) will continue to focus on three core activities they "do best" (Louis Rosenfield and Peter Morville). These activities are organizing, labeling and structuring information. The purpose of these activities is to make information usable.
The main environment for these activities is the online world. In this environment, we as IAs conduct content analyses to determine the quantity and quality of the content. We design an organization of logical groups of content and within these groups, we apply an alphabetical, geographical or other order. Subsequently, we try to figure out the appropriate labels that cover the meaning and appeal to the intended audience. Finally, we determine and design the relationships between the identified content clusters and specify the best possible structure. This concise description of IA activities may oversimplify matters, but it is the very essence of our work.
Information architects are for the most part preoccupied with the design of websites and applications. The organizing, labeling and structuring activities of the information architect are primarily aimed at the 'front stage' which people interact with. As a community, we are keen on improving the usability and enhancing the user experience (UX) by making content easily accessible, by reducing the redundancy and information overload and by guiding the user in a controlled manner through the content along hierarchical paths. To optimize our designs, we use techniques such as personas, scenarios and prototypes. Our success depends on the degree in which the user is able to achieve the intended goals and fulfill his information needs in an effective and pleasant manner.
To summarize in the words of Ann Rockley, information architecture is "synonymous with information architecture for the web".
Despite all the good work of information architects, the number of unsuccessful sites and applications is still staggering. Problems in the 'back stage' are generally the primary reason for this lack of success. At a more specific level, the organization of content management is not taken seriously, tools provided are inadequate, and the attention is not focused on the needs and wants of the people involved. Information architects will add more value if they gain a deeper understanding of the business environment and target their skills to the environment where the content is created and managed. In a metaphorical way, this environment can be labeled as the kitchen.
As in any restaurant, the kitchen is the place where ideas materialize. These ideas must be processed, composed and styled. The results will subsequently be served to the customer. In case of content ideas, the user may be a (potential) customer conducting transactions or an employee searching for information to write a report.
"Problems in the 'back stage' are generally the primary reason for the lack of success."
As in any kitchen, it is important to have the proper tools. These tools are no guarantee for high-quality content, but are used to make processes simpler, shorter and therefore cheaper. Such tools range from simple text editors to complex content management systems which facilitate workflow management, versioning, and collaborative writing.
Judging from the limited amount of attention on the web and at conferences, it seems information architects are not too keen to get involved in the content kitchen. Extensive speculation on the possible causes of this reluctance is not necessary, but one reason may be the hesitation of IAs to deal with technologists who consider the kitchen to be their territory. It is important that IAs overcome their hesitations and become fully involved in the kitchen territory. There are three important considerations:
Changing the IA of a publication requires a team with skills from the fields of IA, communication, writing and content management technology. In this team, the IA does not only architect content, he also orchestrates change. This change applies to new ways in which content is decomposed, structured and recomposed in a content management environment. This change may even require the redefinition of processes and procedures or additional competencies of the people involved. To implement his design successfully, the IA must be aware of its consequences and act accordingly. This means he provides the organization and people involved with advice and guidance, creates the conditions necessary to implement his design and ensures ownership of his design in the organization. In such a way, changes are understood, accepted and implemented by the content management organization.
There are many criteria for high-quality content such as readability, usability and relevancy. To a large extent, the production of high-quality content depends on the attitudes, skills and competences of the people in the content management organization and the quality of the tools. Too often, people in the content management organization lack appropriate attitudes, skills and competences in order to contribute significantly to the success of the project. Moreover, tools are selected and implemented by specialists who do not know what is needed in the content kitchen.
"Too often, people in the content management organization lack appropriate attitudes, skills and competences (...)"
As a matter of fact, many content management projects fail because there is a mismatch between the people and tools necessary for the creation, publication and maintenance of high-quality content. For instance, when an organization instigates a change of structure (e.g. from centralization to decentralization), it does not take the necessary steps in order to assign or provide the appropriate expertise. In the case of tools, even basic functionality like as spellchecker is often unavailable. Also, the scalability and flexibility of content management system can be disappointing to a degree that new content types cannot be accommodated by the system, such as blogs, forms and rich media components.
The user experience of a restaurant guest is not just determined by the quality of the food alone. It is also a combination of the atmosphere in the restaurant, the collaboration between the white and black brigades and the bill at the end. If all goes well, the guests and staff are equally happy. The guests will return to the restaurant and the cook will remain motivated to show his best over and over again. It is important to realize that the user experience of every individual in this process matters. Or to put it differently, the strength of the UX chain is in its weakest link.
"Every disruption of the UX chain has a negative impact."
The implication here is that throughout the customer life cycle, the UX depends on the ability of the organization to deliver high-quality content for all of its products, services and channels. Every disruption of the UX chain has a negative impact. In the context of content management, the UX of people involved can be improved by giving them the proper tools. Tools which are easy to implement and customize with intuitive and easy-to-learn interfaces, and for which vendors provide adequate support.
So what can the IA do when facing the challenge of creating added value in a new territory, the domain of content management?
Before doing anything at all, IAs need to reconsider their mindset. They need to acknowledge the fact that their designs create change in the organization. If they want to implement their designs successfully, they need to understand the nature of the change. Therefore, it is necessary that IAs acquire knowledge about the organization, its people and processes to minimize the gap between what happens in the kitchen and what is on the menu. It is not just a matter of perspective. It is also truly acknowledging that, in creating and publishing content, staff, processes and tools determine the value and significance of the UX of sites and applications.
The skill set of the IA contains three valuable assets for the kitchen. First, the ability to analyze and evaluate the quality of the content. This is an excellent instrument to apply more broadly to the quality of the organization. Second, the architect can translate findings into feasible concepts to improve content creation and delivery. Third, the IA can create a roadmap for better content creation and delivery to unfreeze the business and embrace the change. In this context, the IA can use user-centered design techniques such as personas, scenarios and card sorting.
In his TV show "Kitchen Nightmares", Gordon Ramsay provides genuine inspiration for IAs entering the content management kitchen. He is a famous chef who helps restaurants that are on the verge of bankruptcy to get their act together and become successful again. Like Ramsay does in restaurants, IAs must identify problems and disorder in faltering content management organizations and propose solutions. Let's apply a few of Ramsay's rules of thumb to the field of IA.
Know your role: Tell content management organizations which roles and skills are required to do the job. Too often, the organizations underestimate or neglect content management. They do not distinguish the specific roles, tasks and responsibilities needed for professional content management.
Keep it simple: Advise organizations on the selection and implementation of content management systems. They often entail complex features, workflows and interfaces. The complexity needs to be reduced significantly so that users of these systems can do their job more easily.
Know the user: Promote research into the needs, wants and desires of users. Tell organizations to get out on the street to find out what people want to know. Convince them that they have to keep up with changing customer needs and priorities.
There are more good lessons to be learned from Ramsay's shows. But there is one that applies specifically to the IA.
Use your unique selling point: Focus on the core competences being organizing, labeling, and structuring. Apply these not only to the publication domain ('front stage'), but also to the domain of content management ('back stage').
Glushko, Robert J. and Lindsay Tabas, Bridging the "Front Stage" and "Back Stage" in Service System Design, June 15, 2007 (http://repositories.cdlib.org/ischool/2007-013/)
Porter, Joshua, Thoughts on the Impending Death of Information Architecture", November 21, 2006 (http://bokardo.com/archives/thoughts-on-the-impending-death-of-information-architecture/)
Morville, Peter, Information Architecture 3.0, November 29, 2006 (http://semanticstudios.com/publications/semantics/000149.php)
Kimen, Shel, 10 Questions About Information Architecture, September 29, 2003. (http://articles.techrepublic.com.com/5100-22-5074224.html)
Morville, Peter and Louis Rosenfeld, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites, Third Edition, November 2006
Rockley, Ann, Information Architecture of Content Management, September 25, 2005 (http://rockleybulletin.com/featurearticle2.php?id=122_0_2_0_C)
Why IAs are needed in the kitchen: Better content management through information architecture
(EuroIA 2008 - 26-27 sept. 2008, Amsterdam)
Author Ruud Ruissaard is information architect at Informaat content design & creation (informaat.nl). He can be reached at ruud dot ruissaard at informaat dot nl.
Co-author Peter J. Bogaards is community builder for Informaat (informaat.nl) promoting user experience design in the Dutch language area. He can be reached at peter dot bogaards at informaat dot nl.