Have you heard about “content strategy”? If you work in website development, the chances are you have. But what is it exactly?
What is content?
In the online world, “content” means stuff you put on a screen – words, pictures, videos, animations, sounds. Of course, there is also offline content. For example, when Tommy Hilfiger stations cute little pippins in tight dresses around your local department store to hand out white paper strips that stink of some expensive smell he’s created, well, that’s content, too. The sexual allure is content. The fragrant strips of paper are content. The Tommy Hilfiger logo is content. In my world view, “content” affects all five of our senses.
But for the most part, “content” means words and pictures on a website or application. OK?
What is “strategy”?
In the military, there is talk of “strategy” and “tactics”. Mostly, strategy relates to goals whereas tactics relate to the methods needed to achieve these goals.
Strategy (as expressed by the Lieutenant): “We need to take that hill, men.”
Tactics (as expressed by the Sergeant): Fat guys behind rocks. Skinny guys behind trees.”
What is “content strategy”?
“Content strategy” means giving visitors – to a website or department store – whatever “content” they need to make a decision or carry out a task. The strategy part lies in how we present this content to influence these decisions and tasks. If we’re doing a sitemap for a website, we call this “information architecture”. If we station a girl in a department store, we call it “service design”. But it’s all closely related.
Here’s an article that shows how many content strategists view themselves:
Please note: I take exception to a couple of the things said in this article. I include it mainly to provide equal time to the hard-core proponents. I’m not out to declare war on anybody – but I do have a low tolerance for bullshit.
Birth of a buzzword
How did the web survive for so many years before “content strategy” came along? Surprisingly well - because “content strategy” has always
been part of the picture. It just got a new name and has since become a buzzword. I’ve had it on my business card for years simply because my clients didn’t understand the term “information architecture”. Incidentally, when I googled “content strategist” back in 2004 (when I first put the title on my card), there wasn’t a single hit.
My story isn’t unique. Many folks came to information architecture from a writing background. Think of “content strategists” as librarians who read and
write. Since we understood the content and were often providing it, too, we were the ones who got to create the sitemap.
Just for the record, my very basic description of information architecture is this:
- We gather stuff into convenient categories
- We call stuff by names people will recognize
- We put stuff where people can easily find it.
Remember, this is IA on a high, strategic level. Naturally, when you get down to the tactical nitty-gritty of information architecture, you’d better understand taxonomy development and the other cool stuff they teach at library school. This is also why there are no easily defined borders between the worlds of IA and CS. And if you ask me, who really cares as long as the job gets done properly – and in a way that provides measurable benefits.
Content becomes valuable by virtue of context
Here’s a piece of content:
“Strandøre 15. A ten minute walk north from Svanemøllen Station”.
For 99.99% of the readers of this blogpost, this snippet of content is irrelevant and therefore worthless. But if you were taking public transportation to the FatDUX office in Copenhagen, the content becomes useful and therefore acquires value. If content is king, then context represents the kingdom.
Information architects need to understand content. Content strategists need to understand context. In terms of traditional sitemaps, the boxes have no value without the interconnecting arrows. And the arrows have no meaning if there are no boxes to which to point. And that’s why there is so much gray area in the definition – and why the pedants will spend years fighting over definitions in the years to come.
Form cannot exist without content
There’s a video on YouTube that has achieved cult status. It is of the Russian singer, Eduard Kihl, featured in a 1966 video where he “sings” his hit song, “I Am Glad I'm Finally Going Home”. Actually, in the repressive Soviet Union of 1966, the lyricist apparently was unable to write a suitable poem that would meet with Party approval. So Kihl simply trololo’ed his way through the melody and today we giggle at the results.
My point in mentioning the "Trololo Video" here is that form without content becomes absurd. And now that I've provided some historical context for the video, perhaps you'll see that it is actually more tragic than comic.
The most attractive website cannot survive without meaningful and useful content – content that is arranged in a meaningful and useful way. And somebody needs to do the work - no matter what their official title.
New Year’s is a time of reflection. In my case, I pondered the many and varied ways we can promote the cause of information architecture. And I think I’ve discovered a completely untapped opportunity: professional wrestling.
Amazingly, there is not a single professional wrestler with an IA background! I’ve considered making this career move myself, but my wife thinks I look dumb in a Speedo (then again, who doesn’t?). So since my plans seem to have been vetoed, let me share my thoughts with you – perhaps someone else will enter the arena to make this bold, long-overdue move.
The name’s the game
First, professional wrestlers have a catchy name. I’ve considered the following:
Leo the Librarian (famous for the “Shssh of Death”)
Doctor Depends (never looks you straight in the eye)
The Terrible Thesaurus (a magical, yet misunderstood creature)
Getting a move on
Next, all wrestlers have “signature moves,” so I think I should have a couple, too. For example, Hard-Boiled Haggerty is famous for his “Shillelagh Swing.” And Cowboy Bob Ellis has “The Bulldog Headlock.” Well, here are some ideas I’ve been tossing around.
The Polar Bearhug
Perfect for tackling large-scale opponents
The Wurman Whirl
Create anxiety through the deadly use of information overload
The Dewey Decimator
796.8 ways to send your foe back to the stacks
The Barbed Wireframe
Box in your target no matter where he happens to be.
The Berrypicking Brainbuster
A shrewd combination of the very best moves available at any given time.
Michigan Leg Swirl
Prevail by degrees (this move is known in the industry as an “MLS”)
The Morville Mindbender
Become completely unfindable in the ring!
The Dublin Corner
Trap your opponent in a maze of metadata
Use statistics to pummel your adversaries into submission.
Defining the Damned Thing
A horrifying manoeuvre from which there is no apparent escape.
I have to confess, throughout my years as a professional information architect, I've had a secret mentor. I'd like to share his identity with you now:
Happy New Year!
As it seems to be a common pattern with me in recent times, this post has been long in the making and even longer in the thinking. And I'm not done yet, really, but since the 10th IA Summit in Memphis, Tennessee, seems to have expanded our horizons in novelty ways, I have a feeling the times are ripe for a first attempt at my tuppence on the subject. What subject? IA, IxD, UX, and where we stand, of course. And thanks to JJG.
Posts are in the numbers, but I'm not going to recapitulate years of “I think IA is this and UX is that”. Eric's piece
on this very blog is a good starting point if you want to look into the nuts and bolts of definitions, practice, and business. And it's a good one as well, with interesting comments, so read it. But I'm concerned with the bigger picture. I'm all for big pictures, you know: I'm a big rock, small rock kind of guy.
The Summit was a pivotal event in a number of ways, and comments are already online that capture this tension (Erin Malone here
, Cennydd Bowles there
), but I'm mostly interested in what our man Jesse James Garrett's said in his closing plenary. He was provocative, inspirational, and offered some strong arguments against the divisiveness, the factions, the current creeping tribalism. I hope you were there to listen to it. If you were not, I hope someone will post a podcast somewhere sometime. Let's recap a few things Jesse said, and as I'm calling this up from memory please correct me if I get it wrong.
Everyone listening to JJG
All rejoice in UX
Jesse wrote “IA Recon
” in 2002, and there he maintained that the role of information architect and information architecture were two distinct concepts and that the right message focused on the discipline. The role would follow. In the plenary, he said he was wrong, he changed his mind, and now can see the light. There is no such thing as IA. There. Small numbers and a bad economy have played their part, petty fighting for a place in the sun has helped along, and so forget about IA and its pal IxD: we should all rejoice under the larger, warmer UX umbrella and call ourselves user experience designers and be done with it. We cannot stand divided (hey, Eric).
Now there, hold your horses.
What are we talking about? The practice, the business? Then I as many others have no issues with this. A number of influential people have already expressed their view on this: Chiara Fox
, Richard Dalton on the IxDA Discuss ML. Fine. Businesses want to advertise for UX designers? Want to put a UX on your door? You want UX on your card? Fair enough, mostly because there is no preventing that. This has to do with the market.
Role, label, discipline
But if we are talking field of study, or discipline, I do have issues. You bet I do. And I have already argued in “IA Growing Roots
”, co-written with Dorte Madsen and Katriina Byström for the February ASIS&T Bulletin, that role, label, and discipline are different concepts we should handle separately, yet we continue to confuse them. Seems common sense enough but confusion is aplenty nonetheless, so let me make my point clear once again in the less formal context of this blog. And for the sake of discussion let's use discipline as a word meaning “the field”, no further connotation, no strings attached, as even that might be a matter of contention. Thank you.
The role has to do with what my duties are on my job: what my practice is, if you will. On one level there is no direct correlation between role and label, as I'm not changing the latter anytime I perform duties which are not strictly related to the core of the former (say invoicing a customer as opposed to analyzing the result of a card sorting), but of course on the other hand the association between the two is vast, especially when they touch on boundary areas, as it happens with IA and IxD for example. This association is usually the center of the debate: we tend to define everything from here. I do therefore I am, I am since I do. What I do is what I am. And labels vary wildly for a number of reasons: people get bored, love to come up with new funky definitions, companies organize and reorganize, IA is young and unsettled, and the times are fast.
Build the tools: they'll build us
But this continuous shifting influences our mindset as well: as Michael Wesch outlined in his keynote, we build the tools, then the tools build us. Chiara clearly illustrates this point in her post: she found herself describing her job as user-related, and not tool-related, and this helped understand it was time to reframe her 'label'. What strikes me is that she says nothing about her practice, she only talks about her mindset: I'm not talking wireframes anymore, I'm talking users. I guess her practice didn't change though: wireframes or whatever is part of her process are still there. It feels a lot like saying that my work is building houses, but since now I care more about the future inhabitants than the layout of the walls, I'm a UXD and not an architect, and you should do the same, as you should care about the “users” and not the bricks.
And even if she did change her practice to reflect this new mindset, well, does that instantaneously make every other different practice obsolete? I'm not sure of that. But my point is, we are still talking about labels. Names. Surface. We need to go deeper than this, as even the relationship between being and doing goes deeper.
Being and doing
I have a background in Architecture and Industrial Design and I'd be an architect even if designing window displays for shops. My label might say differently, especially if working inside a company, but that wouldn't change the fact that I would be doing window decoration as an architect would, and not as a painter or graphic designer. I'm sure Chiara's view on “the user” is radically different from mine, she coming from LIS and me coming from ergonomy and design. We need this common view, the body of knowledge Jesse was talking about, much more than another discussion on names, but if we want to go all the way with labels, here's my view in a nutshell: as much as a physician can specialize and become a cardiologist or a gastroenterologist, so can we.
Generic and specific
Physician or doctor is the generic term, cardiologist the specific term. If UX is a larger umbrella under which IA, IxD, and other fields of expertise live, that would mean that I can be labeled both as a UX designer practicing IA or IxD, depending on my current tasks or job position or specialization, or as IA or IxD tout-court, much like a physician would.
Both of these are fine with me. What's important is that we do not loose focus on the big picture: as much as the current generation of IAs and IxDs is LIS people, graphic designers, anthropologists, biologists, whatever (in a '90s sense, I think), who have a working practice of IA, future generations of IAs and IxDs will also see practitioners who have Masters or Bachelors in IA or IxD. They are there now completing their courses, and will be on the market soon: shall they all be called UX designers nonetheless? I don't know. Might be, as far as that is a job title they might get on top of their academic skills. And we will see people with a UX degree as well, as Karl Fast anticipated in his closing comments, who will be UX2 then.
The discipline side of things
If this is the “profession” side of things, what about the discipline then. Well, let's say it again: this is not debatable, there is such a thing as Information Architecture, and it does not overlap 1:1 with what we call User Experience, as much as color theory does not overlap with painting (and sorry for the bad example). We still don't know much about it, and that's the main reason behind the founding of the Journal of IA, but it's definitely there. And if Jesse was arguing for a definitive get together of IA and IxD and whatnot even on the discipline side, I'm there with him, but I do not see this happening easily. Nor today. Once you draw lines, it's difficult not to see or follow them. Just check the number of books or academic courses on IxD to have an idea of what I'm talking about. We might have started the machine, but now it has a mind of its own.
So, profession, yes maybe, but careful about framing the future within the present; discipline, no thank you. It might be me, but I say this is still mostly DTDT. Jesse was brilliant, captivating, and I'm listening. But really interested? Sort of, but not that much.
A most important issue
And I'm afraid this is obscuring something much more important Jesse said at the beginning of his talk, one single vital observation the community should ponder upon with great care. He asked the audience who were the best IAs out there, and he got names. As his was one of them, he said well you all are taking my word on the fact that I'm the best, as you are not judging what I do, but what I say about what I do.
And he had a point: the community at large has a strange fascination for words and little interest in deeds. The top guns we all look up to might or might not very well be those who can talk the talk and walk the walk, as we seem to care little for facts and figures. It's true that any community or discipline normally has a fair share of doers (say Gehry) and a fair share of sayers (say Loos, whose writing largely exceed his practice), and some who are so talented to be both, great achievers with strong opinions (Le Corbusier comes to mind). But right now, as far as the IA/UX community is concerned, where are the works? And mind you, I don't mean they are not out there, as I think they mostly are, but do we know who did what and to what extent?
Pick a book on the history of architecture, and you'll see that it has to do with artifacts. Now pick a book on IA, and you'll find words, theory, propositions, manifestos, and grand visions. In the best of cases early stages or draft ideas. Where are the artifacts we can discuss? I see this as the one great divide we have to overcome in order to mature as a field and achieve a richer deepness. We need critique, and the tools to do that (Erin's piece is spot on on this). I also see this as much more urgent than how we should call ourselves.
Big rock, small rock, and chorizo sausage?
One final note for those still wondering what the hell is the title about. It goes all the way back to EuroIA 2008, Amsterdam, and an Argentinian restaurant. It was a fairly large crowd and conversations were abundant, and someone came up with how IA is tightly coupled with the digital domain. Eric, me, and someone else for sure, have some kind of naïve idea that once the first caveman decided to have a pile of large rocks for building and a pile of small rocks for hunting the roots for what we call today IA (whatever) were laid out. We were challenged on this, and since we had a couple of different cold cuts still in the plate, we kind of made the point by arranging chorizo sausages in groups and patterns. Big rock, small rock, chorizo sausage. That's it. And I'm sure Peter Bogaards will appreciate.