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Why information architecture matters (podcast)

In episode 138 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Gretyl Kinsey and Christine Cuellar talk about a common content strategy trap: what happens when information architecture (IA) is missing, and why you need IA.

“Without IA, you can’t get the most value out of your content. When we think about things like the time it takes to create your content, or getting benefits out of it like reuse, saving money on your translation costs, saving time to market on your translation, all of these things really make your content work for your organization. If you don’t have solid IA in place, it’s going to be really hard to do those things and truly get that value out of your content.”

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Christine Cuellar: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way.

In this episode, we talk about a common content strategy trap, what happens when IA is missing and how you can avoid it. Hi, I’m Christine Cuellar, and today I’m joined by Gretyl Kinsey. Hey, Gretyl!

Gretyl Kinsey: Hello everyone. How are you?

CC: Good, how are you doing?

GK: Doing well.

CC: Thanks so much for joining the podcast. So in a previous podcast, you and Bill were talking about some common content strategy pitfalls, and you briefly touched on this topic, but we wanted to unpack it a little bit more today because it seems to be something that’s commonly resurfacing. But before we dive in, I’m going to pull the newbie card. Gretyl, can you tell me a little bit more about who you are, your role here at Scriptorium and some of the experiences that you’ve had?

GK: Sure. So I have been a technical consultant at Scriptorium for actually more than a decade now. I started as an intern in 2011 and I’m still here still learning all kinds of new things with all the different projects that we do. I mostly am on the content strategy and information architecture side, so that’s why I think it’s perfect that we are talking about IA today, that’s a lot of the work I do. I’ve seen all kinds of things from really, really ideal IA projects all the way to ones that needed a lot more help and a lot more guidance, and so have a lot of wealth of experience to draw on at this point.

CC: That’s great. So can you tell us what is IA for maybe our listeners that don’t know what that is?

GK: Sure. So if you’re unfamiliar, IA stands for information architecture and it is sort of a subcategory under the overall umbrella of content strategy. And IA specifically focuses on things like your content model, metadata, reuse, linking, basically how you plan to organize and structure your content and what decisions need to go into the process of doing so.

CC: Got you. Okay. So why does IA commonly get skipped or overlooked?

GK: There are actually several reasons that we see this happening. One of the big ones is just a lack of resources. So depending on the size of your company, how much budget you have, how much time you have to dedicate to content, how much content expertise that you have on board, you may or may not have the resources that you need to actually plan and create a good IA. So that’s a big reason why it might get skipped. Another one is just not prioritizing content until it’s too late. So maybe putting the resources that you do have into other areas and really thinking about content as more of a last minute or a last resort kind of thing.

And another one is a culture of disconnect around content. So in some organizations we will see a lot of collaboration around content and that can tend to lead to maybe a better thought out IA, but then in other organizations there may be content silos where you have different departments or different groups working on different kinds of content or different pieces of content, and we can see in organizations like that a general lack of collaboration.

And sometimes even if you’re not in silos and you are more interconnected with your technology, there may still be on the people-side, a lack of collaboration. So if there is that culture of disconnect around your content, then you’re probably less likely to have a good IA or to skip it or overlook it. And then another one is mergers and acquisitions. And this is just because when one company acquires another or when multiple companies come together, that’s going to give you a mix of the IA and content processes that each group may or may not have had before and maybe no clear winner. And depending on what other things are happening in that merger, then IA might fall by the wayside if, again, it’s kind of not a big priority.

CC: That totally makes sense. Okay. And why is it a problem not to have IA?

GK: Well, without an IA, you can’t get the most value out of your content. So when we think about things like the time it takes to create your content, getting some benefits out of it, like reuse and saving money on your translation costs, saving time to market on your translation, all of these things that really make your content work for your organization, if you don’t have a solid IA in place, it’s going to be really hard to do those things and truly get that value out of your content. Another reason why it’s a problem not to have an IA is because it makes it hard to deliver content as effectively as you could otherwise. And especially if you have a really heavy customer demand for things like content delivered in digital formats rather than print only, or if you’ve got a lot of demand for highly personalized content, those are the kinds of things that really require a solid information architecture.

It’s also really difficult to convert content from one format to another. If you have a need to do that, we see this a lot with, for example, going from unstructured content to structured content such as something like Microsoft Word or unstructured FrameMaker into data XML. If you don’t have a good information architecture for what you’re converting your content into, that conversion is not going to go very successfully because there’s not going to be the kind of consistency and structure and organization in your content that you need to make that work well.

And then of course, one of the biggest issues is that without a good IA, it’s very hard to scale up your content development processes. A lot of times content production can work really well on a small scale if you haven’t done a lot of planning and a lot of organization and thought about how your content is put together. But then as soon as your business starts to grow, you realize that you have to get a lot more content out the door a lot more quickly and maybe have it personalized for different segments of your customer base. Maybe you’re starting to translate for the first time and you’re just have this need to scale up. If you don’t have a solid IA in place, that scalability is also going to be really painful, if not, impossible to achieve.

CC: Yeah, that makes sense. I feel like growth is always such a good indicator of gaps and processes and it’s such a good time to take a look at things and see where you can change. So scalability is always something I feel like we come back to on our podcast and our blog post. So what are some of the examples from your work where these issues have come up?

GK: There are actually all kinds of challenges that we have faced here at Scriptorium with IA. So one of them kind of touches on what I mentioned in the last question, which is we were talking about taking your content from unstructured to structured. We see a lot of clients who are looking to do digital transformation, and so that’s going from more of a print-oriented life cycle to a digital-oriented life cycle for more flexible delivery. And a lot of times that does involve a move from unstructured content into structured content. And so, of course that does mean a major change is required in your IA. So that is not an easy one-to-one match if you are working in something like Microsoft Word, something desktop-oriented to start, and then you are going from print only to print and digital, some kind of a hybrid and maybe involving some personalized delivery in there. You’re not going to have a one-to-one match of what you had before in your Microsoft Word, your unstructured frame, your InDesign to what you have now that is going to put that digital delivery on the table.

So that’s a really big IA challenge to think about what is our implied structure in the content that we have right now that is more desktop publishing oriented, and then what does the structure need to be for something that’s going to allow us to have a more digital-oriented life cycle. So that’s always really difficult. It’s a long and oftentimes painful process, but it’s a necessary one. And it’s where I think for us, as consultants, we can really come in and help if an organization is struggling with that. Another challenge that we faced is helping content creators deal with the learning curve that comes with a new IA. And just like I mentioned on that last point about digital transformation projects, that’s where we tend to see a lot of us happen the most is that you’ve got a lot of people who are very experienced writers and experienced at that aspect of content creation, but they don’t have the experience of working with a more digital focused content life cycle and the IA required to support that.

So for example, if they’re going into something like data XML that would support a new digital life cycle, then they’re going to require a lot of knowledge transfer, a lot of training, and a lot of support all throughout that process because that learning curve is pretty steep. Another challenge that we see a lot is conflicting ideas around how the IA should be designed and built. And this is true whether you have one IA that you’re already working with and you’re looking to improve it or whether you’ve never thought about it before and you are just now realizing that you need to solidify an IA for your content. So there can be differences of opinion with different groups who are working on content. Like I mentioned earlier, if you’ve got those content silos and people who don’t work collaboratively, then they might have really, really different ideas of how the IA should be done going forward.

You can also have an issue where if an organization isn’t really getting adequate feedback from their customer base, then they don’t have that in mind how that should feed into decisions around how the IA should be built. And all of this is really where it can help a lot to get some outside perspective from a consultant. So when we come in and we see these conflicting ideas happening, we’re able to give them that perspective and say, “Here’s what we’ve seen at a lot of other organizations that might help you to learn from that experience. Here’s what we typically see as industry best practice.” And that can help resolve those conflicts and guide them through to getting an IA that’s actually going to serve their organization best.

CC: That’s great. It’s just like a tiebreaker, a third party to come in and be able to be that unbiased voice to give support for what’s going to be best.

GK: Sure, absolutely. And then another challenge that we faced is trying to work around aggressive or sometimes even unrealistic implementation schedules. And this happens a lot because the schedules are often set by non-content creators. It might be people and upper management people at the sea level who aren’t really in the weeds and don’t fully understand all the ins and outs of what’s required to create content, convert it from one format or structure to another, develop an IA that’s going to work for you going forward. And so, if there’s that tension with the schedule saying, “We have to meet this deadline because that’s going to affect our scalability, our other goals,” that can sometimes result in a project being pushed forward without adequate time to plan for your IA.

And then what that eventually causes is some messy situations where because you did not put an IA in place properly or didn’t think about all of the different things your IA might need, then you try to produce content and it’s not going to serve you in the way that you thought it would. So even though a schedule might be really aggressive, even though you might have deadlines, it’s still important to prioritize the IA and not let that be something that falls by the wayside in favor of meeting a deadline.

CC: Got you. So I’m curious to know a little bit more about pilot projects or proof of concepts. I know it was mentioned in a previous podcast and we’ve talked about it a little bit in some other places. Can you unpack what those are and how they may be able to help your developing a new IA?

GK: Absolutely. So pilot projects and proofs of concept are a really good way to mitigate risk when you are developing a new IA or changing an existing one or really doing any kind of change to your content processes. So specifically when we’re talking about IA, you could use a pilot project to try out a new IA that you are planning and thinking about on a small subset of your content and that can let you see what works and what doesn’t in real-time, give you that practical example, and that way you can make adjustments to the plan for your IA before you roll it out across your entire body of content. And then if you’re still trying to convince management that a new IA is a good idea, you’re trying to get the budget required to roll that out across the organization, then having a successful pilot project can actually help you do that. It can really convince people, “Here’s the return on investment that we’re going to get if we put this IA in place and here’s the proof that it’s going to work.”

CC: That’s great. Yeah, that’s really helpful.

GK: I also wanted to note that IA development does require a lot of flexibility. You are almost guaranteed to have to go through multiple iterations, you’re never going to get it perfect on the first try. And that’s why we do recommend a pilot project or a proof of concept because it lets you start small and it allows you to build in the room for that flexibility all throughout your project rather than being under that deadline pressure that I talked about. If you have that pressure to get it right and you know that that’s not going to work, then you’re setting yourself up to fail. So putting a pilot project in place, doing a proof of concept really just helps get rid of a lot of that risk.

CC: Yeah, absolutely. I’m sure it puts everyone’s minds at ease. So I’m curious if someone wanted to start a proof of concept or organization wanted to invest in these first, how do they do that?

GK: That’s always really interesting. It kind of varies from one organization to another, but where we see it often originate is there will be maybe a writer or a manager of a group of writers, one person who really sees an opportunity and isn’t at the level where they have the pull at the organization, where they have the budget, have the resources, but they do have the knowledge for, “Here’s an idea that might work.” And so, a lot of times these proofs of concept just originate from the ground up from people who are actually working on the content, and that’s what allows them to grow their IA and their overall content strategy for the larger organization.

CC: Got you. Yeah. So they’re the ones that are really recognizing the need, probably the ones also hitting the pain points, unfortunately, to say something needs to change. So that’s interesting. Circling back to your response earlier on that actually, when you mentioned that sometimes content isn’t a priority until it’s too late. Could you kind of unpack what could be included in too late? Either signs that it has been too late and we need to focus on content or some pain points that might be coming up to help you avoid getting stuck in too late.

GK: Sure. So one of the red flags that we see a lot that says, “Either it’s too late, you should have started planning an IA earlier or now is the time to start,” is that if you have a lot of inconsistencies in your content getting in the way of being able to take advantage of all it can do for you, that’s definitely a sign that you need a lot better IA planning. So if you are trying to do reuse for example, and you’re unable to do so because of how your content is structured, if you realize that you need to start translating into other languages, or maybe you already are, but you need to translate into a lot more languages and that’s costing you a lot of money because you can’t do reuse, if you are running into issues with publishing, so if you’ve got people requesting custom content or personalized content and you just are not set up to deliver that, all of those things because your content is written inconsistently, it’s structured inconsistently, that’s definitely a sign that you need an IA.

Another one is the inability to search your content or filter your content due to a lack of sufficient metadata. So metadata is a really important piece of your overall IA puzzle. And a lot of organizations don’t really think about how it’s going to be used both internally by content creators and externally by your audience, by your customer base. And so, if you haven’t thought about all the ways that people might need to search the content and find information they need, that they might need to filter the content down to delivering specific pieces to specific people or even filtering your search results, all these different ways that you can find the right information within your set of content, a lot of that is driven by having the right metadata in place.

So if you find that people are unable to do that, then that’s another one of those signs or pain points that says, “Okay, we need to rethink our IA and make sure that metadata is a big part of that and that we have considered that.” And then just like we’ve talked about several times throughout this discussion, challenges the scaling. So if you have issues with meeting your goals for growth and scaling your content up to meet that demand, then that tells you, “Hey, let’s go back to the ground up and think about our IA that we should have had in place all along. And then that will allow us to do what we need to do to scale up our content development processes.

CC: Yeah. So if any of those pain points sound uncomfortably familiar, that is definitely something that we can help with here at Scriptorium. So we’ll have a link in our show notes where you can contact us to get a conversation started. Gretyl, is there anything else you can think of that you want to share with our listeners about IA or anything else we’ve talked about today?

GK: I think the biggest thing is just don’t overlook it and don’t leave it out.

CC: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you being part of the podcast.

GK: Absolutely. Thank you.

CC: Yeah. Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.