“Micro IA and content that travels” - Sara Wachter-Boettcher at EuroIA

 by Martin Belam, 30 September 2012

I’ve spent the last couple of days at EuroIA in Rome, and I’ve been gradually making my way through publishing all of the notes I made. So far I’ve covered talks by Gerry McGovern, Peter J. Bogaards, Birgit Geiberger & Peter Boersma, Raffaella Roviglioni, Jonas Söderström, Andrea Resmini & Eric Reiss, Jim Kalbach & Carola Weller and Hermann Hofstetter & Gregor Urech.

I’m nearly at the end now - on Saturday morning I saw Sara Wachter-Boettcher bring content strategy to life for an IA crowd.

EuroIA Rome 2012

EuroIA Rome 2012
by Martin Belam
All of my notes from the 2012 EuroIA conference in one ebook, featuring coverage of talks by Gerry McGovern, Peter J. Bogaards, Andrea Resmini, Eric Reiss, Jim Kalbach, Carola Weller, Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Stephen P. Anderson
Available free for iBooks, for Kindle, and as a PDF

“Micro IA and content that travels” - Sara Wachter-Boettcher

“Information architecture gets hard when you are dealing with lots of things. And it gets infinitely hard when you are dealing with lots of things that have to appear in lots of ways.” - Sara Wachter-Boettcher at EuroIA

Sara Wachter-Boettcher gave a great overview of why IAs should care more about content. She posed the question “How does content travel?”

Too often we expect it to appear across a wealth of devices and screens and services, but we’ve managed to get it stuck as great big unstructured blobs in pages, making it impossible to re-use. We also, she reminded us, need content that travels across languages and cultural barriers, and we want to have content that serves everybody, regardless of how they access it.

Sara suggested that a lot of the traditional IA tools like site maps with hierarchy, wireframes based around desk top views, and content audits are no longer enough.

She illustrated this with a great case study which she described as “learning the hard way”. In 2009 she worked on a project to re-develop a state tourism site for Arizona. It should have been a brilliant project, but it was ultimately frustrating, she said.

After launch, she’d look at the page for an interesting town like Flagstaff, and find random events listed, canned copy, unrelated links, and a smattering of manual tags. The page wasn’t useful for planning an itinerary, and worse, because Sara had spent months auditing the content, she knew it wasn’t telling people about the amazing Americana on Route 66 that passed by the town, the haunted places to stay, or the great local cuisine scene, even though those articles existed.

Things got even worse when a mobile site was built the year after. They took a sample of the content and slurped it into a separate database, so that, for example, you could only find one restaurant listed in the town. Eventually they took the step of putting a page in front of the mobile site which offered a choice between the mobile version, the “full” site, or “forget this digital malarky, we’ll just post you a printed guide”. Since the organisation actually got measured on how many guides they distributed, they were quite happy when people did that.

The solution was to put more structure into the content, and rebuild the CMS so that content was modelled around the relationships between entities, rather than just as a series of articles. So cities have restaurants and attractions that belong to them or are near to them.

A CMS redesign with more boxes to fill in can be a frustrating experience for the content producer if you can’t see the value it generates, but that certainly wasn’t the case here. Rule-sets on the front-end meant that related content really worked, for example, if a city had a national park within an n mile radius of the town, those details would get added to the page. It meant pages began to sell the city they were about, with content that made sense, and which was useful for the tourist.

Incidentally, it is very easy to get mired in debates about what is content strategy and what is IA, but personally I welcome anyone coming to the party with a determination to make better digital services, regardless of their job title or discipline. Unless it includes the words “ninja” or “rock star” of course.

Personally, I don’t always see much new in content strategy presentations or the deliverables shown, but then I have to remember that I have usually worked in businesses who are all about content, where content is the product. There are a host of websites and digital services out there being built by companies for whom being a publisher or a repository of content is a relatively new development, who sorely lack or under-value these editorial, IA and content skills. That’s why I thought Sara’s talk was so powerful, because the case study really showed how getting to grips with the structure of content could make a difference for the end user.

She herself said this isn’t a problem for one group of people to tackle, but it is a solvable problem. It isn’t new. It’s IA, brought to the micro level. There is, she explained, more pressure on content than ever before - we expect it to do more, go further, and be more re-usable. Digital content has gone from “we’d like this to be usable” to mission critical for a lot of businesses.

She suggested that IAs needed to re-visit the traditional idea of the content audit, and add some extra dimensions. With a type of content you need to understand what is secondary, what is incidental, what is the core element that makes it meaningful. This wasn’t just about chucking everything into a database, but was a really human process, where people mould the content an organisation is going to publish. If you don’t want your content to be useful, why publish it at all?

Sara’s book - “Content everywhere” - will be published later this year by Rosenfeld Media.


Next up will be the last of my session notes, from Stephen P. Anderson’s closing plenary session: “What am I curious about?

This is one of a series of blog posts about the talks I saw at EuroIA 2012 in Rome. You can download the whole lot in an ebook for iBooks, for Kindle or as a PDF

“The dirty magnet” - Gerry McGovern
“Helping businesses to tackle a ‘wicked problem’” - Peter J. Bogaards
“Process & People” - Birgit Geiberger & Peter Boersma
“An agronomist’s unexpected path to UX Design” - Raffaella Roviglioni
“Responsive IA: IA in the touchscreen era” - Martin Belam
“‘Stupid bloody system!’: Bad IA in the workplace” - Jonas Söderström
“On beauty” - Andrea Resmini & Eric Reiss
“RITE: Testing and a business driver” - Jim Kalbach & Carola Weller
Building a coupon app for iPhone - Hermann Hofstetter & Gregor Urech
“Micro IA and content that travels” - Sara Wachter-Boettcher
“What am I curious about?” - Stephen P. Anderson

You can also download all my notes from the previous EuroIA in Prague as one PDF or as an ePub document.

Keep up to date on my new blog