“Topic maps, disambiguation, and multi-disciplinary teams” - Elizabeth McGuane at Content Strategy Forum 2011

 by Martin Belam, 7 September 2011

Download this, and all of my notes from the Content Strategy Forum as one printable PDF or in epub format for iBooks

This is my final set of notes from this week’s Content Strategy Forum. Elizabeth McGuane was presenting “Content is UX is design: crossing disciplines for fun and profit”

Elizabeth McGuane - “Content is UX is design: crossing disciplines for fun and profit”

Elizabeth McGuane was talking about her work with topic maps. She explained that she had never been on anything other than a multi-disciplinary team, because she was always the only “content person” on a project. She felt that the free, open, honest exchange of knowledge, skills and information was the only way to get work done anyway.

The particular project she was talking about involved something like 6,000 pages of content, a brand identity change, and the upgrade of the CMS from one that was years and years behind the curve, to one that was just years behind the curve.

The content audit told them that there was duplication all over the place, because, typical of many enterprise CMSs, the content management system didn’t actually manage content, it just published it. If the editors needed some help text to appear in a couple of places, they had to basically copy‘n’paste it and attach a new instance of the text to a new location.

So Elizabeth and the team set out to “design against duplication” and put all of the content into “adorable squishy little modules”.

The only problem with that approach?

“Adorable squishy little modules” are dreadfully difficult to explain to copy-writers, developers, and the people who approve content.

They felt they needed to develop a system to govern content re-use, and, via a detour into the difficult world of finding unique identifiers for movies, decided that the answer was “disambiguation”. As she put it:

“We all need to be talking about the same thing, and to be sure we're talking abut the same thing”

Elizabeth went on to point out that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page about disambiguation, and for a moment I was concerned that the internet was going to vanish in a puff of recursive smoke.

They opted for making a topic map. This took all of the unique concepts on the project, mapped them against who was working on them, and then mapped the business case for each bit of content against that piece of content. Clients, she said, love their promo boxes on the homepage, but showing them the business case for every element on the page and explaining how it is all focused on selling the product and the brand is a powerful tool, she said.

Using the topic map wasn’t all plain sailing, however. “As much as I love developers” she said at one point, it turns out that most topic map software is written by software developers for use by software developers, so are patchy when it comes to documentation and usability. One of the tools they used, for example, actually has a line in the documentation about the mouse being the biggest barrier to rapid data entry. Which is, of course, fine if you live by the command line and die by the command line, but not so good for those mere mortals amongst us accustomed to more of a point-and-click GUI world

Elizabeth wrapped up by saying that all documentation is about communication, and should only exist for a reason. And you should accept that people probably won’t read it. The ideal document codifies information so that it makes sense in any context. Sadly, she reminded us: “No document in the history of forever has ever achieved this.”

For a final point Elizabeth invoked the lazyweb. She dreams of a piece of software that takes the database approach of a topic map, but also allows content creation to happen within it, to free content strategists from the tyranny of Microsoft Word - “If somebody could just go off and build that, that would be awesome.”

This is one of a series of blog posts written at the Content Strategy Forum 2011 in London:
Download all the blog posts in one PDF or in epub format for iBooks
“How the Guardian’s custom CMS & API helped take content strategy to a traditional publisher” - Martin Belam
Gerry McGovern, Melissa Rach and Margot Bloomstein at Content Strategy Forum 2011
“CMS - the software UX forgot” - Karen McGrane
Lisa Welchman and Eric Reiss at Content Strategy Forum 2011
“Making sense of the (new) new content landscape” - Erin Kissane
“Agile and content strategy” - Lisa Moore
“Measurement, not fairy tales” - Catherine Toole
“Topic maps, disambiguation, and multi-disciplinary teams” - Elizabeth McGuane
You might also be interested in these notes on these talks from the August London Content Strategy meet-up:
Lisa Welchman, Sophie Dennis and Tyler Tate

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