“Content types” are among the least understood, and yet most potent, aspects of user experience and web design. Most people encounter them for the first time when implementing a grand-scale content management system (CMS) because you have to define content types before building templates for each kind of content you’re going to publish. (Everything I know about content types began with Bob Boiko’s Content Management Bible, and I recommend it to anyone facing a new CMS.)
Because they associate content types so closely with CMS, some make the mistake of equating content strategy with content management. They’re not the same thing, though they are certainly related. Your content strategy specifies the content types that will then be modeled for your CMS.
I want to take some time, then, to tell you what I understand about content typology, so that you’ll be able to address content types in your strategy.
Types: The original model
In English, we almost always use the word type as a synonym for “kind” or “sort.” “What type of cake are you baking?” or “What type of car did you buy?”
More precisely, however, a type refers to the “original model” for something.
A Type is the basis, the foundation, the primary class, or the standard, upon which all instances of something are modeled, and against which all examples of that thing are compared. A Type describes the thingness of a thing, which is recognizable, no matter how much variation is evident among all the things.
For example, mammals are a particular type of animal. Since we were in primary school, we have recognized the fundamental characteristics of that type: Mammals breath air, they bear their young live, they nurse their young, and they have fur of one kind or another. The mammalian type, however, is almost infinite in its diversity throughout the world, and there are even some examples that “violate” the type—like platypuses. Yet as a type, mammals are pretty clear, whether they walk, swim, fly, or climb.
In exactly the same way, every piece of content on your website (for that matter, every piece of content) has a primary type. Quick examples include articles, press releases, product specifications, photographs, graphic charts, customer reviews, blog posts, demonstration videos, support manuals, login splash screens, order forms, et cetera ad nauseum. In one way or another, everything on your site is content, so everything has a content type.
Content modeling: The practical craft of content typology
Content typology, or the study of content types, is the basis of the craft of content modeling. Content modeling refers to the designing the content type and its metadata or other data requirements.
Let’s take a “speech” as a working example. Imagine that you work with a political candidate’s website during an election campaign, and you decide that you’re going to make audio, video, and transcripts of that speech available. What are the basic elements of that speech? Obviously, there is the speech itself, which at the very least is text spoken to a crowd.
The speech probably has a title.
You might also want to provide a summary or abstract of the speech, so that people have some idea of what it’s about before they start listening, watching, or reading.
There are other elements that go along with the speech, such as the date it was delivered and the venue where it was delivered. It may have been delivered to a particular audience.
So far, we have a simple content type that looks like this:
Now it starts to get fun. What other information (or “metadata”) do we need to capture to round out our speech, especially if we want to make it general enough to serve a variety of circumstances? Why don’t we add the following metadata to the type:
- Speaker (to accommodate running mates or other stumpers)
- Topics (covered in the speech)
- Pullquotes (for visual interest)
- VideoFile (url)
- AudioFile (url)
The video and audio themselves probably constitute their own content types, and so would have their own metadata associated with them, like duration, format, and filenames.
Pretty good, but there’s more we can do. The next step is to get more specific about these elements of the Speech content type:
- How long can the title be?
- Which elements are optional, and which are required?
- How many pullquotes or topics can an speech have?
And then, for the management of that content type, there would be yet more information to help keep it organized:
These are just a few examples of the elements that might be incorporated into a content type. There are many, many more you could use, depending on your specific needs. You design your content types to do what you need them to do.
Compound and combination content types
But a content model specifies not just the bits and bobs that make a content type, but it also describes how one content type relates to the others.
As a further example, imagine your favorite cooking site. Each recipe is based on a recipe content type, with ingredients, quantities, instructions, and perhaps a little blurb talking about where it came from. But there is probably also a place for you to rate the recipe and review your experience of trying it out. Your content model probably doesn’t specify that all as one, humongous content type, but rather an interrelation of the recipe with the user ratings, reviews, and pictures types. Each recipe page becomes a compound of interrelated types to make up a whole page template. Go to your favorite cooking site now, pick a recipe, and count the modules of related content types. The number of types on a single page can be staggering.
Describing how all those content types go together will be essential for communicating the content design to the interaction design, the visual design, the information architecture, the systems design, and any other part of the process of getting a site built and running.
Why worry about content types?
Content typology may seem at first an abstract, esoteric, and fussy field of study. (When carried to its ecstatic extreme, it can be, and some of us loooooooooove it like that.) But identifying and paying attention to your content types is eminently practical, for to neglect your content type design is to put your content in imminent danger of inconsistency, poor usability, and utter chaos. The benefits are manifold.
1. Content types define all requirements specifically and precisely
Designing clear content types will become crucial when you begin building templates for your CMS. If you begin loading content into your CMS and then discover that you’ve overlooked a critical part of that content, it’s hard to go back to make changes. The more specific you can be during content type design, the less confusion there will be when your template developers start working, and the fewer unpleasant discoveries you’ll make when building your webpages.
2. Content types can be styled consistently
If your content types have consistent elements, even if some are optional, then your visual design can address each element consistently, and you will have achieved the utopia of separating structure from presentation. (But that’s a post for another day…)
3. Content types provide instructions for creating the content
If those who create or prepare your content for the web know exactly what elements they have to craft, they don’t have to make it all up from scratch.
4. Content types are by definition well-formed and can be migrated
When your content is well-formed, that is, when its structure is clear and consistent, when you do eventually have to build CMS templates for that type, you’ll (ideally) be able to translate that structure into whatever form you’ll ever need, whether storing it as XML or in a database. When you change CMS or platform, you should be able to get your content out whole because anything that is well structured should be accessible to programming.
5. Content types let you mix and match content across your site
When you have sorted all your content into clear content types, you’ll be able to put them into different combinations and publish them in many places across your website. In fancy parlance, this is called “content re-use and aggregation.”
Content modeling isn’t everybody’s favorite party game, and like any design discipline, there is a rigorous craft to doing it well. It is essential, however, for any content manager to understand content types and the care and attention they require. No matter where your content is in its lifecycle, its usability, its consistency, its effectiveness, its reuse, and its regeneration all depend on managing its underlying type.