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Content Strategy • The Content Strategy n00b

Taxonomy: A “Disambiguation”


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I was not able to attend the several workshops on “taxonomy” at the recent WebContent2010 conference (#wcconf) in Chicago: Tough choices were made. Yet I think I got a lot out of those workshops because of the seriously faithful tweeting coming out of them, and when I said so to some new friends, they almost all said, “How? I didn’t understand any of it…overwhelming.” I replied that when you follow a tweetstream, you only see what people understand, already interpreted for you. (Which is a recommendation, really, to follow conferences you can’t attend: Done well, the tweets will give you at least the essential points.)

Amid the summary tweets of the workshops’ content, however, I saw comments such as these:

“A workshop and a session on taxonomy and I’m still confused. Is it just me? #wcconf” – @EvanKittleton

“Ouch. My head hurts. Taxonomy not an easy beast to wrestle. #wcconf” –  @cc_holland

A lot of the confusion centered on how the idea of taxonomy relates to—and differs from—other elements of Information Architecture, such as sitemaps and navigation. Are they the same thing? Is it just your metadata?

With the guidance of my best-bud colleague Becky Bristol as technical reviewer (@paintingblue) I’m going to try to “disambiguate” it, that is, to explain and clarify.

Disclaimer: I’m an explainer, not a taxonomist, so if you’d like to help with the definition, please by all means chime in.

The Roots of Taxonomy

“Taxonomy” is an ancient scientific practice. It means to find names for things. In naming things, you try to figure out how sets of things are related to one another, so that each, unique item will not only have a unique name, but also a reference to the others to which it relates.

Taxonomy creates a hierarchy of inheritance, from general down to specific and back: A giant tree, on which there is a unique place for every item, like the leaves at the ends of twigs at the ends of branches connected to a trunk and running deep into the earth.

In order to build a taxonomy in the scientific sense, you have to create a framework that tells you how to name a thing. This is the “schema.” The most famous schema was created by Carl Linnaeus, an 18th Century Swedish botanist, to categorize and name life on Earth. It has eight, major taxonomic ranks:

Domain -> Kingdom -> Phylum (botany)/Division (zoology) -> Class -> Order -> Family -> Genus -> Species

If you’re REALLY geeky, you can lay it out in Latin:

Regio -> Regnum -> Phylum/Divisio -> Classis -> Ordo -> Familia -> Genus -> Species

There are only certain terms you can put into those fields. Imagine drop-down boxes from which you MUST choose. Let’s try it on ourselves, humans:

Domain Kingdom Division Class Order Family Genus Species
Eukarya Animalia Chordata Mammalia Primates Hominidae Homo H. Sapiens

When the terms don’t apply at a certain point, then you get to pick a new term, which at that point, creates a new branch. If you find a new item in nature, something that hasn’t been named before, you get to name it yourself, but you will use the same set of terms down the tree as far as you can to demonstrate your new species’s relationship to all other life.

Taken altogether, this classification system becomes the official way of understanding the whole world of animals, plants, and bacteria. Taxonomy is powerful because it is universally adopted: You could try to work out a new system, but then you’d have to explain it to everyone and get buy-in for it to mean anything to anyone else but you. It is at this point that we make the transition to the Web…

Taxonomy on the Web

Now at some point, the word “taxonomy” was appropriated by information architects to talk about web content. When one discipline borrows from another’s, the meaning and use of the term can change significantly, and so “taxonomy” doesn’t mean to the web professional quite what it means to the biologist.

A website’s taxonomy describes how all the content relates to each other. Through its rigidly controlled network of meaning, there is a way to say with confidence:

“Item X and Item Y are in the same group. When you look at Item X, you may also be interested in Item Y.”

We take this kind of connection for granted these days because Amazon and other e-commerce giants have made such ubiquitous and successful use of taxonomy to sell related things, but it’s really quite difficult to establish those kinds of relationships in your content without taxonomy.

In summary to this point, then, “taxonomy” on a website is a classification system that maps all your content to other content. Taxonomy on a website creates a scaffold that holds your content together.

Not one taxonomy, but many

It gets a little more complicated from here. Whereas in a biological taxonomy, we’re dealing with only one dimension of relationship, the ultimate relationship of one species to another through its name, on a website, there can be many classification systems to govern the relationship of content along many dimensions.

Let’s take with a clothing retailer. The most basic taxonomy would divide the products into groups of “kind” to answer the question, “What article of clothing is this?”

Clothing for the upper body

  • Shirts
    • Blouses
    • T-shirts
    • Polos
    • Turtlenecks
  • Jackets
    • Blazer
    • Windbreaker
  • Sweaters
    • Cardigan
    • Pull-over
    • Vest

Clothing for the legs

  • Pants
    • Dress pants
    • Jeans
    • Shorts
  • Skirts
    • Full-length
    • Wraps
    • Culottes (really a hybrid)

Accessories

  • Jewelry
    • Rings
    • Earrings
    • Watches
    • Necklaces
  • Belts
  • Hats
  • Bags

So far, so good. We have a system for identifying items by basic type. But that’s not so good for sales.

There will be, then, additional taxonomies to build up a multidimensional system that organizes products into classes: For women or men, girls or boys; for casual, work or formal contexts; for outdoor or indoor; by color; by season; by ethnic origin; and so on, and so on…

But that’s just the products. There will be other content that accompanies these products, and all that content must also be organized into categories.

  • “How to” content might include tieing neckties, caring for leather, assembling an ensemble for an evening out in Paris.
  • “About us” content might go through all the ways that this company works for environmental activism.
  • Product information might include stories about where the materials came from, or who made them.

The taxonomy must account for all these dimensions of content description and classification, so that when you pull up the product page for that pair of shoes you’re considering, you also can see:

  • What other colors are available?
  • What other shoes are in its class?
  • How do you care for them?
  • What accessories would complete your outfit?
  • How have other customers worn this item? (From their photos)
  • How long it would take to get them if you clicked the button right now…?

Taxonomy implemented through metadata

All this work of understanding the interrelationship of content has a specific and practical end: Metadata.

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the process of developing taxonomic systems and how they are then translated into metdata for your web content. It is crucial, however, to recognize that having a clear, controlled system of metadata, which is then meticulously and consistently connected to your content, is the only way to ensure that your search and coordinated applications serve up the content the user expects, in the language the user expects, in combinations that make sense to the user.

Rich, interactive experiences require taxonomy

Creating rich internet applications (RIAs) is partly about the technology to evaluate and serve up all these connections, but it is impossible without care, design, and maintenance of your content’s taxonomy.

Again, unlike our scientific counterparts, there can be no, single, universal taxonomy for web content because each content domain has its own context of purpose, vocabulary, and peculiarity.  There are commercially available taxonomic systems to get you started, but they all have to be evaluated for your specific purpose, and there will always be adaptation of the metadata.

Taxonomy, Navigation, and Sitemaps

A lot of the confusion in the workshops dealt with how a website’s taxonomy relates to the other aspects of its information architecture. As we explore these concepts, keep in mind that when done well, the taxonomy is completely invisible to the user. It just makes everything run smoothly.

Sitemaps

The sitemap reveals the website’s overall organization. Every bit of content on a website needs a primary “home.” Ultimately, when you reach a content item, you are (virtually, of course) in a particular location on the site. The information architect’s job is to choose from the infinite range of organizational possibilities to anchor the user experience, which then is the foundation for the richness that the taxonomy creates.

The sitemap probably will reflect some basic aspects of the taxonomy underlying the content, but when you consider the richness and complexity described above, any relation between the sitemap and the taxonomy will be loose.

Navigation

Navigation is more closely related to the sitemap than to the taxonomy. The main navigation provides the user an organized path around the website, intended for browsing. Like the sitemap, it may reflect some aspects of the taxonomy, but it doesn’t have to.

The taxonomy will enable, however, the local navigation options through access points to content elsewhere on the site, reached through the relatedness of content.

IAs help you put it together!

It’s the job of information architects to work all these intricacies out. The skills for designing the taxonomy and associated metadata are extensive and precise. The content strategist helps to define the content domain and the language that will best represent it, but the IA will be able to build an organizational framework that links the content domain with the technical wizardry that serves up the user experience.

In conclusion, as my best-bud Becky says, “There is no right or wrong way of [creating taxonomy]. The trick is to come up with a taxonomy that works for your users.”

I hope that this article has helped to clarify the definition of taxonomy and its application. Please offer corrections, amplifications, and clarification. It’s a matter to wide importance, and we need to get it right!

Toward a taxonomy of content


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This week, @dhh from @37signals published an article on the insufficiency of the term “content” to mean…well…content. I understand. It’s like how I love the container label “resources” or “tools” to hold all sorts of items: People always seems to suggest them for labels, yet when you turn it around and ask, “So…what would you expect to find in a drawer with that label?” The only possible answer is “Resources.” So helpful.

“Content” is in many respects an unhelpful label because it’s often expanded as “everything on your website.” While it can be useful to distinguish the “stuff” on your site from the “design” of your site, or its “architecture,” “content” doesn’t tell you anything about what kind of content you envision there, nor what that content is supposed to do.

Why “content” isn’t enough

There are practical ramifications to the term’s generality. When “content owners” are talking about what they own and want to convey, they themselves are rarely able to put it into specific buckets, let alone craft the contents of those buckets to succeed for their intended audience. Recently, I was working with an HR group that wanted to “update” their content. I suggested that they “explain” the HR processes and policies, which hadn’t necessarily changed, and so didn’t need to be updated. It caused a big fright, though, because no one had ever undertaken to “explain” how it all works, and suddenly it was all at risk of being revealed and clear. They weren’t sure they wanted to go there.

So I have been considering trying to classify content, literally into “classes,” according to what those classes “do” or “intend.” These content classes differ fundamentally from content “models.” A content model is the encoding of a parcel for a content management system, comprising the metadata and components that bring it to live on the web page. Content classes are more like your content goals. For example, you have a paragraph of text on a web page (or a video, or a photo, or a chart). That content is sitting there trying with all its might to do something. What is that something? Is it a description? Is it an explanation? Is it an opinion? Is it a sales pitch? If you don’t know what that content is trying to do, how can you tell whether it has succeeded? The answer will be specific to that class.

For exmple, an “explanation” intends to make something clear to the reader, or at least to answer the reader’s question. Has the reader understood the explanation? At least we know the right question to judge its effectiveness. Another example: An “overview” intends to give the user a good sense of all the material covered in a particular area. Can the user, after having read or watched the overview, describe the general layout of the material about to be covered?

A Taxonomy of Content

I offer this first attempt to classify to engender conversation in the Content Strategy community. I’ve just brainstormed it into existence today. I want to highlight that these classes are irrespective of “medium.” A block of text, a video, or a drawing might all be intending to accomplish the same goal. So while you might think of text initially as you read these classes, try to think also of other media for doing the same thing.

As I’ll explore later on, these classes and subclasses can then be combined into compound and complex systems of content.

Exposition

Most content is just straight out “expository.” It relates some topic, it teaches something, it expands an idea, or it conveys a series of facts or ideas in prose. Some of the sub-classes of exposition might include:

  • Definition
  • Explanation
  • Instruction
  • Description
  • Biography
  • Story
  • Demonstration
  • Interpretation
  • Exploration
  • Comment
  • Analysis
  • Theory
  • Framework
  • Translation

Evaluation

Content often offers an evaluation of something, whether a product, a vacation, an idea, or a candidate. There are many types of evaluations on the web, from blog rants to customer reviews. These include:

  • Recommendation
  • Critique
  • Review
  • Report
  • Comparison
  • Opinion
  • Rating
  • Complaint

Summary

A summary is different from an exposition because it reduces content into a more focused, compact form. We use them all the time:

  • Overview
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Context
  • Abstract
  • Conclusion
  • Bullet
  • Update
  • Profile
  • Message

Persuasion

There are many kinds of persuasive content, much of it marketing, but sometimes it’s just trying to win over people’s views or call them to action. We might think of:

  • Advertisement
  • Case
  • Position
  • Slogan
  • Call
  • Invitation

Announcement

Communities rely on brief bits of information that call attention to things. I call these announcements, but they also include all the practical messaging on the website:

  • Warning
  • Notice
  • Error Message
  • Alert
  • Reminder

Boundary

Content that draws the line around a topic or field of endeavor indicates a boundary. Lots of web content is specifically intended to draw lines around thing, like the terms of service, or the return policy.

  • Rule
  • Priority
  • Specification
  • Standard
  • Guideline
  • Policy
  • Protocol
  • Procedure
  • Terms

Inquiry

Any effort to gather information, whether practical or rhetorical, fits into the inquiry class.

  • Question
  • Survey
  • Request

List

Web pages are full of lists, of all kinds. A list is a fundamental content class, and includes any simple collection of items:

  • Gallery
  • Sequence
  • Inventory

Reference

Reference content simply points to other content somewhere else. Like in a paper when sources are listed at the bottom, or when one article points to another, related article. These include:

  • Link
  • Citation
  • Source
  • Date

Enrollment

Every form to sign up for something, and any shopping cart to buy something, and any commitment to receive e-mail blasts fits within the enrollment class.

  • Registration
  • Subscription
  • Purchase
  • Application

Location

Location content just helps in wayfinding. It includes signs and signals, maps, breadcrumbs, navigational links, and menus.

  • Map
  • Position
  • Path
  • Coordinates
  • Directions
  • Navigation

Plan

Content that makes the expected course of action clear is a plan. Conference programs, educational curricula, and menus of options might go here. I’d also include processes.

  • Agenda
  • Process
  • Curriculum
  • Menu

Identification

A lot of the content on websites serves to identify things, like product names, company logos, intended audiences, authors, article titles, list headings, and even deep in the code, the “class” assigned to html elements.

  • Name (Title)
  • Target
  • Logo
  • Icon
  • Label
  • Heading
  • Example
  • Class

Data and Visualization

When we publish data, we often include some sort of visualization. Among this class you might find:

  • Schematic
  • Chart
  • Table
  • Dataset
  • Model
  • Fact
  • Statistic
  • Illustration
  • Photograph
  • Organization chart

How content classes become content types

OK, so if my ideas are helpful, if you were looking to build a new kind of content for your website, you could use these classes to make sure that you ended up with a full content type. Taking the example from my previous writing about content modeling, if you were launching a cooking site, each recipe might draw upon a whole series of classes:

Recipe

  • Description of the dish and its origins
  • List of ingredients, and perhaps of the tools required
  • Instruction in the preparation of the dish
  • Demonstration of the more obscure, technical steps
  • Specifications for the quality of ingredients, the times to cook, and the temperatures.
  • Illustration of particular steps and the final product.
  • Recommendations for serving, or for adjustments from other cooks’ commentaries
  • Plan for a complete menu to accompany this dish, and perhaps a schedule for make-ahead preparations
  • Ratings from other cooks who have made this dish

Just the beginning…

In conclusion, I think of this sort of taxonomic exercise as important both to combat overly-general labels and to provide some way to evaluate content effectiveness. If you find this kind of approach helpful, let’s see whether we can’t build it out into some useful framework.

Sophie’s choice: Well-crafted content or empowered content owners?


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It’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate a hard truth about myself: I’m a content geek. I know I’m not the only one. If you’re reading this post, you’re probably a content geek, too. But if you’re like me, the realization that you might be fundamentally different from the normal people around you has been a long time in coming, and it’s only after years of stripping the formatting out of other people’s documents and spending more hours in “code view” than in WYSIWYG that it becomes clear: Not everyone can do what we do.

And as a content manager, I have a terrible choice to make: Do I apply my content geek powers toward crafting web content myself, or do I hand the keys of my CMS over to the content owners, who say that if only they had access, they’d create and maintain all their own content?

This is a timely question of content strategy because not only does a content strategy shape the form and substance of your web content, but it also specifies how it gets designed and produced. So who’s going to do it: The geeks or the owners? Two recent blog posts make the case very well:

Seth Gottlieb at Content Here debunks the “Myth of the Occasional CMS User,” and calls all organizations not to believe the promises:

“Often, one of the big justifications for a CMS is removing the webmaster bottleneck and delegating content entry to the people who have the information. The implicit assumption is that everyone wants to directly maintain their portion of the website but technology is standing in the way. But if you visit a CMS customer a while after implementation you are likely to find that the responsibility of adding content is still concentrated in a relatively small proportion of the employee population.”

Jeff Cram at The CMS Myth expands on Gottlieb’s post and advises that you “Stop Letting People Use Your CMS.”

“So, I’ll take it one step further than Seth. Stop letting people use your CMS unless they are an integrated part of your web and editorial team and need to be in it on a regular basis. Even then, they may not need to be in the tool.”

What is Content Craft?

Being a content geek—at least for me— means that I see the crafting of content through insect-like, multifaceted eyes:

First, there’s the substance of the content. What is it? For whom is it intended? What’s its underlying message? What are we expecting it to accomplish?

Second, there’s the fashioning of it. Have we chosen the right language, the right images, the right arrangement, the right granularity, and the right length to accomplish our goals?

So far, so good. Any good writer can do as much.

But then, there’s the structure of the content. Not in the sense of how the piece is composed, but of the technical aspects of the headings, the various kinds of paragraphs, the selection of appropriate keywords for linking to other content, and it’s position within the website.

THEN, there are the content modeling and metadata. How is this class of content the same as or different from other classes? Into which section of the site does this content go? How will it be tagged so that it comes up in the right places or at the tops of searches? Can I really build this specific set of attributes into my CMS templates?

And finally, there’s the markup. What HTML elements are we using (and NOT using)? How have we chosen identifiers and classes for the CSS code, so that it reads like Ibsen in the source view?

Content geeks can manage all these facets like playing with Legos. We have an instinctive compass that points true north: We connect the pieces across web space and keep the links consisent.

Subject Matter Experts, Not Content Experts

Once upon a time, I was all about empowering my content owners. I tried to teach them the difference between “bold” and a “heading.” I tried to teach them to use “styles” in MS Word, rather than formatting each piece on top of “normal.” I showed them how beautiful and consistent content could be when you paid attention to these simple details, how you could instantly reshape the whole piece by shifting templates. Their eyes would just glaze over, or they would simply decide that it was far too much work. Now, I’ve decided that for the really important stuff, I do it myself, and with pride.

In the end, there is a profound difference between subject matter expertise and content crafting skill. Every now and then, the two can coincide in a single human being. For the most part, however, when content owners pour their subject matter expertise into web pages, someone else ends up going through it to “clean it up,” not out of a pathological need for beautiful code, but because the whole user experience will be best served by clean, consistent, well-crafted content. And isn’t our website really there to serve the visitors?

The Bottleneck is the Real Work

When your CMS sales rep sings the praises of the system you’re evaluating, and especially how content owners’ creativity and productivity will be unleashed because they won’t need any “technical skill” to build web pages, don’t you believe the bull. Publishing web content takes technical skill and time, no matter what system or tools you use, and just as in every other professional endeavor, it is best entrusted to web content gee…er…professionals like you and I.

The Information Gathering Spot: Addressing the Terrible Truth About People and Information


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When I served as “information strategist” for the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio from 2000 to 2006, I was responsible for connecting over a hundred parishes, over two hundred clergy, and over twenty thousand communicants with the bishops and diocesan staff, and with one another. In the year 2000, the main diocesan communication channels included the US mail, phone calling trees, limited e-mail use from personal lists, and a diocesan newspaper that came out eight or so times per year. There was a website maintained by a volunteer, but this consisted mainly of parish listings, intended for people outside the Episcopal Church.

Now, I’m married to an Episcopal priest, so I had a particularly personal stake in how the communications went. The clergy’s main complaint was that every day, as many as ten identical, No. 10 business envelopes arrived from the diocesan offices. Because they were indistinguishable one from another, they tended to sit together in the inbox until they could turn their attention to them. Besides these envelopes, there was no easy way to find out what was going on in the life of the diocese, the practical quotidien information.

We were locked in a non-communicative tug-of-war:

  • Parishes and Clergy: “Why didn’t you tell us?”
  • Diocesan Staff: “We did. We sent you a memo.”
  • Parishes and Clergy: “There are too many envelopes—we can’t read all that!”
  • Diocesan Staff: “If you don’t read your mail, then there’s nothing more we can do.”

When I broached the subject with my colleagues on staff, they were not terribly sympathetic: “I read MY mail; why can’t they read THEIRS? They read their mail at home, don’t they?”

So when information was important, we would mail a letter, transmit a copy by fax, shoot an e-mail to let them know it was in the mail, then follow up by telephone to make sure it was received.

I call this strategy “redundancy in pursuit of certainty.” Sound familiar? Has it worked for you? It didn’t work for us, either. In fact, redundant communication produces the opposite effect: The more you “communicate,” the less people pay attention to you, and the smaller their capacity to absorb and retain information.

“Internal communications” often go this way in organizations everywhere, large and small. The technological innovation of the “corporate intranet,” introduced to eliminate precisely this struggle, hasn’t changed it very much. Why not?

The Terrible Truth About People and Information

Truth 1: People will not know a thing until they are ready to know it.

  • You know how you can be walking down the same street you walk down every day and you suddenly notice a building and ask yourself, “Has this building always been here?”
  • You know how you can plan a big community event for months, and you send out “save the date” postcards well in advance, then send personalized invitations, then advertise it on the local radio shows, then hang big, colorful posters all over town, and then the day before, one of your biggest donors can call you up and say, “I just found out about the [event], and now I can’t make it. Why didn’t you tell me about it sooner??”
  • You know how your mother always told you “blah-blah, blah-blah-blah, blah-blah” for years and years, and then one day, you find yourself in a real fix, and you suddenly realize that this is exactly the situation she tried to tell you about all those years…
  • You know how Glinda the Good Witch of the North shows up at the end of the Wizard of Oz, and announces that Dorothy’s always had the power to go home to Kansas, but she hadn’t told Dorothy that back in Munchkinland because “she wouldn’t have believed me; she had to find it out for herself?”

Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!

Truth 2: At that terrible moment, when they’re ready to know, they will ask why you didn’t tell them and complain about “poor communication.”

Then something “clicks,” the stars move into alignment, or two people have a chance meeting where someone asks the right question, and BING! those same people are ready to “know” whatever it was. In that instant, it seems to them that everyone else around them knew this thing—why didn’t they know? How were they supposed to find out? There’s just no communication in this organization…

Truth 3: Nothing can change truths 1 and 2.

You can try any technique you want: You can send redundant e-mail blasts. You can call people up with reminders. You can post eye-catching posters and banner ads. It won’t make any difference. This point cannot be overstated: MORE communication only makes the situation WORSE. As Peter Morville pointed out in his book, Ambient Findability, the human brain hasn’t had a whole-version upgrade in at least 50,000 years (Morville, 2005, p. 45). Until we get one, we will continue to ignore what we’re not ready to know.

Mitigating the Terrible Truth: Create an Information Gathering Spot

Even though you can’t prevent the phenomenon, you can mitigate it. There are ways to improve the odds that people will “know” more often and more easily. They’re not self-evident, however, and they require measured, disciplined tactics over time. I call this strategy the “Information Gathering Spot” because it requires creating a central location in which all information is shared. I recommend it for any situation in which a large group of people–company, community, or society—needs to be in touch, and in which there is a formal body responsible for “communication,” say, Corporate Communications and an intranet.

Cultivate a single “line of sight” for your audience

Any PR person will agree that the über-goal of communication is to have everybody paying attention to you at the same time, so that when you have something important say, they’re already listening. Reaching this Nirvana doesn’t happen on its own, and it doesn’t happen all at once.

  • You have to build a relationship with your audience over time, raising your credibility as a communicator, and inspiring trust as a respected source of information.
  • You have to put all the information in one place, and direct their attention to it repeatedly and regularly.
  • You have to be consistent, on-time, without fail. Whatever system you as the communicator put in place, you have to use it—and get everyone else to use it—in the same way, on the same schedule, for all your information. Period.

Help people be “ready to know”

Permit me a botanical metaphor: The human mind is a fertile—if overgrown—field in which grow all the things we know. The information swirling around us is like seeds, scattered on the wind. When a seed hits a clear patch of ground and sprouts, that’s when we notice something and are able to know it. Many seeds, however, get caught in the underbrush, and they don’t hit the soil immediately, if ever. Eventually, they may, and then they sprout into something we know.

In order to help people know more things, you have to clear this tangled field:

1. Accommodate the natural hierarchy of information needs

Most of what people care about knowing is basic and mundane. If you look at the web analytics for my organization’s intranet, for example, the most popular piece of content is—by far— the cafeteria’s lunch menu, followed closely by the online phone directory and the system in which you look up your paycheck.

This should come as no surprise to anyone: People need to satisfy their stomachs and their wallets before they can think about anything more “ethereal” like our “shared vision.” By providing immediate access to these “reptilian” items, your audience has more attention to pay to other, more “mammalian” things.

2. Make clear why people need to know, and what they’re supposed to do next

People cannot take in “useless” information, and “useless” is entirely in the esteem of the beholder. If it’s unclear why they need to know something, they will dismiss it even before considering it. But marking something “urgent” or “read this!” only confirms its uselessness. Your information needs to convey its own utility and next steps, and this is, of course, the skill of writing.

3. Structure and format your information to be skimmable

Ben Shneiderman, the eminent researcher in the field of information visualization, has made this “Visual Information Seeking” mantra famous: Overview first, then Zoom and Filter, then Details-on-Demand (Shneiderman, 1996). Whether it’s datasets or news items, the principle is the same:

Your users need to be able to skim at a high level (“Overview”) to get a sense of what’s there, then to focus their attention on the categories or subsets of what interest them (“Zoom and Filter”), then to grab the full detail on any single item that they are ready to know (“Details-on-Demand”).

Share responsibility for sharing and seeking

Here are the keys to making this whole strategy work. You have to:

  • Transform your concept of “communication” from a one-way broadcast to an all-way information exchange.
  • Lower the barriers to participation in the system. Everyone must have some access to posting information. It can be moderated and modulated, but people need to feel that if they have something to share that will be of interest to the organization, they’ll be able to get it out there.
  • You have to train your organization to take responsibility for sharing what they know and seeking what they want to know. No one gets to sit back. No passive consumers. If you want people to know something, you put it out there. If you’re a member of this organization, you go see what’s there.
  • You have to redefine the role of the official “communicators” in the organization from the being the single source for creating and distributing information to being the facilitator of this organic information ecosystem.
  • You have to establish a new social contract for knowing: If people don’t use this sytem to make information available, they can’t expect people to know it. If people don’t use this system to find out what’s going on, they can’t complain about being in the dark. In pursuit of this contract, the “communicators” pledge to maintain an easy-to-use system to which everyone has appropriate access.

It’s as audacious a goal as you’ll undertake, but the return on investment will be huge.

Creating an Information Gathering Spot in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio

When I began working for the Diocese of Ohio in 2000, I had built only one website of about six pages for my home parish, using MS Publisher. Because a volunteer was maintaining the diocesan website and my own experience was limited, I started fresh on a new, separate website. I invited a few members of my stakeholders for a strategic focus group, to ask them what information they really needed and how I could best provide it to them. They were great: They were practical and had reasonable expectations. They needed to know about events and deadlines, and committee meetings. (There was no central diocesan calendar of events, by the way.) They needed a place to get forms and other documentation. They needed to know about changes in the life of the diocese, particularly clergy changes. They needed all this information to be current and easily accessible in one place.

Based on their input, and on my own research into other diocese’s communication vehicles, I built a four-page website I entitled The Bulletin. If you’d like to see its humble beginnings, go to the “Wayback Machine” internet archive:

The main page of The Bulletin was called the “BulletBriefs,” which in simple, categorized, consistently-formatted bullets, showed news and announcements, new documents available for download, new events on the new diocesan calendar, and the next meetings of diocesan committees. Each bullet was linked to one of the other three pages: Calendar, Downloads, and Stories. I invited everyone in the diocese to send me the information they wanted other people to know, which I then entered manually into the web pages. I made this pact with them:

  • If you give me five minutes every Wednesday, I will make sure you see everything that’s new this week.
  • If it’s not in the Bulletin, you don’t need to know it.
  • If you can’t get your information in by Wednesday, you can’t require others to know it, at least until next week.
  • I will make sure that the information is consistent, skimmable, and well-organized.

Every Wednesday, I sent out an e-mail note to any who wanted it, letting them know that the Bulletin for the week was updated and ready. Whenever people asked me questions that the Bulletin could answer, I would tell them what they wanted to know, but I also let them know where they could find it out for themselves. This continual—if you’ll excuse the expression—evangelism was crucial to the strategy’s success. Over time, people offered suggestions for how to improve its usability, and so the design evolved.

Ultimately, the Bulletin became the framework upon which the entire diocesan website was built, and in response to user requests, the Bulletin turned into an automated e-newsletter informing recipients what’s new in the diocese, and linking back to the website. Although I am no longer on the staff of the Diocese of Ohio, the Bulletin still goes out every week.

Creating your own Information Gathering Spot

The principles of this community-based content strategy are almost primitive, yet they can reshape the corporate sense of what communication is and how it works:

  • Everyone who has information shares.
  • Everyone who wants information seeks.
  • The communicator provides and maintains the place for sharing and seeking.

If you keep these simple ideas in front of everyone, in a few years, your organization will find it strange that communication could be done any other way.

Works Cited

Morville, P. (2005). Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Shneiderman, B. (1996, September). The Eyes Have It: A Task by Data Type Taxonomy for Information Visualizations. IEEE Visual Languages , 336-343.

The Mythic Bestiary: Content Owners


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Shhhhh! Look over there!

The Neverland of content strategy is full of wondrous creatures. We invoke their names in meetings. Their titles appear on project plans. We assign them tasks and responsibilities, and we expect them to deliver. Of these legendary beasts, none is more elusive than the Content Owner.

Though we never see them working, like little elves, content owners mysteriously fill our web pages with high-quality, completely relevant, irresistible content. Chanting their spell of “lorem ipsum sit amet dolor…” they spin strawcases to gold and keep every project on-time, etc., etc.

Some of their powers they claim for themselves, and some we confer upon them:

Content owners want responsibility for creating and posting content.

If only we gave them complete freedom and access to the content management system (CMS), content owners could—and would!—take full responsibility for creating and posting all their own content. There would be no more bottlenecks! They would follow the styleguide. They would keep content fresh and current. And of course, because of the CMS’s WYSIWYG editor, they wouldn’t need to learn HTML or tagging.

Content owners are content experts.

Content owners know exactly what they want and how it should appear on a web page. They know how the navigation should work and which labels will eliminate confusion. They require minimal technical support, and can be relied upon to make savvy decisions. This is because…

Content owners understand the deepest desires of their audiences.

Content owners are continually in touch with their audiences and understand their requirements intimately. They have no need of data or testing. They have no time for research: Their content is too important for research, anyway. When cornered and pressed to support their assertions, they turn nasty and threaten spells to bring down the wrath of the C-Suite.

But if you ask me…

I don’t think Content Owners really exist—certainly not in these mythical terms. It’s all superstition, fairytale, and wishful thinking about some of the hardest work in publishing: Content Strategy.

There is no easy path to successful content, and the hard work cannot be foisted off onto content owners, even if they’re real—and real good—people serving in that role. They can be invited to help in the production process, but it’s too much to expect of them that they can do it all.

Yet on the other hand, content owners need to understand that they can’t do it by themselves. Content ownership is not content dictatorship. They may indeed know the information and subject matter that eventually becomes content, but it is precisely because they own it that they are not in the best position to turn it into good content. It requires distance and collaboration with content strategists.

Content must be planned and created in the context of all the disciplines of user experience. We can’t rely on elves or fairies—or even content owners—to make it happen by magic.