Coordinated, Coexistent Architecture: Types, Taxonomy, and Turf

I’ve just finished a little project for a county government. The goal was to consolidate many distinct departmental websites into one site, on one platform (Drupal), while creating a new user-centered design to improve accessibility and still providing a departmental view of the content. I came into the project for implementation; others had already done the design, which provided a completely revamped, visitor-friendly navigation, and that design had been approved by the client stakeholders. My role was to help figure out how to build it, since I’ve had some experience with Drupal.

The situation, of course, will be PAINFULLY familiar to many…

Content owners think in “departments”

Each department has its own services and programs, and it has its own perspective on how things should be organized. As the reality of this new user-centered design sank in, the content owners started to ask, “Where’s OUR department site? Where are all OUR services and programs?”

I think that many redesign projects fail when in a well-intentioned response to these questions, the champion for user-centered design says, “We don’t have ‘departments’ anymore…” In one phrase, the whole implementation is plunged into jeopardy.

Beyond that, there is a design principle that says a piece of content should have only “one location” in the site architecture, and thus are drawn the rigid lines for the irreconcilable conflict: Either you have a user-centered design or an organization-centered design.

I think that’s a false dichotomy. We are no longer limited by having to put content files into directories on a web server. Fortunately, this was Drupal, which for all its perils as a “flexible” platform (i.e. “mind-bogglingly complex”), it can accommodate many simultaneous approaches to most challenges. We really can provide a solution to please everyone.

NB: It should go without saying that there will be as many solutions to this puzzle as there are drupalistas, but here is the solution I proposed and delivered.

Goals for the solution

I think it’s important to lay out my goals for making this multi-architecture work for all the users:

  • Make URL paths, breadcrumbs, and menu navigation absolutely consistent. It seems a simple thing on the surface, but it is not so easy to do.
  • Provide complete visitor and departmental views of the content, without disrupting the user experience for either visitor or content authors. In other words, I wanted for content authors to be able to put content exactly where they thought it should go, yet have it show up (also) where visitors expected to find it. I reasoned that if visitors knew the departmental structures, they would go there first.
  • Minimize “development” by relying on Panels and Views to provide dynamic templates. If you know Drupal, you probably know that the Views and Panels modules, both by @merlinofchaos, provide an alternative to the “one site, one template” native approach in Drupal.

Here’s a chart that illustrates the parallel architectures. The green navigation illustrates the visitor-centric navigation, while the cyan navigation shows the “department” door into the organizational view of the content.


Visitor paths based on taxonomy

Drupal has a robust taxonomy engine, which has been augmented by many community-contributed modules to extend taxonomy to other aspects of site structure, including menus, paths, and breadcrumbs. I chose to implement the user-centric paths into the content by vocabularies in the taxonomy—one vocabulary for each path.

At each step in the path is a Panels page that can be configured to show the most popular and newest content “bubbled up” from deeper in the vocabulary, as well as a view of the terms that make up the rest of the path. At any point, the visitor can step off the path to see the content directly, or go deeper.

Organization paths based on content types

I also took advantage of the powerful Drupal content typing engine to provide a completely parallel set of relationships, beginning with the “Department” type, then adding other content types, which then could “belong” to the department:

As one follows the organizational path, just as with the taxonomy-based paths, Panels pages pull content dynamically to create a complete departmental subsite that will be clearly recognizable to the departmental staff—and any visitors who know that they need something from this content.

References make it work

Whenever a piece of content is created, in addition to its substance, the author associates it with a Department through the entity reference, then tags it with the terms of the visitor-centric vocabularies, so that it can appear anywhere it needs to. In addition, however, there is an additional, structured “topic” tag vocabulary that will ensure that the site search can pull appropriate results, regardless of its departmental or visitor path tags.


When entering content, the author chooses where in the paths it should appear, so that it can appear in more than one place.

In conclusion, Drupal’s flexibility makes it possible to please everyone. The visitors get a site designed to address their particular interests and tasks, while the organization gets the administrative arrangement that it recognizes. Although it’s a fairly straightforward approach to describe, the implementation was actually very tricky, but that is the nature of Drupal. It is really a developer’s tool, built by developers for other developers. That is to take nothing away from Drupal’s power as a platform, but it is a fact that non-developer site builders have to face.

Content Declension: Adaptive content for the Hierarchy of Information Needs

Last week, I wrote a piece called, “A Hierarchy of Information Needs.” It described one way to think about how an information seeker’s question, problem, or interest at any moment can, in effect, blind him or her to other content, no matter how it’s formatted, nor how much the content’s creator wants it to be seen. Usually, the need for the “ephemera” of life becomes the dire matter to be resolved first.

That got me thinking about how else one might use the idea of a hierarchy, which led me to this pondering:

Consider how often a content owner would like for your content to be the most important thing in front of an information seeker at a moment. Let’s say, further, that the content is a full, well-created, powerful “story,” which will bring lasting value to the information seeker, if only you could get it to shift down the hierarchy, from “story” to “reference,” to “ephemera.” If only your content could be fleeting, you reason, and if it could wink out of existence as soon as it’s served its purpose, then it would be seen, explored, and valued in all its fullness and glory.

Content “Declension,” or manifesting your content at each level of the “Hierarchy of Information Needs”

I’m going to call this process—of setting off a content cascade through the hierarchy—“Content Declension,” which I will further call just one process of “Content Grammar.”

In many languages (other than English), nouns “decline” to suit the context in which they’re used. They take different prefixes and suffixes, and sometimes they take on entirely different forms, in order to communicate their role in a sentence, roles that are called “cases.” As a basic example of how this process works, you’ll recognize the vestiges of this process in English:

He is the subject, and the subject is about him, and his story is fascinating. 
(Nominative case he declines to dative case him, and then to genitive case his…)

OK, it’s a thin example, but Content Declension is the process of establishing patterns and formats for the different cases (or “contexts”) in which your content appears.

When you are creating content, it is vital to consider how it will be able to satisfy your information seekers’ most immediate needs, while providing paths deeper into the whole content. In one sense this is about creating useful, meaningful abstracts of your content, but it’s also about establishing consistent formats for each level, so that no matter what the underlying content, it will be clear how it all fits together, and where you are at each level of the content’s inherent “hierarchy.”

Let me use a blog post as an obvious example. This is easy-peasy on a printed page, since the article appears in a fixed position and format. In digital publication, however, the content declensions are complex.

full_storyWhen we think of the full article, standing alone on an HTML page, the answer is easy: We have the full “Story” form, with all its parts, in all their glory: All the text, the byline, the images and videos, as well as the comments, contact links for the author, and perhaps legal information, too.

At the side, however, is another box, called “Related Stories,” which is a “Reference” content component. With a glance, you can see other content you may want to read, but you don’t have to go there if you don’t want to. Inside that container are the stories’ “Ephemera” declensions. They probably include the headline, a thumbnail, a lead-in blurb, and maybe the byline. It just depends on how the designers chose the elements.

So all together, in this example, we have to plan three declensions of the same content: The full Story, the Reference, and the Ephemera— the same content, in three case forms.

It is vital to consider all the contexts in which your content will appear to the information seeker: In sidebar lists, in search results, in printed documents, in content links, and even in URLs. The more you can plan for the contexts in which your content appears, the better you can present it in a form (and format) that will suit the seeker’s present need.

Why is this important? It’s another step in making your content “adaptive” in preparation for “responsive design.”

But there are contexts, and there are contexts.

recent_postsFor the content of our time, there are infinite possibilities for what content is going to show up where, on what platform, in what physical context, and on and on, as we as content strategists are painfully aware. We have also been introduced recently to “responsive design” as a method of resolving some of that uncertainty and “adaptive content” as a way to teach the content about itself, so it can communicate its topics and other meta-properties to the design, so that it can shift.

But I would say that there is an additional property that we have not yet systematized, which is “content context.”

  • What happens when this content is called as a “link?” What do you, the content designer, want to present as the properties in the link?
  • What if the “link” is in a “related links” container? Should it be the same “link” as when it appears in the “Search Results” list? How can the metadata communicate which content ephemera should appear when it appears in one context or another?
  • How can we ensure that when this story is called from a blog post, it declines in one way, and when it’s called from a Twitter feed, it declines differently?
  • What if you want to provide hooks for other contexts, so that related content is served up in some contexts, but not others, when someone else is specifying the display?



A Call for the Next Evolution of Standards: Content Grammar

Content declension, as a standard, would need to address two issues. First, it would require that content experience designers imaging the functions and contexts in which a full version of content might appear, so that a responsive design could address differences in display for different contexts.

But it would also require that we establish a standard system to name these contexts, like any other evolution of markup. We would need to say that a link.related-links would be different from a, to be followed by the fields, attributes, or properties that should appear in those cases. Something like that.

As Content Strategy is evolving, we are uncovering new questions and puzzles related to the “substance” of the digital universe, and I think this is an important next phase, like the “semantic web,” we might call it the “grammatical web.” I expect that if we sit here some more and think at it long enough, we’ll come up with more “Content Inflections,” like “Conjugations.”

Let me know what you think.


The PDF Tar Pits: Where content is trapped, struggles, sinks, and dies…

I’m working on a small government web project at the moment, and I was asked to assess the content to propose some content types. As I have looked across the landscape, there were very few content types, really. But then, as I continued my survey, I noticed these suspicious, dark black patches. I couldn’t see beneath their surface, so I started probing, moving closer…THEN, I was caught in sticky, black goo that started to pull me under, as panic rose in my throat…

Caught in the PDF Tar Pits

This is web content that was authored in MS Word, converted to portable document format (PDF) files, and then uploaded to the website, rather than loading it into a content management system (CMS) as text and images. PDF document libraries sprawl insidiously across the internet landscape, trapping living, breathing content in their depths, ossifying into solid rock—unusable, un-reusable—until some content strategist chips away the asphalt to discover the bones of content that is probably extinct, or at least years out of date.

I understand how these PDF libraries are created and why. Really, I do. It’s easier to have content owners whack up content however they want, then just toss the PDFs online, rather than spend the time to consider the content carefully, giving it the time, attention, and respect it deserves.

Let me offer, though, some reasons for helping to pull the poor, thrashing, doomed content back out of the tar.

  1. Oh, PDFs are searchable, so it’s OK to dump…er…upload them.

    It’s true. Adobe over the years has made provision for lots and lots of embedded metadata, so it’s easier to find them. But while search engines can index PDFs so that they can be found, the real human beings who are searching for that content cannot scan them to see whether it’s the content they’re seeking without opening them. Don’t make your visitors become content excavators. Don’t make them open that PDF to skim it.

  2. But this is how I want it to look.”

    It’s true. There are many times when our designers spend hours creating beautiful, high-end, printed publications. That’s good. That’s their art and craft. But creating print-ready publications does not release us from the responsibility of making all that content directly accessible as html text and images. You can certainly make BOTH available, as indeed you should.

  3. We’ll just make a content type for PDFs.”

    It’s true. It is indeed important to have content types to represent files in libraries, ready for download. They need to make their metadata available to the CMS, so that appropriate related files can be offered up alongside other primary content. But when text and image content are caught in the PDF tar, their own content type is masked. Unless the content is pulled from the PDF, your CMS cannot manage the true content types correctly. Files of the “PDF” type will be indistinguishable, one from another, all sticky and black as they are.

  4. This is how we got it from the content owner, so that’s how we’re going to publish it.”

    It’s true. Content owners own their content. (I know, it sounds silly.) They spend a lot of time, laboring in MS Word to format it just so. When they hand over their œuvre to you for posting, you’re stuck between appreciation of their efforts, compassion that they spent so much time on it, and horror that it’s going to require stripping it of all its format before it can be reformatted for the CMS. If you have content owners who are open to the liberation of “just give me the text,” then you can make their lives (and yours) easier, and the content escapes oblivion. If not, then although it means a longer road, reformatting the content will take you safely around the tar.

  5. PDFs of unstructured documents can never be reused as structured content.

    Finally, the most important reason for eschewing the PDF is that when content owners create MS Word documents, they almost never—like, ever!—understand the difference between “format” and “structure.” So they skip blithely through their document, clicking bold here, italic there, and changing fonts and colors according to how they think it will communicate their intentions, without capturing the meaning of those formatting changes in the structure of the content. If unstructured documents are then converted to PDFs and put online, they will be unusable as structured content, and meaningless to semantic search.

Time to Drain the Tar Pits

The simplest guidance you can give your clients, content owners, and stakeholders is to reserve PDF files for content that has been designed to be printed, and then only as a supplement to the live web content. You can probably get away will making PDFs available for content that no one will ever really need, like legal reports and other specific content types that will actually be easier to consume as printed documents rather than as web documents. Even in those circumstances, abstracts of that content should be posted, so that content consumers will be able to preview the documents before committing themselves to downloading them.

Worst-Ever Unsubscribe Experience

Every now and then, I let a retail cashier sign me up for the company marketing e-mail newsletter, mostly to see what they’re doing for e-mail marketing. OMG! I have to say that Books-a-Million (BAM!) has won an award with me today.

I decided, based on sheer volume of e-mail and the ease of ordering from Amazon, to unsubscribe from BAM’s mailing lists. You know how it’s supposed to go; there are standard practices: Click the unsubscribe link and you get a message, “You have been unsubscribed.” Easy-peasy. Not so with BAM.

Here is the footer of the last e-mail message I ever wanted to receive from BAM:


It says, "Click here, and you'll fill out a new e-mail message."

So, if I click on the link and a new message is supposed to open, that tells me that the code underneath must be:

<a href="">here</a>

…or something like that. No. It’s actually a link to:,etc,etc...

When you click it, a new tab opens, and several minutes–minutes!–later you see:


Whose options are THESE???


…and so, I had to select “unsubscribe” from every little drop-down, for unintelligible mailing lists. It was easy, since I’d already decided I never wanted to receive anything from BAM again. And another several minutes later, the page confirmed thusly:


Oh, good. It worked...?

Now, there are too many things wrong with this scenario to list them all, so I shake my head and wonder: “Why would any developer build such a cryptic and horrible interface?–too awful to contemplate.

Books-a-Million, you have a serious problem in your e-mail marketing department. I hope you can track it down.

Postscript: Several HOURS later, I noticed that I had to click the “unsubscribe” button AGAIN to make it final. Sheesh!

Common Sense: Don’t believe everything you think!

Paul Krugman has a great editorial in the New York Times today, wherein he criticizes economists (and the Minneapolis Fed’s president in particular) for saying that unemployment is deeply rooted and therefore difficult to solve. It begins like this:

“What can be done about mass unemployment? All the wise heads agree: there are no quick or easy answers. There is work to be done, but workers aren’t ready to do it — they’re in the wrong places, or they have the wrong skills. Our problems are “structural,” and will take many years to solve.”

And then he said something that sounded a gi-normous gong for me:

“But don’t bother asking for evidence that justifies this bleak view. There isn’t any.”

I encounter this phenomenon time and time again in my efforts to advocate for the users of the websites for which I’m responsible. Content owners will come to me with all sorts of statements about who’s using their content, what they’re using it for, and why the way they (the content owners) think the content should be formatted, organized, etc. is the best way for their users.

But when I ask, “How do you know that?” They immediately perceive a roadblock to accomplishing their objectives. When I show them survey results that call their statements into question (even if the data don’t contradict the statements directly), they get angry, and tell me that they’re the content owners and that it should be done the way they want it. I’ve taken sometimes to calling some of them “data-free.”

“Common Sense” is a dangerous basis for strategy…or almost anything, for that matter. In fact, rather than  common “sense,” we ought to call it “Common Presumption.” If I were to upack the sentence, “It’s just common sense,” I would restate it as:

“This is what I believe to be true because it draws upon a reservoir of beliefs held by people who are like me, who see things in the same way as I do, and who are close to me, and so we don’t need to look any more closely at the situation.”

Why is that? Why do people not want to look more closely at the situation? Why do people not want to know the “truth” about the phenomenon they understand by “common sense?” And more importantly, why do we allow each other to get away with it?

I think part of the answer is fear: Fear of being proven wrong. Fear of having to rework an entire understanding of the universe. Fear of having to work out a whole new set of principles about how it all works. I can sympathize with those reasons. It’s exhausting (and it’s also why psychotherapy takes so much work). A little bit of information can be a fundamental threat to one’s worldview.

But on the other hand, why else are we engaged in this work? Content owners: Don’t you want to know that you’re accomplishing what you say you want to? The cynic would say, “Probably not. They just want to check off their objectives for the Balanced Scorecard.”

I don’t have any simple answers either. In the United States, we’re not really taught critical thinking anymore. Some of the skills come from science and math, it’s true: The scientific method is deliberate and at its best, is to be used precisely to counteract “common sense.” But some of the skills are part of art and literature, too: Being able to distinguish our own perspectives from others’. Being able to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously and to interpret where they do and don’t cross.

To my content owners (and yours!) I say, “Don’t believe everything you think.”–At least until you ask your users directly and gather some evidence to see whether you’re right.