The marriage of content strategy and information architecture

As a UX guy who’s worked in and out the web industry for about 20 years I’ve been exposed to some of the worst written web content you’re likely to see. I wrote it. Well, no one else was going to and that included the client and all of his/her colleagues.

“What are we going to put here on the homepage?”

“Oh I think Sarah’s got something.”

Except she hasn’t. So the web producer [me] hacked something together with a cheery, tongue-in-cheek tone that didn’t fit the brand nor addressed the audience as they would wish. I fully expected the client to see this awful copy and rush to replace it through the development server CMS. Except that never happened and the site went live with the howler still in place. Three years later it was still there.

Getting clients to commit to producing quality site content was always a massive struggle. The stories of clients who hand you printed brochures saying: “Here’s the content for the website” are true because they happened to me, more than once. I can remember producing basic content plans for clients and despite repeated attempts to get them to complete them, giving up and writing the content myself with little or no guidance.

My experience is pretty well summed up in this quote from Jonathan Kahn:

No amount of information architecture, interaction design, or usability testing can create a great user experience if the content isn’t useful or usable.

When I came to work at Optimal Usability I felt that this was an issue I’d left somewhat unresolved and it was something that still needed addressing, in my mind.

Working with clients at Optimal Usability we take an evidence-based and planned approach to website improvement. We like to measure the effectiveness of the existing site, making changes based upon the findings.

When creating or improving a site’s information architecture we are fortunate to have a set of world-class tools to work with, produced by Optimal Workshop. These tools demystify the process for our clients, producing easy to comprehend results and useful suggestions for moving forward.  We also have proven processes for developing page-level interaction featuring activities such as design workshops, iteration and user testing.

When it comes to the content however, many of our clients consider it is a separate issue from the usability of their site and something that can be considered later. As I’ve indicated, this has seriously puzzled me. Turns out I’m not alone, as this article in Alistapart shows.

Recently, I’ve been working with Melua Watson from Writeclick - an awesome content strategy company. I’ve been interested in how we can better cement the relationship between content strategy and information architecture and Melua has too, each of us from opposite sides of the fence. We recently worked together to submit an idea for an all-day content workshop at UX Australia. When we got accepted we were of course, really happy and excited until we realised we’d have to write a whole day’s training course in just a few weeks.

As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. Producing the course material identified the strong ties between the two disciplines and the course virtually wrote itself. Often the output from one activity from one discipline was exactly what was needed as the input for the complementary discipline. It was kind of spooky. Maybe it was because Melua and I have the same thought processes. That may be part of it, but I’d like to think that it’s mainly because these two disciplines are like twins separated at birth.

We ended up creating a simple six-step process that anyone tackling a website (re)design would be able to follow:

  1. Scope
  2. Research
  3. Plan
  4. Create
  5. Publish
  6. Maintain

Obviously there are a number of detailed activities in each of the steps, but it’s interesting to see that this process aligns completely with the User-Centred Design process that Optimal Usability advocates (those twins again - Melua is actually a twin, but I digress). This is hardly surprising since both processes are interested in a planned, measurable and repeatable methodology.

By applying this process the information architecture and content of a site can be planned and created, hand-in-hand.

Thankfully all of the sites containing my hack-job copy have gone to the great DNS server in the sky. Looking back at those earlier days I think many of my clients were ducking the content issue because they weren’t able to quantify and control the issue; it looked big and hairy to them and therefore they avoided it.  Armed with our six stage process and a little self-discipline I’m sure the world could have been spared my hack-copy!

If you're interested in following up, contact Martin here or check out Melua's blog post about the UX Australia content workshop.

Published on Sep 13, 2012

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