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Information Architectures for effective content management

Ian Barndt

Department of Communications IT and the Arts

Introduction

This paper examines some of the practical steps you might take to build an effective Information Architecture for knowledge sharing, effective communication and access to meaningful and coherent organisational content.

It outlines a simple information management architecture approach to connect staff, technology and the web, and we will examine some of the methods that have been used for establishing context setting frameworks and knowledge centres through web technologies.

It is important to note that this is not a technical discussion on the use of meta data, and is not a 'how to' guide, instead it offers a brief practical insight into the management issues and information system needed to support the development of web based systems. It illustrates some practical approaches for the development of Information Architecture for effective content management.

Information Architecture

In its simplest form an Information Architecture is a blueprint which provides a foundation for all other aspects of a site - form, function, metaphor, navigation and interface, interaction, and visual design.

Ideally this 'Blueprint' for the development and maintenance of content and services defines the relationship between content providers and clients. A well-developed Information Architecture should provide a simple and straightforward tool for sharing knowledge and a common understanding of the method to conceptualise content and its management, accessibility, navigation and 'look and feel'. It should be based on a sound rationale for the management and delivery of services and content by an organisation.

It is essentially a mechanism for obtaining common understanding, and to share knowledge about the form, function of content and online services. If developed and used properly it should provide a roadmap for long-term client relationships and the success of an organisation.

Characteristics a good Information Architecture

A good Information Architecture should use the language of the organisation. A simple, familiar vocabulary should describe the architectural elements without confusing or distracting the reader.

Before building your architecture make sure you have a sound understanding of the business of the organisation, its clients and the every day vocabulary used in its business interactions. Successful content management will depend on everyone having a shared understanding of the form and function of your content and the online services it will deliver. There is no point inventing abstract terms if users are not familiar with their meaning or context.

Elements of a sound Information Architecture

Collaborative effort and a shared vision are fundamental requirements for a functional Information Architecture. Strong business ownership encompassing a shared vision, realistic goals and alignment with business drivers are crucial for its acceptance and implementation.

The Information Architecture roadmap must describe the practical means by which the agreed goals will be achieved. Decision making processes should be clearly defined. Procedures for defining business rules should be formally agreed. Rules for resolving content ownership issues and other responsibilities should be clearly spelt out.

Critical requirements, assumptions and expectations must be discovered, tested and managed. Overlooking a fundamental requirement, allowing a basic assumption to propagate or allowing expectations to go unfulfilled, will compromise the potential outcomes of an Information Architecture.

Key challenge questions for an Information Architecture

Be prepared to ask the hard questions. Ensure the support you expect is forthcoming. Resolving issues once the content management system is in place may prove to be difficult and costly.

Use scoping questions such as 'What is the mission and purpose of the organisation?' to help set the context or 'metaphor' for content and services being considered. Clearly define and challenge the site goals. For example it is pointless setting goals such as 'the site will provide a collaborative environment' if the mission of the organisation is all about publishing final reports.

Understanding who the potential clients are and their expectations is important. More importantly, from the Information Architecture perspective, is gaining an understanding of what information and services the organisation can commit to offer and maintain online.

Be willing to test and challenge assumptions. For example: are the workflows in place to QA content? How long does it actually take to get something published? Can the various systems be put securely online in a reasonable time?

Conduct Market Research to determine what the clients really want. Check previous statistics and feedback, and find out who is really visiting the current site. What are clients saying and are there real procedures in place to answer their questions?

Promoting Change

An Information Architecture is a roadmap for change. Once implemented it will change the way the organisation operates and interacts with its clients and behaves internally. Ensuring that you have the key stakeholders on side is an important and critical step.

A useful technique such as Story Telling to illustrate your concepts. Create scenarios to describe how the architecture will work. To improve the chances of success ensure that your stories and scenarios are told from the stakeholder perspective. Conduct walk throughs to describe the content, information frameworks, models and navigation paths in a language that the stakeholder will understand, use real examples to map out the user experience. Be sure to draw both the internal and external perspective into these discussions.

You are about to change the way things work, so be prepared for the flak. Almost all of your ideas will change some aspect of 'how things are done around here'. Your Information Architecture will meet resistance, remember 'information is power' and you want business areas to share their information and management processes using a common content management solution. Look for consistencies and common approaches, build on examples of corporate spirit and goodwill, seek out champions and empower them with practical examples that can help them promote the architecture. Put forward examples of best practices in information management and draw on the executive boards for support and governance in difficult situations.

Managing the Expectations

Of course it is easy to oversell your ideas, and as the Information Architecture evolves there is a constant risk that expectations will be inflated as more promises are made. By now everyone believes that the Information Architecture will deliver a site designed specifically to meet their individual business needs and will satisfy every client desire. Wrong, the Information Architecture must remain a corporate resource, attempting to accommodate every requirement and variation to the information structure design will lead inevitably to an unworkable situation.

Managing the expectations of over enthusiastic 'web designers' and 'experts in every field', selling 'the corporate or common approach' and getting business areas to accept compromises is a critical challenge. Workshops provide an excellent opportunity to harness creative energies. Turning these energies attention away from the bright colours and gee-wizardry of click and drag functions to the mundane collection, updating and cataloguing of out of date content is a real challenge, but essential if the outcomes of the Information Architecture are to be realised.

The Hard work begins

Avoid endless discussions on the colour and images that will appear on the home page - this debate needs to happen but it is not your greatest concern. The real work is about getting business areas to concentrate on content. Ensuring that it is accurate, approved for publication, is in the correct format, will appear on the right page, under the right heading, and not before it is released.

To help this process kick start these processes develop lists of content elements and functional requirements. Add any potential pages or types of content, including static, dynamic, functional, and transactional. Copyright notices, privacy statements, and membership rules are examples of static content. Member logon pages, signup pages for email newsletters, and other pages involving forms or transactions should be included on your list of functional requirements.

Rank these elements into a content register and use this ranking to revise your list of functional requirements and determine the feasibility of each requirement.

Ensure that you have the technology and the skills to meet each requirement, and the budget to buy or build the functionality. Be prepared to drop items off the list.

Workshop the possible combinations of function and content and discuss the benefits and disadvantages of each potential layout. Define and name the major sections of the site structure, workshop navigation and develop standard page templates.

Assemble the pieces

By this stage your Information Architecture should provide a clear idea of how the site will be navigated, where the key elements of the site will be located, how content will be classified. Use mock-ups and prototypes to walk stakeholders through the emerging design. Ensure issues such as, how the business areas will publish content, the standard graphics, logos are signed off, content classification and approval processes are resolved and documented.

Approved disclaimers, copyright and privacy statements should have been cleared by legal and the graphics designs finalised and coded.

Procedures should be in place to handle feedback.

The database design should be signed off, tested and implemented and be ready to accept the content to be migrated from old and previous sites.

Hopefully, you haven't forgotten to arrange a secure hosting environment, set up the firewalls, assign user groups and privileges, and reminded the executive that their favourite image for the front page was dropped a few versions ago...

Six Months later...

Having sorted out all the trivial matters associated with a website build its time to have another shot at launching your site. By now you should be ready to reload your misclassified content back into your content management database, and have sorted out all those assumptions that stakeholders made about the magical powers of technology to transform internal memos into publicly accessible documents and reports.

A good Information Architecture will not solve all the problems you will encounter but it will reduce the number of times you need to start from scratch - Happy surfing.

Example

The following extract illustrates a design element used to illustrate navigation, classification and organisation of content in a recent Information Architecture exercise.

1. Each business activity will be defined as a Points of Presence

2. A high level navigation structure will be defined using the major business groups.

3. Point of Presence will be indexed into collections according to metadata elements.

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