‘Doubling Down’ On Information Architecture

A few weeks ago I read a tweet from Peter Morville (@morville) quoting a comment at the end of this post discussing an absence of discussions around information architecture in new “user experience” books.

The post itself is fantastic, but the comment, “I think the smart move actually, is to double-down on information architecture…” gives metaphor to the thoughts that have been kicking around in my brain for the past several months as I’ve struggled to identify with the muddying of the content strategy and user experience fields.

I strongly believe that we DO need to “double down” on information architecture, its foundations and guiding principles. All of the information I’m seeing around content strategy and IA seems so focused on findability, usability, a specific screen or, in many cases, (especially the content strategy/content marketing world) influence.

To be more effective information architects, content strategists and digital professionals, we have to help solve human problems through the understanding of users AND organizations. While I was unfortunately absent from IA Summit this year, I know this is a topic that Karen McGrane talked a lot about during her closing plenary (you can read more about it here if you missed it too).

In short, we have to put more focus on the what before we focus on the how.

On top of this basic disregard for the user, tech proliferation is changing the game by creating new contexts. If you believe the big tech guys (Ericsson, Cisco, IBM), there will be more than 50 billion “connected” devices on this rock by 2020. We need IA now more than we ever have. And we don’t need it to sell more things, or get people to “web pages.” We need IA to make sense of what content “means,” how we “arrange” data and how we choreograph it for systems and people.

Reader, I’m not just saying these are important things I’ve been thinking about. I am, quite literally, “doubling down” on IA. From now on, my energy will be solely focused on understanding the “what.” Friday will be my last day at Team Detroit. After a very brief vacation, I will join The Understanding Group, as an information architect (and yes, being an IA still allows me to “be” a content strategist). I can’t begin to express how thrilled I am to have found a collection of people that I so passionately identify with.

Leaving “agency” life and advertising will definitely be an adjustment for me, but I believe in TUG’s mission; especially its focus on “understanding” (both of users and organizations) and meaning. TUGers are steady and sturdy in a stormy sea because they particularly skilled at listening both to what’s being communicated and what was left unsaid. It shows in their work and in the way they have helped instrument change for their clients. I couldn’t be more thrilled, nervous and a little terrified to be working with such an impressive group (many of whom I have admired or considered to be inspirations for many years).

The most difficult decision related to joining TUG was most certainly leaving my post as director of user experience and content strategies at Team Detroit. I have a passion for the work that my team of 12 has been doing on behalf of Ford and will definitely miss working with some of the most knowledgeable and intelligent clients I’ve had the pleasure of serving. Ford is truly a forward thinking organization that has a bright future and I have no doubt that they’ll continue to do amazing work alongside TDI.

I’ll continue to post my thoughts here and hope to bring more of my ideas to TUG’s blog and newsletter (you can sign up for it here) in the coming weeks. I’ll just need a little time to pick up steam (< --see what I did there?) before I'm back to a regular writing schedule. Hope you'll all double down on IA with me. Tug Boat photo by: xeeliz. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Confab London Programme by Sean Tubridy

On Confab London

I’m now two weeks removed from a fantastic experience at Confab London. I had some fantastic conversations about the future of the practice of content strategy and was more than encouraged by the reaction I received for my talk “Mental Modelling For Content Work.”

Listing for Mental Modelling Talk in Confab London Program

The presentation has grown from original version I tackled for Midwest UX 2012, mostly because this is something I have actually been doing more regularly on my work for Ford. I’ve had a lot of requests to craft this process into a workshop (something I’m strongly considering) and will be updating some of the original posts I crafted for the topic last year at some point in the next few weeks. If you’re interested in those posts you can find them here:

1. Mental Modeling for Content Work: An Introduction
2. Mental Modeling For Content Work: Information Gathering
3. Mental Modeling For Content Work: Creation

If you missed my talk, you can view the slides here. I’ll add some audio to this presentation later.

Thoughts on the conference

As was usual, the Confab Events team did a fantastic job running and managing this conference. It was well run, smooth, organized and provided a caliber of speakers covering the content strategy discipline that are difficult to find anywhere else. What Confab has been able to do is provide attendees a good mix of practical application and content strategy 101 and mix in the appropriate amount of heady, academic stuff that we all need to hear to continue to push the discipline forward. This, being my third Confab, was the first that I can recall that I heard some serious discussions coming from non-speakers around how the basics related to content strategy may not be going deep enough.

I for one am welcoming more discourse around the elements of content strategy related to information architecture and user experience and am certainly keen on seeing more debate on the whole content marketing vs. content strategy conversation.

Either way, I was proud to be part of Confab London and am hopeful for more discourse on these topics moving forward. Were you there? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Mental Model For Working Adult Seeking Financial Aid

Mental Modeling For Content Work: Creation

Before I sold my soul to the advertising industry, I was in journalism. As a cub reporter, I covered crime, courts and emergencies.

The first year of the beat, I wasted a lot of time trying to “perfect” my craft through technical means. I poured over award winning coverage and studied syntax, style and structure. I shortened my ledes, broadened my vocabulary and incorporated new adjectives. It didn’t help.

Moleskine NotesMake no mistake, I was a strong reporter (often thanks to some excellent editors), but it wasn’t until I physically moved to my coverage area and began embedding myself among my subject matter that I began to produce work that resonated with anyone.

I stopped calling sources, instead meeting them for coffee. Whenever possible, I rode along with police officers, embedded myself with SWAT teams and did my best to “experience” stories. I arranged to be put in county lockup to understand what an average inmate’s day was like and I trained as a firefighter for several days. Over time, I began understanding the motivators, behaviors and pain points that my subjects experienced. My stories were better, not because I had better relationships with my sources, but because as I immersed myself in my subject matter. The details that I discovered by being part of the culture helped my writing become more clear.

And so it is for mental modeling for content work. The details – extracted from careful interviews, shared experiences and observations – will ultimately bring clarity to content planning and strategy to populate our systems.

Building Content Focused Mental Models

In her book, Indi Young discusses work that falls into the content strategy process in chapter 12. For Indi, content strategy fits in mental modeling as a parallel path or after the process has been completed. She describes this process as “Content Mapping:”

The content map includes all functionality that already exists and is planned for your solution. Let me assure you that the name “content” does not limit your map to text documents. While it may have started out as a description of an inventory of a news web site or something, it means much more than that these days. Your content map should include all the ways you serve people, including things like monthly account statements or yearly awards banquets, registration for training courses, or a mortgage calculator. Anything that has to do with your relationship with those you serve should be included in your content map.

For Young, the “content map” structure makes little difference to the mental model. The important thing is that the boxes will fit underneath the towers that will ultimately be a part of the solution. My approach differs a bit from Young’s in that I find it much more beneficial to the user experience team if I build the “content map” in the form of a mental model as opposed to the traditional content inventory or visual map that she highlights in her book.

And because I usually have a UX partner that I spend the majority of my project with, I make sure they’re an active participant in the mapping of content to the models.

Bases, Support Structures, Towers and Roots

Before we begin the mental modeling process, we need to go back to the engagement maps we discussed in information gathering. The key engagements we highlight for personas will form the “bases” for “support structures” and “towers,” when we begin plotting our mental models.

A quick check of our engagement map reveals four key patterns for the “Returning Student” persona. They include: “Explore Options,” “Plan and Immerse,” “Overcome Fear,” and “Take Action.” Each pattern (engagement) is used as a “base,” which serves as the foundation to which we’ll start to build out a case for content to address user needs (“towers”).

But before I build towers, I add “support structure” to the base via “intentions.” Intentions provide context to how content should be framed for task completion. I have most often found that intentions either come up in interviews and could be considered a secondary pattern, or could be implied from verbatims that are consistent with one another. They aren’t necessary to a mental model for content work, but I find that they strengthen the strategy and are valuable to content creators.

Once we have bases and intentions we can begin to build “towers” to establish content that aids in task completion. These boxes should essentially label tasks that the user would want to complete. I leave the labels to these boxes in question form to further assist in content planning for task completion.

Below the line – living underneath the bases – I box out what I refer to as “roots.” For my work, “roots” are the content or features of existing systems that help achieve the engagements we’ve used as bases. This is where all that time you spent content auditing saves it in the long run.

Here’s how these elements work together.

Elements of Mental Models For Content Work

What you see above is more or less a piece of a much larger model. These towers, bases and roots could go on for pages and pages depending on the complexity of the section of our system. I mapped this out using OmniGraffle, but before I begin building my artifacts in digital form, I perform modeling exercises that require a war room, transcripts from information gathering, a lot of butcher paper and reams and reams of sticky notes.

"Content Planning From Mental Models"

Depending on the size of the organization and stakeholder involvement, this might be a small group activity (read as: strategist and user experience team) or quite cumbersome (read as: client wants heavy involvement from numerous stakeholders).

The actual creation occurs in these meetings. Just as we would for a mental model for system design, we must interview our assumed users, look for patterns and organize them into the towers. For content work, I’ve found that most research will produce anywhere from 40 to 150 tasks depending on the scope of the project. The patterns that emerge from the research become important for the planning and production of content as these patterns should give us a better idea of both how a user approaches a problem and what fears, hopes, philosophies, etc. must be addressed. As you can imagine, the process is incredibly time consuming. I find a small group with the authority to make major site decisions is the best way to keep the process moving.

Most of my rooms start looking like the photo above (if not more cluttered) not long after interviews for mental models have wrapped up. And after you’ve butcher papered your office to death, you can start building the digital versions. Here’s a closer look at our returning student persona.

Mental Model For Working Adult Seeking Financial Aid

Why It’s Useful For Content Work

Mental models have numerous benefits. The research that goes into a mental model provides a deep understanding of people’s motivations and thought-processes. When they’re done right we should also gain insight to the emotional and philosophical landscape in which users are operating as well.

When we use this understanding for content work, our messages better inform the systems they populate and the users that access them. Once we uncover the roots to a person’s cognition, we have a stronger chance for understanding, learning and comprehension (which happens to be my first principle for content strategy).

But mental models aren’t bullet proof. Depending on your project, producing a mental model that is reliable for a large enough segment of your audience to influence the content strategy might be more difficult. Mental models work best when a user has formed patterns over a longer period of time.

The difficulty with mental modeling for content work is that, by nature, the need for content is normally situational. It then follows that the patterns we see coming out of our research must be strong to depend on them for the actual model and the content that comes from it.

All that said, when a mental model can be produced, it can be extremely useful for planning, maintaining and governing content over time.

There is obviously a lot more to this process than I can get into in a blog post, or a series of blog posts. If you believe mental modeling might be right for your project, I highly encourage that you read Young’s foundational work on the subject: Mental Modeling: Aligning Design Strategy With Human Behavior and find ways to incorporate it into your own content work.

On a related note, I’ll be ranting about this for 20 minutes at Midwest UX 2012 in Columbus this May. I’d encourage you to come out and add to the conversation.

This is the third and final post in a series on Mental Modeling For Content Work. Did you miss the first two?

Read: Mental Modeling For Content Work: An Introduction
Read: Mental Modeling For Content Work: Information Gathering