Submission to Euro IA 2007

Here’s an idea for a Euro IA submission I was thinking about (eh Barcelooona!) to fulfil one of my annual HR objectives: the one that says I need to ramp up my public profile to attain the status of European Experience Emperor.

Some prodding about seems to indicate that people do see this as a problem worth addressing, so I’ve finished filling out the submissions form today. Just got under the deadline too, which closes today. See what you think:

Towards A Content Habitat: Incorporating Content in the Design Process

Web design processes have settled (for now) on a general pattern of activity based roughly around the following: requirements gathering, site maps, wireframes, design scamps and HTML templates. The trouble is that none of these provide a natural “habitat” for content. The words, pictures and other content types that appear in this process are at best indicative, if not actual dummy material. This poses a risk unless the designer has a solid knowledge of the content to be incorporated. Quite often, however, the designer does not have such knowledge and particularly if the content set is large, can only trust his judgement as to whether a particular page layout will cope with all the content that’s planned or exists for it.

Beyond some rudimentary “stress testing” of design elements on specific pages, the work of integrating new or existing content into a design falls to the back of the project. This usually takes the form of a stack of Word files, a CMS, and a random group of individuals tasked to use their clipboards for several weeks. In many cases there is not even a reliable method to communicate to these people what parts of the old content go where in the new information architecture. Determining this takes a lot of time and can be very hard to manage. Traditionally, it is only when the “content load” phase is over – usually well after the CMS template integration has been signed off – that we know whether the new design truly services the content (or vice versa). If it doesn’t – it’s too late.

How can we bring content back from the edge of the project and into a position where it can influence the quality of decisions about the design? This talk explores some possible approaches in the form of a case study, and discusses a direction arising from this: the creation of a “content framework” artefact. It does not advocate a specific method to solve the problem beyond this, but is an attempt to highlight an issue that the author feels is not adequately being addressed by our discipline.

The case study I have in mind is the Abbey redesign project in which we created an XML-based system to enumerate and collate the content required for the new design. At the time this was to help shorten the deadlines on the content workstream, but I think it showed various other possibilities.

I realise that the “content framework” concept overlaps with the role of a CMS (in the storage of content for one thing), but the idea here is to aid in the design process. It has nothing to do with the ongoing management of content, the deployment of it, or workflow beyond its creation.

The construction of a content framework early in the project (particularly in the case of new content) could aid content workflow considerably. For example, once the overall design had solidified, the framework allows the collection and signoff of content before and during the technical work of CMS template integration. One intriguing possibility here is also whether the resulting content store might be imported into the CMS so as to reduce or eliminate the aforementioned “content load phase” involving so many people and their clipboards.

I also intend to make the case for an IA tool that address this issue – in the way that Axure could if they understood what the problem was. In the same way as we deliver specifications for designs, I think we should also produce specifications for content so that those who create, collate and manage it can play a meaningful part in the information design process.

Wish me luck! It’s only allowed to be 40 mins so it’ll be a challenge.