We’ve been crossing paths with content strategists and information architects more and more in our work to improve product content for online retailers.
For the purposes of ecommerce, content strategy is all about consistent brand messaging and meeting information needs. Information architecture (IA) also deals with meeting information needs, as well as planning for how users search and browse and backend website challenges like navigation and taxonomy.
Have you wondered what these disciplines are all about? We wanted to get some expert insight, so we sat down with Bram Wessel of Factor and Misty Weaver of Portent to find out how IA and content strategy fit in the big picture of web content.
In part 3 of our interview, Bram, Misty, and I talk more about the ROI of content marketing and how changing web design affects their respective fields.
Read part 2 of the interview for the IA and content strategy angles on what make product pages successful (or not). Read part 1 of the interview for more about the history of and current trends in the IA and content strategy.
Content Has to Be Containerless
Augustin: How do you think the perception of online content has changed in the past 5 years or so?
Bram: How users consume it, or what it needs to do?
Augustin: Either. Both.
Bram: Again, it might help to fall back on history. The release of the first iPhone was the moment when the paradigm shifted from mostly indirect manipulation, point and click, desktop experiences with certain screen sizes to an environment where the screen size that somebody might be looking at is impossible to predict.
Also, the contextual shift from a typically stationary desk environment to a completely unpredictable mobile environment happened. I think people are just now starting to realize what Karen McGrane has been saying for a long time, which is that there’s no such thing as mobile first. Web design is mobile design. Now customers expect to be able to get any content anywhere. That was not the case before touch devices become widely adopted, which really dates back to about 2009.
I think the challenge people creating content face is that for content to be able to traverse all these different environments, it has to be containerless. Containerless content modeling, development, and production are now essential for being able to deliver content across contexts, across environments. I think that’s the biggest shift.
Misty: Yes. We talk about structured content a lot and how to understand your content well enough to keep it in chunks, so that you know how to move it through different systems.
That’s where metadata becomes important. And like Bram mentioned earlier, information architecture is coming back because structuring content in this chunk way, this containerless way, is the only way to be nimble.
And by nimble, I mean ready for the next stage. Content that’s not only appropriate for the systems currently in use.
Bram: Information architecture has always been around. It’s just that the unit of objects being organized has become much, much smaller. There’s a lot more information architecture work to do.
[Tweet “Content has to be containerless to be able to traverse different contexts.”]
Misty: There is more work, definitely. It’s not just about information overload for me, because 90% of what’s on the web could just disappear and it wouldn’t be a problem. A lot of it is just duplicate. Cleaning up our content, making sure we’re down to that most essential element, really helps us provide better service to our customers.
The thing that’s changed for me in the last few years is the idea that we should be giving away content for free, the idea that content marketing represents: There is some amount of content you should provide as a service to your customer.
That particular message says that you have a buying funnel. That you exist in a relationship with clients that moves over time and in stages. It says there’s a point where you become invisible, a point where they’re aware of you, as a brand or as a product, then there’s a point where they are looking at you to make a decision, then they’re making a decision.
Free content, content marketing, lives in the visibility space, meaning you do not make money from it. It’s not a sale, but it drives the sale. Without doing it you don’t get the sale.
As a metaphor, think of the old car lot. They have the product (cars), they have a little bit of content, but it’s really sales heavy. A customer walks into the lot and the car salesman makes the sale.
But customers researched cars before going to the lot to make a purchase. They would look at car magazines and the Bluebook, talk to their friends and family. They did a lot of work. Nobody just said, “I think I want a car today,” and walked into a lot.
Augustin: The customer just didn’t research in ways we could track, right?
Misty: Yes. I would never ask for the ROI on a billboard, because I could never know if that billboard caused a sale. Now that we can track content and pre-sale research, we’ve pushed too much ROI discussion on everything that happens before the sale instead of recognizing all that content helps people research and make a decision, so all of it is part of the sale.
I never talk about the ROI of one piece of content, and I never talk about the ROI of content before the sale. It’s a critical part of that sales process.
Bram: I think there is a utopian vision which may or may not arise from the promise of marketing automation tools that brands can be fully in control of the customer journey on the way to purchasing their products or services. This is unrealistic.
In the talk I just gave at Convey UX, I was telling a story about somebody who decides that they want to get into wine because they are on a photo shoot at a vineyard. This person ends up at Crate and Barrel, but Crate and Barrel has no way of controlling what happens before the person arrives at the Crate and Barrel website.
Misty: What Crate and Barrel has is the ability to build a relationship, so that when somebody is thinking, “I want to get into a new thing,” they go to Crate and Barrel because it’s a source they trust.
I think that’s the best thing that you can do.
Augustin: In that case, the more information Crate and Barrel can provide, the more trustworthy of a source they are and the better relationship they build.
Bram: Right. They’re essentially taste-makers. Generating content that helps them enhance their role or maintain their role as a taste-maker is something they’ll never be able to tie to ROI, but it elevates the brand in a way that makes people find them.
[Tweet “90% of what’s on the web could disappear and it wouldn’t be a problem.”]
Misty: I think Bram and I both try to work with people in a way that we consider to be sustainable.
Meaning, not everyone can do as much as bigger brands that are more established, that know their voice, that understand what kind of relationship they want to have with their clients. But even if a company isn’t at that level, it should still be doing something. We talk about having the sustainable threads at the bottom, which are meeting basic information needs such as price, product name, a picture. Sometimes it’s search visibility.
The next layer up is clear navigation, consumers being able to find your products easily and sites being able to offer those product relationships.
Then leveling up from that, infrastructure needs to be developed and you can start talking about, “How do I add helping my clients? How do I add building relationships?”
This stuff is slow change, but the results are huge.
Augustin: Even if companies can’t measure the ROI, right? Over time it proves itself.
Bram: Yes. That’s why at Factor, we end up doing a lot of work that is not necessarily user research or journey modeling or content strategy. It’s more like business consulting. One of our offerings is a roadmap. The roadmap comes out of an assessment that might include a content audit, editorial or technical. We must understand the architecture of the infrastructure well enough to be able to make really detailed recommendations for quick wins followed by next steps in 3, 6, or 9 months based on business goals. So clients have a systematic plan that allows them to level up, as Misty was saying.
Misty: I think content strategy and information architecture are going to make you look at your business model, and sometimes that can force you to change your business model. But if that means you move from not selling a lot of product online to being able to sell it in a sustainable way, the change is definitely worth that move.
Augustin: How does your approach evolve in response to new web design standards?
Bram: We do a lot of pattern modeling exercises. So we will take the results from a competitive analysis and look at patterns in the world that seem to be successful, or that can be measurably demonstrated to be successful. Then we’ll look at the capabilities of the team, resources, infrastructure, and content management system to try to synthesize a pattern library that’s going to be successful for that company.
In ecommerce that gets really specific. There are very specific micro-interaction patterns that Amazon, for instance, is always A/B testing. By doing design pattern research, looking at what’s out there, you can figure out what conventions exist. I think the way web design standards have changed information architecture is, again, the granularization of content.
Most design patterns now are made up of much more granular micro-interactions than they used to be. This is only going to get more complex when we start wearing devices and interacting with devices that have connected, digital components in our physical environment (Internet of Things). Refrigerators and stoves have had digital displays for a long time, but they are now starting, increasingly, to be connected to something and delivering content. That atomization of interactions is the thing that’s driving content strategy to have to miniaturize or account for multiple containerless scenarios in ways that it never has before.
Misty: I agree with that. Thinking about search, content, and information needs, it’s difficult for me to see how web standards have changed because they seem to have very little to do with what’s best for search engines or what’s best for helping decision making or getting to content right away.
So many sites just do what looks good, and then run into trouble because that doesn’t work for all devices. People use load speed alone to make a decision. And the fashion right now of one big picture is bad for search engines and bad for people.
There’s not enough attention given to search engine standards or to accessibility, which is going to be increasingly important because accessibility will help make the connectedness of the Internet of Things succeed.
When I think about how a refrigerator can be connected to my phone or what I might learn from it, the result is what I care about. What’s in the fridge? I don’t want to spend a lot of time staring at the fridge.
[Tweet “The atomization of interactions is driving content strategy.”]
A lot of people get caught up in design concerns like, “Let’s make this beautiful. Let’s make people spend a lot of time here.” They forget that the best thing you can do is help someone get the thing they want and let them leave.
Bram: Right. This tension between utility and aesthetics has been at the core of interaction design and information architecture for a long, long time.
Misty: It goes back to industrial design.
If we were going to inform web standards, we would look at accessibility first. We’d look at this Internet of Things. We would look at what search engines are looking for, and we’d look at a good user experience.
Those would guide the templates we use and the fashion we follow. The fashion should be easy, useful, and beautiful. I think the web, as an industry, went with beautiful a lot of the time.
Bram: Different heritages have fallen in a different spot on the utility-beauty continuum. Typically, businesses that have a strong engineering heritage have gone too much toward the utility side of that equation. Experiences that are designed by marketing agencies usually fall too far on the beauty side.
The problem is that both of these poles are subjective and limited. What engineers think is useful might be horrendous interaction design, and what designers think is beautiful might also be horrendous interaction design. That, more than anything, has been the biggest problem over the years.
Informed by 2+ decades of practice in information architecture, Bram Wessel, Principal at Factor, believes technology is not an end in itself but it should enable natural experiences for actual humans. The broad theme emerging from studying user behavior is that people care about the utility and quality of experiences much more than they care about pleasing designs.
Bram is dedicated to “getting technology out of our way.” He has delivered experience designs and strategies for organizations such as Adobe, Amazon, City of Seattle, Crate and Barrel, Disney, Expedia, GE, Group Health, Intel, MasterCard, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Real, Safeco, Sony, Starbucks, Volvo, UW Medicine, Warner, and many others. He’ll be talking more about the atomization of content at the IA Summit this April in Minneapolis.
Misty Weaver is a content strategist, community manager, and co-organizer of IA Meetup and Content Strategy Seattle Meetup. As the content strategy lead at Portent, she works collaboratively to research and deliver relevant, useful, and innovative content services.