The Customer Model of IA & Content Strategy: Interview

We’ve been crossing paths with content strategists and information architects more and more in our work to improve product content for online retailers.
Bram Wessel headshot
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 1 of our interview, Bram and Misty talk about the history of the IA and content strategy, the role of user research in creating helpful content, and how important collaboration is in the work they do for businesses. Come back next week for part 2.

“It Starts with User Research”

Augustin: Could you speak to the interdependence of IA and content strategy? How do and don’t the two disciplines connect?

Bram: I always try to have a historical perspective on the parent disciplines and the sub-disciplines. I see this long historical arc. We started with software development. Interface design grew out of that sometime in the 80s and was really the first sub-discipline focused exclusively on user experience.

When the web started to happen, information architecture emerged because people realized sites were not rationally structured for users to understand and form mental models–to find information.

In the early 2000s, people started to realize there was a huge interaction design component with websites. At that point, websites began to behave more like traditional software applications and the discipline of UX (user experience) design emerged. People we used to call production artists started calling themselves UX designers, even if they were still mainly tasked with the production of digital assets, not interaction design.

Then Kristina Halvorson wrote Content Strategy for the Web in 2009. She was one of the first to acknowledge content strategy as a discipline unto itself, even though it was already being practiced.

Information architecture is really at the core, I think, of content strategy. There’s editorial content strategy, there’s technical content strategy, and there’s content infrastructure strategy as we call it.

[Tweet “At its core, IA is about helping someone make a decision.”]

Companies who want to provide really sophisticated omnichannel experiences–hybrid digital and physical experiences–are starting to understand that they need a very sophisticated information infrastructure and content strategy to do that.

Misty: I think that last part is the most important. There used to be a lot of focus on the interface and not a lot of focus on what went behind that interface to make it happen.

When I was studying users and design 12 years ago, I knew I was going to do a lot of content management and I knew I was going to do a lot of helping people find things that they needed.

I think about architecture as the infrastructure behind what someone needs. People have questions, people are looking to find things, people need to make decisions. The architecture organizes all of your information so that people can find it. At its core, it’s about helping someone make a decision.

I always think of the content strategy as a starting point, but it works in tandem with your information architecture and your UX design. These things are not separate and they don’t have some linear order. They all work together.

Augustin: In an ideal situation with a client, would you work simultaneously on content strategy and the more backend IA pieces?

Bram: In a lot of our engagements, there is concurrency between user research and persona development and journey modeling and content strategy. This is a process of synthesis.

You have to start by understanding users and human behavior, whether that is how people form mental models and take the taxonomy that’s in their head and synthesize it with the taxonomy they see when they encounter a website or products in a retail environment, or understanding information-seeking behavior, or understanding how people search versus how they browse.

We try to be flexible and to plan for synthesis and concurrency but we don’t make compromises. We’re moving more in the direction of multiple parallel streams, but I think it would be dangerous to move too far in that direction.

[Tweet “You have to start by understanding users and human behavior.”]

Misty: It really starts with user research. I think far too many people skip that step. Without knowing what your particular target audiences are doing and getting away from stereotypes, you’ll be building things that are just a gamble. There’s a definite minimum of looking at your business environment, your users, your systems, and your ecosystem and competitive environment if you have that time.

For something concrete like an ecommerce system, your content strategy is going to include information architecture. You’re not going to be able to sell those products unless you know where they all are and know how they all fit together so you can provide some sort of wonderful browsing experience for your users.

I find in most of my projects, content strategy is working concurrently with whatever else it needs to work with. We know how to share user research with each other and how to go away from each other and come back.

There’s concurrence but then there’s also divergence.

Bram: Yes, I don’t mean to imply that things are happening with a intensive level of collaboration all the time. I just mean that they’re happening simultaneously and there needs to be enough collaboration so that they don’t get out of sync.

When we engage with companies, we’re being forced to be more collaborative in our work style. We think collaboration is a positive thing, but in a lot of companies you have the silo syndrome. Because of this challenge of multiple simultaneous, very sophisticated work streams, if you’re not collaborating, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.

Augustin: Being forced to be more collaborative: It sounds like the motivation for that is coming from your own knowledge and experience and not so much from your clients?

[Tweet “The customer expects you to collaborate in your organization.”]

Misty: I think it’s coming from the customer model. I think about the multichannel system. I know you’ve worked on a lot of multichannel projects. It’s a problem so many companies face: they need to have a clear, consistent, credible message across any channel–I’m talking in-person, in the store, as well as every social media use or print or web. So many companies were mixing up those messages. They weren’t credible and they weren’t consistent.

So that collaboration is being forced because the customer expects it. The customer expects you to collaborate in your organization. They expect you to know what your information is throughout and they expect to have access to it in an easy way.

Bram: In a lot of our enterprise-class engagements, we have to teach people who have been producing content in silos how to produce content for this new set of business conditions. If you are trying to deliver hybrid experiences, experiences that combine physical and digital components, it requires an intense amount of collaboration because of the very nature of these kinds of experiences.

More and more, we’re going to be seeing experiences where somebody has a device, like a phone, that is taking cues from the physical environment through NFC or some other technology. That digital experience has to be in sync with the experience in the physical retail environment.

The only way that you’re going to be able to provide that experience is if everybody creating content and everybody designing those interactions is collaborating with everyone else.

Informed by 2+ decades of practice in information architecture, Bram Wessel, Principal at Factor Firm, 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. 
Misty Weaver headshot
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.

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.

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