I’ve developed this approach to creating a healthy information space, which is really rather simple. However, for some reason, it truly confounds some people. The idea could be summed up as: don’t build a website. Do everything you can to not focus on the structure of your information.
Now, I must admit that this is kind of a trick. Being human, we love organizing and naming things. We do it as some form of innate constructivism, allowing us to synthesize our learning by building something new. Our naming and our taxonomies need not be so revolutionary, but they do need to be new to us. They are fresh constructs, and somewhere in that process of building a new information space – a new way to look at our information – we come to terms with what we’ve got. I think this theory is exactly why humans are technological system designers.
So, how can I possibly be advocating for ignoring our true nature, if we’re likely to do it anyway? Well, that question points to the answer. There is no need to organize our information, because we will do it anyway. And not only those who build the information spaces. The people who use that information also build their own structures. The mind is optimized for such activities. What we need to do is focus on enabling the information we do publish to be as portable and meaningful as possible. These two qualities end up pushing us away from the traditional website model, because we need to think of every piece of information as being able to stand on its own, outside of the structure in which it sits – the website. Content shouldn’t represent part of the picture. If it needs context, it provides it inline (as hypertext) within the content. There is no reason to step out, navigate your way through a menu, to connect to some related idea. Everything you need to understand some small piece of information should be found within the content. If you can design information like this, it will reach more people.
The structure that we often try to impose on our information systems was always limited because it came from the perspective of a few people, often those with deep knowledge of a subject. This particular point of view is bound to confuse the larger issue of how to make that information useful to the most amount of people. One idea I’ve been using with clients is to remind them that not everyone is interested in all that your organization does. Our old model of building a website was rooted in the idea that we needed to entice readers/visitors to understand what we did and how our work was important to them. Then we would help the person find what they need. This is completely backwards. A better approach is to accept that someone needs some information from us. If we could deliver that before they even enter our site, we’re doing our job.
I was reading Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile. In it, she is telling a story about being at an airport and wanting to know how many friends she can bring into the United Club lounge. She uses her trusty mobile to look it up, but is redirected to a trimmed down mobile version of the United Airlines website, which has determined that asking this question is never something someone with a mobile would do. She goes on to explain how difficult it is to design for a specific context like mobile, when you make so many assumptions about how a person will use your information. The interesting part is that, not only was the mobile experience lacking, but Karen should have never had to had to do anything beyond searching for ‘how many guests can I bring into the lounge for United Club membership’. Content should be designed and fragmented so that that answer, as soon as it is conceived as a question, should be created as a meaningful piece of information. And once this is constructed, one shouldn’t have to navigate menus to find that. Internal and external searches and social networks should all link directly to the answer – the right answer. This is how we build good content.
The long and short of this is that if we focus on content first and stop worrying about the structure – which we have used for a while as a kind of directory map to our information – we afford ourselves the space to improve the quality of our content. This is the best thing we can do as content creators. And Information Architects can spend a lot more time understanding the continuously evolving structures we do build and how they can help people (through the only map we know) use language to find our way around. In the end, the language we use may be the only important way to make content findable. As for usable or useful, that may be left to a basic truth: either someone is interested or will be interested in your information, or they are not.