of the American Society for Information Science and Technology   Vol. 28, No. 1    October / November 2001

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Information Architects and Their Central Role in Content Management

by Rita Warren

Rita Warren is vice president of products and services at Go-To-Market Strategies, Inc., 3418-B Fremont Ave. N., Seattle, WA 98103; she can be reached by e-mail at ritaw@gtms-inc.com

The process of content management begins when an organization comes to the realization that it needs a system to manage content. While the interpretation of the term content management (CM) can be as simple as a set of guidelines for organizing and maintaining content, more typically today it means a sophisticated software-based system. A full-featured content management system (CMS) takes content from inception to publication and does so in a way that provides for maximum content accessibility and reuse and easy, timely, accurate maintenance of the content base.

When we understand the complexities of a true CMS, it is easy to see why an information architect (IA) plays such a central role in the CM field.

At the highest level, a comprehensive CMS consists of the following:

  • A collection environment that allows content creators to easily submit content into the larger system.
  • A management environment where the content is stored, along with metadata so that it can be easily accessed and maintained.
  • A publishing environment where, using templates, content can be brought together into various types of publications.

 Each of these sub-systems must be designed to work in concert with the others, often in the face of changing business needs and technological advances.

 By nature of being a "system" CM requires high levels of structure, process and organization. To create and maintain such a system an organization needs to find and apply a diverse set of skills including the following:

  • Analytical Skills to bring together a diverse set of requirements, rationalize information from multiple sources, find the common patterns in requirements and content, and implement structures that will support a variety of needs.
  • Design Skills both creative and structural, to layout the various pieces of the system from the user input forms to the administrative structures, to the publication templates.
  • Technical Skills to be able at least to conceptualize the overall system and to interact with software developers and system administrators.
  • Organizational Skills to manage the inputs to the system and to develop methods for ensuring that the content and other parts of the system are designed for manageability.
  • Management Skills to work with others to design, develop, deploy and keep the system up and running.

Depending on the scope and complexity of the CMS, an information architect (IA) is not necessarily expected to have all these skills. In a small organization with limited needs, an IA could very well take on a majority of tasks, while in a larger organization, the IA is just one player on a larger team. However, no matter the size of the undertaking, a good IA possesses a certain level of all of these abilities, making the IA a central player in the CM process.

The Role of an IA in a CMS Implementation Project

CM usually begins in an organization with an initiative a project that sets the wheels in motion. CM implementation projects typically involve these major phases:

  • Requirements Gathering gathering and documenting the goals of the system and all of the specific requirements, among them user, system and content requirements.
  • Analysis and Design taking the requirements and translating them into the specifications for a system.
  • Development following the design specs to create the working version of the system.
  • Deployment taking the system and installing it into its destination environment, thoroughly testing it, and training staff on how to use it.

Of course, the above steps are a simplified version; there are several levels of detail that go into the process.

One primary role of an IA is to take on the analysis and design tasks that are specially related to content. However, the IA plays an important role in all other project stages as well.

Requirements Gathering. While an IA may sometimes be the one to take the lead in overall requirements gathering, it is often more likely a business analyst or project manager who drives the process. Where an IA plays a key role is specifically focusing on the "content-related" requirements and in reviewing and auditing the requirements as they are being developed. This review by the IA also helps the team to start thinking about and planning for the analysis and design phase.

Analysis and Design. In the analysis and design of the system, the IA's task is to translate the requirements into a cohesive "content model." Not unlike developing a data model, the process involves analyzing each constituent piece of the system and "architecting" it into a set of structures that meets the overall requirements.

The level of complexity of this task can be substantial, especially considering the number of variables that affect the design: audiences, authors, other content sources, content components themselves, publications, content sources and the metadata needed for categorizing, tracking status and managing the content. The content model that results from the design process can take hundreds of pages to describe and if depicted visually can look like a massive schema of interconnected nodes.

A derivative task involves architecting the workflow processes for the system all the steps and roles related to collecting, managing and publishing content. The IA develops diagrams of each of the workflows. In a larger system there can be dozens of them, specific ones for particular kinds of content and publications and many workflows that administrators need to ensure happen to maintain the overall system.

System analysts, developers and user interface (UI) designers take on other aspects of the analysis and design. However, most of these other teams' work is driven by the IA's content model and workflows, which form the underpinnings for the database schema as well as the interface design for the system.

As each of these aspects of the system design unfolds, the IA plays a role in validating other team's designs and playing a role as "interpreter" for those team members who may be less savvy about the unique needs of managing "content" as opposed to data. The best design processes are iterative and are tested along the way for usability and completeness.

Development. Once the design of the system has been finalized and documented into formal specifications, development begins. During development the IA continues to play a consultative role to the team. Given the focus on understanding the structure and organization of content, the IA may have the best overall picture of what CM involves. The IA plays the "go to" role during the development phase.

Another piece of most CM projects is content conversion taking content that already exists in other forms and getting it into the CMS repository. An IA, being now the person most familiar with the content, is a likely candidate for driving (or at least assisting with) developing processes for automating the content conversion.

If the project is a typical one, there is an ongoing minor role for the IA to tweak and adjust the specs based on unforeseen needs to change the design that come about during the development process. The IA should also be involved in testing the system at alpha and beta stages to ensure that it works as intended in the design. An ancillary role for the IA could also be to develop end-user documentation for those who will be working with content in the system.

Deployment . Deployment occurs when the system that has been developed in a "staging" environment is installed and tested in its destination environment. At this stage, the integrity and usability of the content model and the UI design have been proven, so the remaining task is to train the users of the system. While the trainer doesn't have to be the IA, the IA is perhaps best suited to educate end users in particular authors, editors, quality assurance specialists and possibly even the system administrator.

Training can take place in a formal classroom setting or as one-on-one sessions. The IA, because of the intimate knowledge of the system, can answer questions and walk users through the workflows, describing how each aspect of the system interface works and, in layman's terms, what the system is doing "in the background."

The Role of an IA in Ongoing CM

A CMS is out of the "project" stage when people within the organization are using the system to collect, manage and publish content. In the simplest of systems, the needs are static and there may not be an ongoing need for an IA. However, in most realistic scenarios, needs are constantly changing, and the skills of an IA are essential to ensuring that the system grows in a cohesive manner.

An IA plays two major roles in ongoing CM: verifying the application of metadata and architecting changes to the content model.

Verifying the Application of Metadata. In a typical publishing scenario, there are authors, who are used to writing down their ideas, and editors, who are used to ensuring that the message and mechanics of the content are sound. But, in a CMS, there is a third role: someone to properly apply metatags to the content according to the "rules" required by the system.

While it doesn't demand a highly experienced IA, verifying the metadata is a role well-suited for someone with an IA skill set, as it requires the same emphasis on understanding structure and organization that was needed for the project itself. The IA here might be called a "metator" the one who applies metadata.

As an example of how the role works on an ongoing basis, authors may be able to apply certain pieces of metadata to the content they create, such as their own names, the create dates. The editor may be able to add some additional status information and tag the content according to the audience it applies to. The metator's task, then, is to verify the metadata tagged by the author and editor and complete the missing information, such as into which content categories the content fits and which keywords apply. In this scenario the IA is the one who fully understands the schema of the content model and thus is able to ensure the integrity of the content in the system, which is the essence of CM done right.

Architecting Changes to the Content Model. Overall, when designing the content, the IA's task is to gain the most comprehensive view of the CM needs of the organization as they exist at that time and also for the foreseeable future. However, inevitably, requirements change. Business models change, management and organization change, and new products or services are added, all of which can result in new content types. There are any number of variables within an organization that can spawn the need to change the data model.

As described earlier, a content model is usually a highly complex set of relationships between audiences, content, authors, sources, publications and other entities. With this number of relationships it is rare that a change can be made to one part of a CMS without affecting other parts of the system.

The IA is, again, the best resource for doing the analytical and design work to determine how the system needs to change in response to new content requirements and to think through the ramifications of each change. Of course, changes to the design then involve the other players, such as developers, UI designers and testers, who must do their parts. When a change is needed, the IA takes on the same role  played during the implementation project.

An IA's Relationship to Other CM Team Members

Any substantial CM initiative will involve a team, sometimes a sizable one. The accompanying table outlines the typical team members and their roles, as well as how the IA interacts with each of them. For convenience here team members are grouped into those related to business, content and publication, and systems.

The Qualities and Background of an IA for CM

As we can see, the IA plays a critical role in CM in all phases and interacts in some way with each of the project team members at the business, technical and content levels. A good IA has the unique mix of skills, experience and personal qualities needed to drive a project to success. That mix includes

  • strong listening skills;
  • understanding of business processes within typical organizations;
  • familiarity with the functional areas of a corporate environment (finance, HR, operations, etc.) so that he or she may understand workflow processes;
  • marketing savvy, particularly for CMS producing content for external audiences; and
  • a user-centered orientation.

From a technical perspective, it is not necessary for IAs to be programmers nor have the skills of information technology professionals, but they do need to be able to speak intelligently about technologies related to CM. They have to be able to understand diagrams of system architectures and create their own diagrams of process workflows. Their technical skills and abilities would ideally include the following:

  • basic knowledge of platforms and their capabilities and limitations (UNIX, NT);
  • solid understanding of database concepts and data structures;
  • familiarity with a range of commercial CMS packages;
  • familiarity with XML and the programming possibilities related to it; and
  • familiarity with various types of enterprise systems.

Lastly, during a CM project an IA must gain an intimate understanding of the content that is to be managed by the system. He or she must understand the processes involved in creating, maintaining and publishing that content. It is helpful for an IA to have a background in publishing, writing, editing, media development or a related field. Important content skills include the following:

  • strong organization skills and the ability to process large amounts of detailed information;
  • strong analytical skills and the ability to recognize natural relationships between entities;
  • knowledge of editorial and publishing processes; and
  • solid writing, editing and presentation skills.

With such a diverse skill set, living up to all of these expectations in an industry that's constantly moving into new territories with few formal training processes available is difficult. At a minimum a person with some basic information architecture experience and strong desire to learn about CM will bring good things to the table. As the CM industry evolves, this skill set of IAs and their role in CM will become more concrete and probably more focused. In the meantime, part of the process for IAs is to "learn as you go" and help to realize the CM vision as best they can.

Copy for table

Table 1. An IA's relationship to other CM team members

Business Team Members and the IA

    Project Sponsor the person, usually in an executive or high-level managerial position, who is responsible for the budget that funds the project. IAs may or may not interact with this person. If they do, it may be to help explain the CM concepts and describe the solution.

    Project Manager the one who coordinates the efforts of all the project team members. The IA needs to keep in constant contact with the project manager, providing status reports, and also conferring on project-related issues where the IA may offer suggestions or expertise.

    Business Analyst responsible for understanding the overall business requirements as they relate to the CMS, particularly marketing and operational needs. The deliverables from the business analyst's work are extremely helpful in providing the IA with the context for making decisions along the way.

Content and Publication Team Members and the IA

    Content Authors or Source Owners the people who create or provide the content that is fed into the CMS. The IA may interview some or all of these players as a means of gathering and validating content requirements. And, the IA may be the one to train them to use the system.

    Editors members of the publishing staff who handle typical editorial functions, ranging from deciding on an editorial calendar to reviewing all content for accuracy and consistency. The IA needs to understand the editors' needs in relation to the content and may also train editors on using the CMS.

    Quality Assurance the ones who "test" the content from a proofreading perspective. The IA needs to understand their work so as to build in the right workflows and metadata. These staff, too, will likely get training on the CMS from the IA.

    Graphic Designers those who create the imagery and graphical templates for the publications. Again, these are people who have very specific needs around how they create their work product. The IA must understand these needs and translate them into a workable structure and process, as well as train these individuals on the system.

System Team Members and the IA

    Systems Analyst this may be a lead software developer who is tasked with designing the technical architecture of the CMS. The IA will need to confer frequently with this person to share ideas about how the content architecture can work within the technological constraints.

    Software Developers those who do the majority of coding of technical aspects of the CMS and templates. The IA will likely be the "go to" resource for these developers if they have questions about the content model or workflows or aspects of the CMS that are not their core competency.

    Software Developers programmers who may be involved in developing custom functionality for electronic publications (typically Web sites). The IA may be called upon for consultation regarding the content model and how it fits into the functionality these developers are coding.

    Software Testers those who test the CMS functionality. Because the IA has worked closely in the design of the interface and the content model, the IA serves as an educator and consultant to the test team during the testing phase.

    System Administrator the person who will be responsible for maintaining the CMS technical infrastructure, including adding users permissions, new content types, backups, etc. The IA needs to fully understand this person's requirements to build the proper management structures into the content model. The IA may also serve as a resource and be called upon to help educate the system administrators on how to use the administrative interface to the system.

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