in information architecture

Why you shouldn’t start IA with a Content Inventory

Student Papers by Idiolector on Flickr
I get the feeling that there are some people out there who think that one of the first things you want to do, when starting an Information Architecture project, is a detailed Content Inventory. (Want to get into a discussion about what terms to use and what they mean, go to the IA Wiki – I’d give you a link to the exact page, but the site seems to be down at the minute).
Personally, I am of the opinion that starting your project with an inventory of this kind is probably one of the *worst* ways to go about developing a good IA.
Not only is it the fastest way to lose enthusiasm for a project (hey, you don’t do a Content Inventory for fun… they’re really the most tedious work that an IA has to do). It is also the best way to ensure that you’re *not* taking a fresh approach to how the content might be structured and related.
When you’re doing a content inventory, you’re unavoidably indoctrinating yourself into the way that things are currently done. The IA approach (or lack thereof) currently in use, the way things are named and grouped. The stuff you’re trying to fix. It is very hard, once you’ve been through that process, to divorce yourself from ‘the way it is’ in order to be able to work out ‘ways that it could be’ and ultimately ‘the best way forward’.
And, in the early design stages, you don’t *need* to know every single bit of content and where to find it. You just need to know, broadly, what the really important content is (speaking from a content perspective – there are lots of other things you need to know about your client, your users etc.)
So, rather than doing a content inventory, do a content survey. Have a run through the existing content. Work out what’s there, and find out what’s important. Learn about how much exists, how the content will grow (or not), what content is high priority, what are the different types of content.
Then, while you’re still excited and energised about the project, start designing. Pull out your paper and a pencil and get creative. Imagine all the different ways that you could possibly approach this content.
Design when you’re still fresh, then go do your content inventory and make sure your designs still hold.
I guarantee, not only will you enjoy your work much more, but your work will be more enjoyable for users.
And both of those things, I think, are what it’s all about.
What do you think?
Image Credit: Idiolector @ Flickr
  1. I agree. Do not start with an inventory. My experience with my personal blog and podcast blog rather illistrate this. lumpyscorner.com and the del.icio.us/Lumpy associated with it are an aboration of messsy tags, unrelated links and a hodgpodge of postings by an addicted cyberjunkie. This happened because I had NO PLAN. My goal was “I’m gonna blog”.

    Radiostatic, on the other hand, was a plan. We wanted to feature podsafe music with tech news. We wanted to list the artists and songs on the site. We wanted, eventually, to archive everything to libsyn. The result is a nicer stucture for both the site and the del.icio/us/radiostatic. Fewer catagories, bundles and tags. Granted this is a gross oversimplification of the concept you present. radiostatic has very specific content.

    I think there is something central to the concept illustrated. I would only end up in an assylum if i ever tied to sort out my personal site. The purpose of IA is to make information manageable and findable. A plan and a structure, whether specialized or broad, is much easier and wuicker to impliment.

    An inventory IS too cumbersome. A clear idea of what you desire to manage and how you wish to sort, tag and arrange it is much more doable.

  2. ridiculous! Had just finished writing a post on the same subject, when I saw your post. Yes, I agree. And if you talk to bricks and mortar architects, they’ll say the same thing…

  3. I disagree, in part.

    Mostly because of time constraints. Ideally, yes, you wouldn’t do a content inventory until you had a strong grasp of what it was you wanted to do with the site. Unfortunately, I don’t live in the Ideal World, and in the Real World, time constraints can dictate how you go about addressing such things.

    We have found success in splitting up project teams, with one or two people doing a content inventory, and other folks engaging in user research. The user research folks stay fresh, and don’t get mired in The Way Things Are.

  4. Yeah, Donna disagrees with me too. I’ve left a bit more of a rationale for my approach over on her site.
    So Peter, are you thinking that taking the content survey -> partial design -> content inventory approach takes *more* time, so that in order to meet the demands of the Real World, you have to start with a content inventory because it’s faster?

    If so, I think that’s kind of interesting. It’s not been my experience that starting with a content survey makes the process longer. The familiarity that you have with the content having done a content survey tends to make the content inventory process faster, in my experience -that and the fact that there is often a lot of content that you don’t *have* to inventory anymore because you know that large sections need to be retired.

    I’d be interested in hearing other people’s experience in this respect.

    At any rate, all my ideas are very much born of the ‘Real World’ and not the ‘Ideal World’. My clients tend to have deadlines up there with the worst of them. And even worse budgets ;)

    I *do* like the idea of splitting the project team though. Bags me doing user research ;)

  5. I have found that the choice of a content inventory or a content audit really depends on the scope of the project. (As Donna mentioned in a recent email on the IAI post).

    It is a lot of work to do a content audit, without question. And I understand what you’re saying about losing the excitement for the project, Leisa, as that same feeling has happened to me buried in 10 years worth of unorganized content; its mind numbing after a while.

    Before starting a content inventory, it helps me to stay focused by determining end state you are trying to accomplish. Knowing that there is a specific purpose(s) for this work helps to keep me focused and excited about the final outcome.

    With respect to a content audit, I think the key for a successful audit is to also sit with the content creators and talk with them about how what they publish supports the business and their objectives.

    Also, looking to web analytics and seeing where the end users are finding information and how they get to what the business believes is the most critical elements of this content is another means of supporting the audit.

    Just a few thoughts from my experiences…

    Cheers!
    Jeff

  6. hey Jeff, thanks for your feedback. I’m agreeing with what you’re saying… I’m certainly not ‘anti-content inventory’, I guess I was just trying to say that it shouldn’t be the very first thing that you do.

    You say: “it helps me to stay focused by determining end state you are trying to accomplish. Knowing that there is a specific purpose(s) for this work helps to keep me focused and excited about the final outcome.”

    This kind of agrees with the approach of not doing the content inventory first. I’d be interested to hear what do you do to determine that end state and do you have any tips on how to keep focussed on it?

  7. Peter makes a strong point, Leisa. The ideal world would be…well…ideal. :-) It would be great if every project came with a clearly defined end state with everyone in every department on board. That’s a rare event, from my experience. Though working with smaller organizations in the past, I have “bore witness” to the ideal world; and the capacity of both people and technology in this world is, for lack of a better word, awesome!

    In most cases though, this ideal world does not exist. Regardless of the method you choose – doing a content inventory or not – I think it’s important to keep in mind what the end state of your work will be. I ask the simple question of “What is the purpose of your Internet?” to everyone involved. This generally leads to very different answers from different departments. If possible, I bring all those people into a room and outline the various answers to that question (without labeling who gave what answer). This shows the disconnect and the need for a common vision. If we can work collectively to create that vision, a content inventory is sometimes unnecessary.

    If there is still no common end state, I might suggest a content inventory as a solution to helping provide that answer. This becomes theirs and my “end state”. I know I am working towards a possible solution whose purpose is to help the organization answer the question of “What is the purpose of OUR Internet?” with a collective and agreed upon response. In turn the content inventory becomes easier to accomplish, as I know there is value in the work I am taking on.

    This is just one example of defining the end state – as per my last comment.

    Does that make sense? Do you agree with this philosophy? Have you or others tried other approaches to this kind of work?

    Cheers!
    Jeff

  8. The way I express this is that we should whitelist web content (more detail in blog post).

    Basically people get too tied down into “what should we keep” that they tend to keep more than they need. I think it’s better to start with “what do our users actually need” and start filling in from there.

  9. I agree with the initial post but with one caveat – at some point during the process some kind of content “list” needs to be created. for legacy projects i always insist client produces this and avoids any attempt at categorising content – thus forcing me to ask questions, edit and kill content and then start a qualified IA process based on prior learnings from user/business needs.
    for a brand new project its kinda moot as we’re starting with a clean slate so you can come at the task and create a list based on recommendation and learning.
    this would need to be quite a way down the line of any process though to come at the problem with any kind of understanding.

  10. I partially disagree. I think the IA exercise and the content inventory should be done simultaneously, and information architects should work with content strategists as they develop an IA. Why? Because in my most recent experience, IA done without an inclination of what’s possibly buried deep (and could be valuable!) might be completely missed by the IA. Thus no overarching category(ies) are created for the unknown content.

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