IA + CS: A Summer Romance?

Summer may be waning in your parts, but it’s supposed to hit 112F here in desert suburbia today. So while you’re pulling out fall booties and scarves, I’ve still got summer lovin’ on the brain—specifically, the steamy notes information architects and content strategists have been writing one another all season.

Turn up the Grease soundtrack, guys. It’s about to get romantic.

In July, Ahava Leibtag gave us 5 Tips on Working with an Information Architect—arguing, chiefly, that we need to stop expecting IAs to know what to do with us, and start giving them insight into what we need and why we need it. Oh, and to get to know them as, well, human beings (pretty sure that one applies beyond the CS-IA workflow).

Just a few weeks later, Chris Detzi published similar sentiments from the other side of the fence in his post about working with a content strategist to conquer a rapid redesign project. His take? The key was to stop worrying about which book says which task belongs to whom, and start focusing on the needs of the project. Divide logically, conquer, and back one another up.

Add in strong posts about sitemapping and wireframing by Theresa Putkey, who’s written before about the intersection between IA and CS, and also Tosca Fasso’s Scatter/Gather post about the relationship between designers and content strategists, and it’s been a veritable lovefest the past couple months. They’re all great pieces about an important topic that’s dear to my heart. I can’t fault any of them.

And yet, I keep hoping for something more. So where’s this IA-CS relationship going, anyway?

Old flings

Feeling nostalgic, I recently reread Dan Brown’s Letter to a Content Strategist—a post I kissed on the mouth last summer—hoping it would give me the sense of satisfaction I was lacking.

By all counts, Dan would be a lovely partner on a project (we should all be so lucky)—and his efforts to avoid defining CS in limiting terms are commendable:

I’m frustrated with the characterization of content strategy as “good writing” or “operational issues.” They are unnecessarily limiting, even if taken in the context of the web. I know there’s a design component here, a newly emergent set of challenges that comes with preparing information to be delivered online.

Yet something rang hollow for me as I sat down with this post again. It’s in the way he describes the distance between thinking about the content in the abstract sense—its relationships, its classifications—and thinking about the content itself, as he freely admits in a comment on the post:

I’m better at thinking about abstract relationships between content types, classification frameworks, metadata elements, etc. than I am at looking at the specifics of content.

Last year, I hardly noticed this casual aside. This year, as I hear the same sort of sentiment echoed in how others are handling the CS-IA relationship, it feels out of place.

The web is shifting, as I’ve obsessed over for some time. A few months back, a Smashing Magazine piece called this future web “portable,” both in terms of the devices we use to access it and the experiences housed within it. This change is about to necessitate a shift in the way we design large-scale systems of organization, prioritization, and connection as well—because traditional website-focused information architecture alone, with all its hierarchical structures and linear paths, isn’t going to hold up.

The more we move into a world where the web is unfixed, and where experiences are fluid, the less we can separate content’s meaning from its structure, and the more we’ll need systems that take both into account simultaneously. In other words: How content works must, fundamentally, be driven by what the content means. And that’s going to force the IA-CS relationship into some uncharted territory.

Lasting <3

So, then, where does IA end and CS begin? Does it always start and stop at the same spot? Do you always need both? Who does what? When do you need a content-focused IA? When a structurally driven CS? Is that the same person?

Taking the long view, the answers don’t really matter. The deeper issues are, how are we going to prepare our content (not to mention our content creators and organizations) for the capabilities—and realities—of the future web? If the structures we’ve used in the past, comfortingly familiar as they are, won’t carry our content into the great beyond, then what will? And how will IAs and content strategists help get us there?

As I’ve said before, these aren’t easily answerable questions, and oftentimes, trying to answer them leads to infighting and turf wars. That’s silly. I don’t want to steal responsibility away from IAs any more than I want to start doing logo design.

Instead, what I’m suggesting is that in a world where technology is quickly allowing us to do some seriously brain-asploding stuff, both parties—not just IAs—are going to have to get comfortable thinking in terms of systems, relationships, and structures. And, both parties—not just content strategists—are going to need to get a lot closer to the content they’re working with.

IAs who want to understand content types and think about them at the structural level will only be effective if they consider them at the editorial level, too. And content strategists who stay too close to copywriting and editing—from whence many of them came—will find that their efforts are largely wasted when carefully crafted content breaks down under the weight of this new web.

Content strategists know content. Information architects know structure. And, finally, our clients and organizations are starting to understand that they need both—and we’re working together more. This is, as Martha Stewart would say, “a good thing.” But while dividing and conquering tasks can get us through today, it’s no LTR.

You better shape up

To get somewhere more permanent—more future-ready—we need to know why and how content is meaningful as a whole. Only then can we make the right decisions to ensure it retains that meaning when diced, dissected, modularized, reorganized and turned into metadata and markup—which will happen increasingly frequently as our web, and our content, becomes more portable.

This will require respect, collaboration, and shared tasks, yes. But that’s just a starting point. If we want to build a relationship that will carry us to the web of tomorrow, we’re going to need to also meet in the middle—expanding our skillsets toward one another, even when it’s easier to assign a task to the other party and move on.

In the glow of summer, it’s easy to hold hands and play nice. But as the season fades and the challenges get greater, we’re all going to need a tough new makeover—leather jackets, red lipstick, and all—to match them.

I hope we’re all ready to tease up our hair and stick it out.

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