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posted on 04.04.2012 posted by Jeff Pass

Crossing Channels at IA Summit 2012

The IA (Information Architecture) Summit is the preeminent gathering of information architects, experience designers, and related user experience (UX) professionals (as well as representatives of the publishing, marketing and advertising, academic, and library science communities). Each year the IA summit is held in a different U.S. city and this year I was fortunate enough to represent Aquilent at the IA Summit 2012 (#ias12) in New Orleans.

Cross your Channels

The theme of #ias12 was “Experience Across Channels” and many of the sessions (as well as the pre-conference workshops) focused on the notion that the best way to successfully share content across channels is to treat content as content, not as a content type. That is to say, a title is a title, a summary is a summary, and body content is body content. These items can be composed together into an HTML page (or a PDF or a tweet or whatever), but are not inherently wedded to any one presentation or document extension.

The example that came up in literally dozens of disparate sessions was National Public Radio (NPR). The NPR content and development teams came up with an approach called COPE: Create Once, Publish Everywhere.  The individual elements of the COPE philosophy are scarcely new, but the way NPR has articulated it, and their success in pushing out their content to a wide variety of channels stands out as example of IA, content strategy, and content management done right.

COPE is made of a number of tightly related philosophies including:

  • Build content management systems (CMS), not web publishing tools (WPT)
  • Separate content from display
  • Ensure content modularity
  • Ensure content portability

Careful adherence to the COPE philosophy (in this case through their home-grown CMS) allows NPR to publish the same content out to numerous different presentation layers without any additional content work. These include: NPR.org, NPR mobile sites (for iPhone, Android, Symbian, and WAP), various station sites, public mash-up sites (like NPR Addict, NPRBackStory, Ruby Wrapper, and Reverbiage), NPR widgets, and various station modules. (Read more about COPE in NPR Director of Application Development Daniel Jacobson’s excellent post on programmableweb.com and see examples of COPE in action on slideshare).

Learn from the Experts

Similar to and an extension of the cross-channel theme was the repeated mantra heard across workshops and sessions: listen to and learn from the experts. In this case the experts are not IA luminaries (more on that later), but rather members of the newspaper (print and web) industry and the library science discipline.

You see, the notion of treating content as content is a very old concept indeed. Print journalists and editors have long understood that for any given story you need multiple headlines, leads, by-lines, and even content bodies. This allows the same story to be split between the front page and interior, to be featured in a sidebar, referenced in another article, or in a week-in-review article roll-up. Therefore digital journalists and editors intuitively understand that you may need even more headlines, leads, by-lines, content bodies, etc. in order to ensure that the same piece of content can go out in print, long form in HTML, as a Facebook post, as a tweet, as a blog post, and so on.

And going back as long as information has been collected in libraries, librarians have understood that in order to meaningfully collect, organize, and share content you need to capture and record objective data about the content; data about the data or metadata.

Of course this is all very straightforward, but #ias12 keynotes, speakers, and facilitators alike pointed out (with irony as well as disappointment) the fact that site owners, content and development teams, contractors, and content owners are constantly reinventing the wheel when it comes to content organization, categorization, and labeling.

In these discussions the Boston Globe took the place of NPR as the example sited across speakers and sessions. In this case, the references not only pointed to the Globe’s long experience with the creation, labeling, and repurposing of flexible content, but also their recent (and highly touted) responsive design redesign of the bostonglobe.com

Bring it Home to Aquilent

While the majority of the attendees and participants at #ias12 were UX professionals operating in the for-profit and not-for-profit space, major consultancies, private site owners, and academics, a great deal of their wisdom applies directly to the Federal web space (Aquilent’s home turf).

Luminaries like Peter Morville (@morville) spoke about the need to reduce the number of related websites in order to promote findability and to improve user experience. Keith Anderson (@suredoc) addressed ways to leverage taxonomy and metadata in order to ensure that content can be easily syndicated, repurposed and (most importantly) migrated seamlessly (“content will be migrated, whether you like it or not”). Adam Ungstead (@adamungstad) stressed the distinction between multi- and cross-channel content and why it is important that UX professionals to ensure that their clients and stakeholders understand the difference. And Jamie Monberg (@lomcovak) stressed that when it comes to digital interactions (regardless of platform), low cognitive load speaks to everybody.

Of all of the speakers and all of the takeaways (see them all in my tweets from #ias12 both as @aquilent and as @jeffpass) why focus on these? Because they directly relate to Aquilent’s web strategy and our work helping to shape the U.S. Federal Web Strategy. Both strategies emphasize:

a)      The consolidation of duplicative and heavily related or overlapping sites (as well as the promotion of cross-agency sites)

b)      The importance of taxonomy, metadata, and careful content tagging to promote search, findability, portability, and syndication

c)       The promotion of cross-channel content as well as syndication and the necessary governance and workflow to make it a reality

d)      The presentation of content in a way that is meaningful, intuitive, and accessible (as well as usable) to the largest possible audience

Next Stop Baltimore

The 2013 IA Summit is being held in Aquilent’s backyard: Baltimore, Maryland. Aquilent looks forward to directly supporting #ias13 and to sending a larger contingency of volunteers, participants, and (hopefully) presenters/facilitators. I know I’m already working on possible session ideas.

And with #ias13 being so close to Washington D.C. (and the likely increased attendance by and participation of Federal IT, usability, and user experience though leaders), perhaps for 2013 we will see a greater focus on information architecture and experience design as it relates to the Federal web domains. I know that is a conversation to which Aquilent has much to contribute!

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