Better Content Management through Information Architecture

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“To implement a successful content management system, we have to go beyond business process and technology and understand how the organization, as an organism, interacts with and uses its content.”

Everyone understands the business case for Content Management: Organizations drowning in information can’t learn from, act on, or leverage knowledge and resources trapped in assets that already exist. You lose the content’s value if you can’t find it to use it.

To solve problems like these, business often purchases a technology, assuming the former is a feature of the latter. In the content management world, we hear the same kinds of promises from IT stakeholders, again and again:

  • Our developers will provide forms that authors will use to update content online (and every one will live happily ever after).
  • We will use XML (and every one will live happily ever after).
  • We will buy This software from That vendor—off the shelf—and authors will use this to update content. We will customize These options to match our requirements. (And every one will live happily ever after.)

Unfortunately, business often confuses technology for the solution. Forms, XML, and software won’t manage your content. Neither will they help authors create content, nor do they help you leverage content for later use. When Content Management Systems go wrong – and they frequently do – you can end up with terrible nightmare scenarios:

  • Authors write content, and try unsuccessfully to use theCMS.
  • IT updates content in relevant format and uploads for authors to review. The authors make power point presentations with changes and mail them to IT.
  • IT reviews the PowerPoints and uploads the changes.
  • Authors approve the changes, and IT uploads the final version to the site.

To prevent these kinds of scenarios, we try to customize off-the-shelf systems or develop our own, but… IT and business, focused on issues with technology and business process neglect the system-wide ecology that governs how those technologies and processes will be used.

Four crucial factors govern the success of your content management system

Four crucial factors that govern successful CMSs
To implement a successful content management system, we have to go beyond business process and technology and understand how the organization, as an organism, interacts with and uses its content. Four factors are crucial to ensuring an organization can successfully manage its content:

  • Who will interact with the system? Who will create and manage the content? Also, who will need to find and use the content later?
  • What are we managing? What is mission-critical? What kinds of data do we need to manage?
  • How is the system managed? How is the content authored, approved, and managed? How does theCMS enable your business processes?
  • How is the content used? Who will use it, when, and why? How does this integrate with your Information Architecture?

Framing content management in this way helps move the discussion away from business processes and technology. Several familiar methods and tools can help organizations answer these questions and understand how content is created and managed into the system, as well as found and used out of the system.

Who uses your CMS? Authors, approvers, and users (oh my!)

One of the first steps in implementing a CMS should be to identify theCMS users: who will author and publish content? Gather data through user research and modeling.

Scenarios can reveal how the system will really be used, and personas can help business and IT better understand the goals, skill-sets, and motivations that directly impact how successfully the content management system will be used.

The following questions can be useful during user research:

  • What tools are used to author content? At one large research University, instead of composing content using the CMS’s forms, instructors copied and pasted existing content from old syllabi written in Word.
  • How is content authored? At a financial services consultancy, all content was painstakingly crafted by copywriters. In one city council campaign, content appeared as bullet points in emails (or on a whiteboard) that were translated and uploaded by (seemingly) random volunteers.
  • Do the authors and managers understand and use the information architecture? At a large development bank, authors rarely categorized content because they didn’t understand the interface (or its importance). Figure 1 shows a typical content administration screen. Do content authors and managers understand and use the interface?

Figure 1: A typical content administration interface.

Understanding how people use the content is equally important.

  • Who uses the content? In that city council campaign, the website was written for potential voters, but it was mostly used by reporters and precinct captains.
  • How do they use the content? At a large government agency, the system stored versions to help in production of final documents, but writers used stored versions to find examples to copy and paste from.
  • When do they use the content? One music publication published reviews of new releases as a stream of new content, but access was most common for users researching albums long-after they had come out.

    In addition to helping you better understand your users, personas and scenarios can help you test and validate how the effectiveness of theCMS

What are we managing? Handling mission critical content.

What data really needs to be handled by a CMS? In a utopian situation, the database can manage any type of data or content. In reality, it does not work that way. Content management systems usually do not handle all types of data effectively, so you must prioritize critical data and workflows.

  • Where does the content come from? Is it created in-house? Does it arrive in feeds from outside providers? At a large entertainment website, most content came from licensed feeds from outside providers, but in important cases, content was created by onsite editors.
  • What formats do you need to manage? Large enterprises typically manage office documents created, like Word or WordPerfect files. Do you need to manage multi-media files? PDFs? Flash? Implementing search or a decent taxonomy for these formats is a different ball game altogether, and many content management systems simply do not have the ability to manage them efficiently.
  • How often does the content need to be managed? It often does not make financial sense to manage content that is updated on an infrequent basis. Content management systems typically do not have the ability to present brand vehicles – like annual reports – in formats that are aesthetically pleasing and reflect the company’s branding. That job is best left to your creative and marketing team.
  • What content is most important? Critical tasks deserve special attention. Regardless of how frequently critical content tasks must be completed, their importance may require the system allow you to manage their content quickly and flawlessly.

Along those same lines, it may be better to handle a few types of content well, than to handle all types badly.

A broad inventory that lists types of content, sources, and formats can help you understand the potential scope of content you need to manage. Rating the importance of each type of content can help you prioritize what the system must handle, as opposed to what would be nice.

In the example above, handling annual reports might be nice, but managing product descriptions may be imperative.

Along the same lines, task analysis of both common and critical tasks at your organization can further illuminate types of content to focus on.


To implement content management system that really works, business and IT must think beyond internal processes and technology. If your organization keeps in mind the users who will interact with the content as well as the range of types of content, then your CMS is much more likely to succeed.

However, users and content are only the inputs that go into your CMS. Understanding the content lifecycle is the final missing piece. In part two of this series, I’ll examine additional design methods that can help illuminate the early content lifecycle—how the content is managed—as well as the content’s end lifecycle when it finally lands in the hands of end-users.