If you work in IT, you are probably familiar with data modelling. Even terms like data and information architecture may appear familiar to you. But what do they mean to you and is it really important to understand the difference?
I started thinking about it in the context of the most recent projects I’ve been working on, which happened to be in the fields of web content management and e-commerce. If you are familiar with these worlds, you probably know that digital practitioners use the term Information Architecture with a somewhat different meaning compared to what more traditional IT specialists may do (according to some surveys , half of IT professionals do not see the difference between data and information. Well, at least did not see it back in 2013 when that particular article was published).
So, what is an information architecture in a digital context? I would define it as follows:
Information architecture (or IA) is a process and an artefact of designing the structure of meaningful information in a way that maximises the efficiency of interaction between the user (the consumer of information) and the medium.
When we are talking about web technologies, IA often manifests in the design of navigation menus and pathways that ease the pain of finding the information for the users. It also includes matters like labelling and search systems for the same purpose.
The definition implies that to be considered an information object, a piece of data needs to deliver value to the user in the specific moment of interaction. The same data presented in a different part of the customer journey or on a different stage of the business process may lose its value, thus stops being considered as “information”.
If you are after a formal definition, I find this one really good :
Information is any collection of data that is processed, analysed, interpreted, organised, classified or communicated in order to serve a useful purpose, present facts or represent knowledge in any medium or form.
I love the part about “a useful purpose”, it unifies the way UX designers think about information when designing digital experiences and the way enterprise architects should think about information when dealing with business matters. The same paper defines information architecture as:
Information architecture is the means of providing a structured description of an enterprise’s information, the relationship of this information to business requirements and processes, applications and technology, and the processes and rules which govern it
OK, this is one may already be a bit too governmenty and over-enterprisey, so probably let’s stick to the first definition given above 🙂
Now, how is it related to the term “content”?
Today, if you are even remotely close to marketing, you will hear this word everywhere hundreds of times a day. Everybody is talking about content management, content development, content strategy, content delivery, etc…
I came across this definition the other day :
“Content is the presentation of information for a purpose to an audience through a channel in a form.”
Which made me thinking: how is it different from the definition of information that we introduced before? Not really, for a small nuance — when we say content, we usually mean something specifically crafted for its purpose.
My answer (again, probably biased towards web projects) is that:
“Content” can be defined as information purposefully and consciously produced and curated by an organisation.
In the marketing world, examples of content by this definition are articles, ads, product descriptions and so on. In the technical world of IT, it may be user manuals or process specifications. In a broader sense (and giving kudos to Apache Jackrabbit and JCR ), software code can also be classified as content, but let’s not debate about it here 😉
So when we are talking about “Content architecture”, we are talking about organising the information for the ease of production, so that later on it can be converted into information architecture for the ease of consumption.
Let’s take any website as an example. It has a navigation menu and search and filters on the front-end — all the instruments for the website visitors to find what they are looking for. This is defined by the information architecture (IA) of the website.
At the same time, if you are logged into the back-office, you will see a set of content folders and labels and so on. This organisation is created by and for the people producing the information via a given tool; therefore it will be guided by the “content architecture”.
Where is “data” then?
If we assume all the statements above as being true, what is left for “data”?
Unlike “information”, “data” can be considered as raw records requiring processing and interpretation to become valuable.
Unlike “content”, “data” is captured and recorded but not necessarily crafted by the organisation.
A great example of “data” is records collected by web analytics engine, such as Google Analytics. Those are merely recordings of observed phenomena. In order to become valuable, they need skill and expertise to be interpreted and presented in a way that will allow making weighted decisions.
This leads us to the concept of data architecture :
Data architecture is composed of models, policies, rules or standards that govern which data is collected, and how it is stored, arranged, integrated, and put to use in data systems and in organizations.
Let’s bring the three together
Concluding, the content architecture will guide the storage and structure of the content that the organisation is producing so that it can be navigated and managed by the content producers.
The data architecture will structure the storage, collection, and management of observations made by the business.
And finally, the information architecture will define how you pull, transform and represent the content and data in a meaningful way that allows consumers of that information to find it easily in the moments when it matters.
I am still not 100% comfortable with these definitions in the sense that they can be further refined. But I think at least for me it started to make more sense. When structuring the information think about:
- Who is going to benefit from it and how the architecture can enforce these benefits,
- Who is going to create it and how the architecture can make their life easier,
- Which other sources may the data come from and how to ensure the relevant pieces of data are captured and available.
Finally, find a way to integrate all three.
- Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Peter Morville, Louis Rosenfield / https://www.amazon.com.au/Information-Architecture-World-Wide-Web/dp/0596527349