Growing from Information Architecture to Content Strategy: One IA’s Journey

More and more of my work has moved from straightforward information architecture and taxonomy work and more into the “why” behind information architecture and taxonomy. For me, the answer to this “why” became content strategy. I realized that content strategy can solve many IA and taxonomy problems I encounter. I decided to use my skills to investigate the problems and create solutions through the lens of content strategy.

A Little Bit of History

Early in my career, I moved from technical writing to software design. In the early days of software design, there was no label for “information architecture.” Once this label was created and someone told me about it, I realized that information architecture was what I wanted to do. (It’s a pretty cool label.) I didn’t want to just design software, I wanted to design information experiences. I didn’t want to document how to use a poorly designed system; I wanted to make a well-designed system. I took on the label of information architect and started designing websites around IA principles.

Again it was early days of UX and IA, and early days in my career. A lot of my work revolved around best practices. Clients would hire me to apply best practices to their website IA and, as one can predict, not all these projects were successful or saw the light of day. Projects would churn around opinion instead of making decisions based in strategy and user-centred design.

As I gained more experience, I took on projects that included user research and usability testing and rejected the ones that didn’t have budget for research and testing. (The luxury of experience and hindsight!) These projects became more strategic, but they lacked one thing: a clear, specific strategy.

Along Comes Content Strategy

At the same time I was encountering IA and taxonomy projects that lacked strategy, a colleague of mine got into content strategy. I saw her doing a lot of things that I (honestly) wasn’t interested in: writing, editorial, messaging, tone, brand voice. When we first started discussing how information architecture and content strategy collide, she kept telling me that I do content strategy and I kept insisting that no, I am an information architect! (I loved the label and misunderstood content strategy.)

As I kept talking with her and reading content strategy sources, I kind of felt (erroneously – hindsight!) that content strategy was “stealing” the IA space of structure, taxonomy, and metadata. Eventually I realized that content strategy wasn’t stealing this space, but had actually incorporated information architecture as a practice into its sphere. I also saw that she was selling this IA and taxonomy component as part of her content strategy projects and it was an easy, natural fit. (And she hired me to do this part of the work while she focused on process and governance and customer experience.)

Taking on More and More Strategy Work

Much like what happened in my transition from technical writing to software design and information architecture, I started having more and more sophisticated IA projects that were much more crucial to the success of an organization, but these projects still lacked strategy! I’ve been on a number of projects where I’ve asked, “What do you want to do with your website? What kind of content do you want to produce? Who is your audience? What are your business goals for your website?”

Sometimes the most I get back is, “We know we need a new website. Our old platform is being sunset. We’re not sure what kind of content we should have, but we need to appeal to everyone. It’s not possible for us to pin down our audiences. But whatever we do, we need to drive sales.”

If I could insert an emoticon with a red, steaming head, I’d insert it here. On projects like this, I always have a user research component included which can answer what the users want from the site, but it still doesn’t answer what the business needs to achieve with the website or how they might measure the success of it.

I was frustrated that this crucial strategy component to my work was missing. Whether it’s a website information architecture or an enterprise taxonomy and information model, this work can only be as successful as it is specific. The less specific, the less successful, or the less measureable that success is. (Plus, I always tell people, “You have to tell people what you want in order to get it. If you can’t tell people what you want, then they can’t help you.”)

So I bit the bullet and started doing more content strategy work… (But still not tone and voice or brand messaging!) In my work, I now research business needs, goals, and strategy, then tie taxonomy and metadata back to enterprise business goals and website strategy goals. No longer am I involved in discussions around opinion but around goals and what needs to be done to achieve those goals. It’s absolutely refreshing and exciting; it makes me a much better problem solver; it’s a way more creative space (for me). Now I can say stuff like, “If you want to have consistent reporting and consistent dynamic content display on your website, you must require some metadata. You must require that authors choose taxonomy tags for this content. If you require nothing, it makes content publishing easier, but the value you get from that content is diminished, your content won’t show in the right spots, and your reporting will be less accurate.”

Why I Do Content Strategy

I met with this colleague and told her, in a very somber tone (because I love the IA label), “I think I’m a content strategist now.” And her response was something like, “Finally. I’ve been telling you this for years.” But I was really concerned that I’d have to do all the content strategy stuff and I didn’t want to advise on writing. I came from a writing background, but that’s not my sweet spot.

It took me a while to figure out, and a couple more conversations with content strategists, that content strategy is no longer (or never was) just about brand voice and tone and messaging, but also about governance, process, structure, customer and user experience. As a content strategist, you can choose your areas of focus but the overall drive is that you’re someone who can help clients go through the strategy creation process and help them achieve some parts of that strategy.

Another content strategist colleague recommended I continue to advertise my IA and taxonomy services and to add content strategy. Why? Because some people still aren’t aware of what content strategy is and IA and taxonomy are more entrenched terms. She also said by emphasizing all these areas, it will help potential clients (who do understand content strategy) to know that I focus specifically on structure.

So… after all this, what’s my title? Maybe I’ll go with “Consultant specializing in content strategy, information architecture, metadata, and taxonomy by using user research and stakeholder engagement to create successful digital experiences.” That’s quite concise, eh?

It’s quite possible that I’ve come in late to the content strategy game, but probably not. For me, being deliberate (in my work) is key to being effective and happy with what I do.

(Being deliberate isn’t always necessary in life. For example, when I travel, I like to look at a map and just pick some place and book a ticket, then figure out what I’m going to do. Hence how my husband and I ended up in Panama or Myanmar.)

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