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IAI Summary Question 1: To Content Inventory Or Not To Content Inventory

Inaugural Question of the Week for the IA Institute Member Mailing List

Leisa Reichelt of posted earlier this month against content inventories, positing that they immerse you in the status quo of the content types and approaches.

Her position is interesting, but we'd like to hear from you about how you react to this post. How have content inventories affected your process and creativity on projects? Is completing a content inventory as one of your first major IA tasks good or bad?


The responses to this question gave a nice blend of ideas, mainly that the initial runthrough of the content at the start of a project can be thorough, but likely should not be the final, detailed audit.

Also, there is a desire to clarify the terms at work here. One person’s “content survey” is another’s “content inventory.” Or, one person’s “content inventory” is another’s “content audit.”

The responses to this question suggest the following continuum for the level of detail:

(Least detail) Content survey > content inventory > content audit (More detail)

Response Summaries

  • Content inventories inspire as much as strategy and users. Understanding content helps drives the content strategy and begins the modeling process for migration to a content management system.

    They key to avoiding content myopia is to look at content produced not only for the website, but also via traditional means, feeds, competitive research, and adding in the desired additional functionality.

    Look for ways to take content, add effective markup, and allow people the ability to build upon it – very Web 2.0.

  • Use content inventory as a preliminary analysis for a more formal content analysis. Then, the latter is a validation of the observed informal patterns.

    The existing content provides lots of insight into what has come before, informs your ideation for the project, and indicates where issues may arise.

  • This issue may be one of terminology – one’s “inventory” may be another’s “survey.” The original post may be saying not to complete a formal analysis/audit first, but rather to examine all the content without getting stuck in the current paradigm.

    An IA that becomes “indoctrinated” by existing content is not doing a good job. One way to learn about your client company (not the users) is to examine what content is on the site. Time and budget are factors here.

    The interesting thing here is the discussion around the differences, if any, between a content “survey” and content “inventory.” This shows that the practices is still in the formative stages and that there should be an agreement at some point in the future.

    In the end, which you do is determined by the project and the client (whether internal or external – ed).

  • Use tangible futures and backcasting; create inventories based on user needs (internal and external) and add ideas projected by the strategic direction. Compare the current to the future inventory for a gap analysis.

    Content inventories should be considered roadmaps, and it will become apparent when old content is not needed.

  • The idea is not to START a project with a full content inventory. Get a sense of the current content, but don’t obsess with the details. Doing so could create a vortex towards waterfall thinking.

    Sketch earlier to create artifacts and shared context. Many artifacts are much simpler to create and digest than content inventories - prototypes, comics, sketches, participatory design, games, etc. Numerous UX professionals are now doing so with much success, and the idea was promoted about 50 years ago - see Henry Dreyfuss’ 1956 classic "Designing For People."

  • Any artifacts related to design research will provide evidence and help quell (fairly common) debates about decisions that don’t need to be made. Besides a shared context and language, artifacts can serve as keepers of key truths and decisions already made. If the “truth” changes, the artifacts change. They serve as the shorthand of the vision.
  • Distinguish between artifacts and deliverables. While a deliverable is part of a projects contract, the artifact is an ad hoc piece of visual information necessary to illustrate a particular point.
Information Architecture Institute: Question of the Week

Hello, Information Architecture fans.

To share the insights gleaned from years of deep dives into Information Architecture and the various User Experience areas of practice, every two weeks we will pose a question to the Information Architecture Institute's member mailing list, collect the responses, then summarize the key discussion points right here on

Look for the first summary in the next couple days.

Jesse James Garrett in Conversation

For the next couple weeks, our favorite IA named after an outlaw will be a guest on the WELL, discussing the Elements of User Experience and other tasty things.

The conversation is well worth checking out (though it's one long page that takes some investment). You can also participate: send questions by emailing the discussion hosts.

Paper prototyping discussion

In case you missed it, author Carolyn Snyder has weighed in on Keith Instone's earlier paper prototyping post about her book and paper prototyping in general. The discussion is well worth a read. Thanks for stopping in Carolyn! :)

IA Education Mailing List

The IA Education mailing list is an open, unmoderated list for discussing topics related to information architecture education. Educators, students, and other interested individuals are welcome to join.

The SIGIA Highlight Reel

This week saw an increase in volume, but an unfortunate majority of that is part of a tedious, ongoing 'defining the damn thing' discussion. Fortunately, we did see a boost in shop talk, as encouraged by Marc Rettig last week.

  • My favorite post of the week is from Jeff Lash and John O'Donovan for Best Practices for Recurring Payments Thanks for the great, concrete examples and real world shop talk!
  • Jeff Isom asked about ways of Labelling a PDF Archive and got a lot of interesting responses. I hope he lets us know how things actually shake out on his project, so we can see how the flurry of opinion helped.
  • Chiara Fox chimed in with a simple answer to a simple question. The reason it's a gem is because it's actually based on a real project!
  • For those of you interested in defining the damn thing,
    Christina Wodtke added to the list of first principles that was started earlier in the week by yours truly. While there was additional useful resonse, I'll leave it as an exercise for the masochis... err... enthusiastic to follow that thread and sort the signal from the noise ;-)
  • Finally, to close off with some more pragmatic, concrete contributions: Livia Labate articulates parts of the IA Toolkit, and Eric Scheid shares experiences with free-listing as an alternative/addition to card sorting.

Of course, you might have other posts that really helped you during the week. Post 'em in the comments.

The SIGIA Highlight Reel

This week's hightlights from SIGIA, the central IA discussion list:

Unfortunately, posts like the shop talk Marc is looking for were rare this week...we'll see next week how things went.

Information Layers Model from Karl Fast

On SIGIA, Karl Fast proposed a rough 5 layered model for information. The layers are content, metadata, semantic, representational, and interaction.

Librarians kick ass on the metadata and semantic layers. They suck on the representational and interaction layers.

Content Management Dissatisfaction

Both the SIG-IA list and a CMS list have surfaced an interesting thread today in regards to an article published at At New York, Study: Content Management Tools Fail. It discusses some high level findings from a Jupiter Research report on the dissatisfaction around the implementation and maintenance of Content Management Systems. I don't have access to the report, but very interesting.

IA around the world.

AIFIA is starting an initiative, managed by Peter Van Dijck, to try and promote, educate and generally talk about IA in an international context. If you would like to get involved with the discussion, point your browser to the Aifia-translation -- international information architecture discussion list.

Rashmi on recommender systems

Andrew pointed me to Rashmi's excellent discussion of findability and recommender systems on sigia-l.

It sure would be nice if the best of sigia-l was culled periodically. Scott Berkun does this from time to time. Maybe the signal to noise has gotten better on the list?

Good gut

Nice discussion on EH:

    I'm beginning to theorize that designers and usability researchers can start to quickly evaluate designs with their gut, once they have seen enough usability tests. ... In fact I think the gut is more accurate than a rule. How to Think With Your Gut lends credence to this theory.
New mailing list for faceted classification

Peter Van Dijk (Poor But Happy) and Phil Murray (Knowledge Management Connection) are starting a discussion group on faceted classification.

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