In IA Practice
Summary: How do we ensure that the structures we help put in place are durable and lasting, yet flexible enough to adapt to changing needs? Enter IA governance.

As information architects, we work to bring order and clarity to complex information spaces. It’s what we do. It’s in our DNA. But as consultants, our role is defined by the scope of the project. How do we ensure that the structures we help put in place are durable and lasting, while also flexible enough to adapt to changing needs? Enter IA Governance.

A Fragmented Experience

We recently helped a client in higher education to re-architect their public-facing web presence, which had slowly ballooned to more than thirty separate sub-domains. These sites were owned and managed by various units within the university. Each had unique needs and challenges as well as workflows honed over the years.

These units operated with a high degree of autonomy, with little central oversight. And for as much control as this approach afforded each organizational unit, it also contributed to a fragmented user experience. Common tasks often involved hopping among several different sites, making information harder to find, especially on repeat visits. In an effort to make things easier for users and cut down on cross-site linking, site owners would publish content in their own sections—even if a version of that same content existed elsewhere. Over time this lead to out-of-date or even contradictory information and made the site harder to maintain.

On top of this, the sheer variety of templates, navigational constructs, visual designs, and interaction patterns encountered by a typical user limited the effectiveness of broader marketing and communication efforts. In an effort to cut through the noise, campaigns and other big-ticket happenings would be promoted with standalone micro-sites, which only increased the fragmentation.

This sounds like a problem for information architects!

Bringing It All Together with IA Governance

Now, let’s fast forward a bit. After stakeholder interviews, user research, and analysis, our team had proposed a new structural design that consolidated many of those disparate sites into a more cohesive whole. The new site would be oriented around key user needs and topics relevant to the lifecycle of student engagement—rather than organized by unit.

But those same units are still responsible for publishing and updating content within this new structure. How the content is organized, connected, and laid out for users had changed, but the people behind the scenes had not. How do we empower these individuals to keep their content up-to-date and attend to their local needs, while maintaining the structural integrity and coherence of this markedly different site architecture? The answer to that question is governance. Our client recognized this need and was already taking steps to move from a decentralized model to a federated model, in which a cross-functional committee would provide high-level guidance for anyone contributing to the website. The aim is to retain some degree of autonomy on behalf of individual units, but to establish guardrails to help align decision-making with the strategic goals of the university.

Modeling a Process

TUG helped with this effort by outlining an example content workflow. Acting as a guide for site owners and authors, it poses high-level questions to ask when new content is proposed:

1. Public or Private?

Start by identifying your audience groups. If the content is only applicable to internal users, publish the content within a secure intranet or password-protected area, rather than on the public site.

2. Existing or New

If addressing external audiences, look for content already on the site that serves a similar function or need. First see if you can simply link to the existing content, avoiding duplication. The next best option is to request an update to the existing, relevant content and avoid adding a page.

3. Placement

If adding a new page, determine where in the new central structure it would best fit topically and thematically. Remember that the new structure is based around user mental models, not how the organization is structured.

4. Promotion

Using the site map, determine where else your content should be made visible. Think about logical connections to your content and what your users’ goals and progression through the site may be. Expose the existence of this content by linking to its source, not by duplicating the content. Collaborate with other content owners and applicable cross-functional teams during this process.

5. Maintenance

After your content has been published, also add it to the central content inventory, noting when it was created or modified, by whom, the intent or reasoning (business case, KPIs, etc.), and when the content should be revised or removed.

A key distinction here is between placement and promotion. By separating and sequencing these steps, we frame the decision as first finding a sensible home for your content—and then determining how best to make it visible to people. In other words, just because your content doesn’t live on the home page doesn’t mean it can’t be readily findable and linked there.

Modeling and explaining this workflow helps content owners during the initial migration, and when working within the new structure going forward. It helps them think about the site holistically, increases the likelihood of cross-departmental collaboration, and prompts them to consider the lifecycle of content beyond publication.

By thoughtfully pairing our deliverables with guidelines for how they should be used now—as well as how to approach change over time—we are teaching our clients how to fish (to extend the metaphor from my colleague Joe’s recent post), as well as how to coexist within a complex ecosystem, ensuring that their practices are sustainable long into the future.

Do You Want the Content Workflow PDF?

We love to share information architecture practices that have worked for our clients. This pdf is our gift to you. If you’d like to talk more about how setting up a content workflow can help you maintain your website’s information architecture, please feel free to give us a call!

Yes, I want the poster!

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