Structured Content is Like Your Closet

I had a really interesting conversation today with my friend, Cheryl Landes. For those of you who don’t know Cheryl, she is a content organizer extraordinaire. Cheryl has tremendous experience – particularly in the indexing arena. And for those of you who don’t have an appreciation for the fine art of indexing, well, what can I say? The professional indexers who I’ve worked with are the content equivalents to those people who go into the homes of hoarders, clear out the garbage, and make order out of chaos.

Cheryl and I discussed a number of topics ranging from findability, to Google SEO algorithms (we cannot keep up with them either), to tagging and taxonomy, and organizing content in a structured environment. We came upon an analogy that I want to share with you, in case it helps your thinking, like it informed mine.

Imagine you have a house with a decent-sized closet. But the closet only has a couple of hanging rods across the top and middle. Into this closet, you put all of your clothes, from shoes and socks, to suits and ties, sweatpants, your entire wardrobe.  And you try to loosely organize the closet – given that all you have are hanging rods. You have a hanger for all of your ties (hanging haphazardly across the middle), you have a pile of socks in one corner, your shirts are on hangers, but placed randomly on the bars. You get the picture. Your closet looks kind of like this:

Now, let’s think about content. Specifically a server and unstructured content. The server is like the closet with one or two hanging rods. It provides a little bit of organization, but nothing that you can really work with. And the content is like the scarfs hanging all over the place and the pile of shoes on the floor. It’s a big mess in a big heap. And as you add to your content (or, if you are like me, your shoe collection), the situation just gets worse and worse.

What if you wanted to reuse your black pumps to go to a party? You know, those same pumps that you wore to the business meeting in Las Vegas last month? You cannot find them. You have to go and buy a new pair of black pumps – who has the time to dig through that pile?

Reusing content is exactly the same thing. You know that someone else wrote an overview of the feature set that you now have to write an overview for. And you’d reuse it if you could. But you cannot find it and you don’t have the time to go digging through the pile. So, you write a new one that’s almost the same as the existing one.

Now let’s think about organization. Let’s imagine that you remodeled and brought in a company to install this beautiful closet:

Ahhhhh. Shelves, drawers, a place for shoes. This is your Clothing Management System, or CMS. It has a place for everything and everything has a place. It is your built in system with models for storing all your content. Just like in a structured environment, you need to create models for different content types. Your installation guide model is going to be different from your software setup model. After all, you cannot hang a skirt on a pants hanger.

You with me? I know, it may seem corny, but it is such an accurate analogy.

So, one final thing – and here is really the important part. You can have the best organization in the world – a place for your blue socks and a separate place for your white socks, a place for hats, and a place for coats. However, if you do not know how to categorize your clothes, you won’t be using your structure efficiently – and you still won’t be able to find the elusive pair of black pumps.

As you put your clothes into your new closet, you must come up with a system – a clothing taxomony – for organizing and storing your belongings. As you add to your collection, you need to stay within the system. If you start mixing your white socks with your blue socks, after a while, you won’t be able to find your red socks anymore.

Same with your content. No amount of modeling, style sheet development, tagging, and so on will help if you do not rework your content to fit the model. You cannot keep shoving your shoes into a pile on the floor and expect that you will be able to find the black pumps because your closet now has shelves and drawers. It simply doesn’t work that way for clothes and it doesn’t work that way for content.

So before you get really excited that your CMS is in, your authoring tools are selected, and your taxonomy has been completed, realize that the real work begins now. Now you have to work on the content itself, organize it, segment it, put it in its proper place with its proper metadata. And then you will have achieved your goals.

I’m going to buy a new pair of black pumps anyway. But that’s just the way I am.

Val Swisher

Val Swisher is the CEO of Content Rules. She is a well-known expert in global content strategy, content development, and terminology management. Using her 20 years of experience, Val helps companies solve complex content problems by analyzing their content and how it is created.

When not blogging, Val can be found sitting behind her sewing machine working on her latest quilt. She also makes a mean hummus.

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Blog · Content Development · Content Strategy · November 8, 2012


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  • Marcia Johnston

    Brilliant, Val. I love “Content Management System” and “clothing taxonomy.”

    Remember the SNL skit, “The Anal-Retentive Cook”? The cooking-show host spends the whole show rearranging the ingredients: by color (red things together), by food group (veggies together), etc. So many taxonomy possibilities! If only he could have used metatags … but that would have taken all the fun out of it.

    My best friend has a kitchen-utensil taxonomy that anyone else would find baffling. Things with holes go together: slotted spoons, colanders, sieves. I can’t find a thing in her kitchen, but the scheme works for her. 🙂

    • That’s pretty funny, Marcia. Back when my Mom was alive, she could walk into my kitchen, in any of the apartments or houses where I lived over the years, and immediately be able to find everything. My kitchen management system (KMS) was just about identical to hers – right down to where I keep the measuring cups and the olive oil.

  • This is fantastic and hilarious. Also, I’m convinced people can learn everything there is to know about me from looking at my closet organization, or the organizers in the bathroom.

  • My 1st thought in seeing the title was “Easy to organize, bitch to maintain.”

    • BettyBlueEyes

      I think it’s still a lot easier than trying to maintain a junk pile. My closet still can get disorganized, but at least I have a template to return to when I need to find my way again.

  • peeweesf
    • And so it was! I shoulda figured that if anyone else were to think this way, it would be Kristina Halvorsen and her cohorts. Wow, Meghan’s post goes into a lot of great detail. Thanks for pointing it out. And here I was, thinking I was so unique. ☺

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  • I can’t have clients visit my house because if they ever see my closet, they’ll fire me.

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  • I’m going to use this analogy but I’ll man it up by talking about looking for power tools in a disorganized workshop.

    • I think comparing content to a garage works equally as well. Please let me know where you decide to use the analogy! or any others that you may find that work well.

  • GringoViejo

    “Now you have to work on the content itself…”

    There’s the key, IMO. Some people and organizations spend so much time and effort on taxonomy, tools, and grand schemes that they never get around to doing a decent job of updating what they’ve got or developing new content.

    I don’t care if you wore your pumps in Vegas, Val — there’s no reason why you can’t wear them again or even use them for four, five, ten years. But once they’re hopelessly scuffed and full of holes, or no longer fit for whatever reason, it’s time to replace them, not spend all your time worrying about how to store and retrieve them.

    (Sorry for straining this analogy, but this is the voice of experience. And don’t get me started on “We can’t rewrite that [chapter|section|sentence] because of the cost of re-translation”.)

    • I agree 100% and then some! Content is useful until it is not. And once it is not, it doesn’t make sense to spend a huge amount of time on storage and retrieval. Of course, many companies need to have historical information. But I have seen too many companies waste precious time and money on converting each and every legacy document, dating back to the start of the company. Instead, they should focus on the pertinent content that’s already been created and the content they need to create, store, and manage in the future. Thanks for your comments!

  • Daniel Baker

    About analogies: This might be seen as off this subject, but… there is in a corporation very strong tendancy to store electronic copies of content – particularly file based – in team/group/department/individual repositories. We all know that this is hazardous in that the master and/or one or more copies may be updated out of synch with each other. Within a document based environment (yuk), I have been advocating using links to the one and only doc, and having its ID on the cover. Analogy: You don’t need a plumber, electrician, carpenter, urologist sitting in your office ready to be used. You just need the telephone number, hot line, speed dial, email, IM address to where they actually reside. This does NOT go against organizing; like stuff needs to be wtih like stuff, not according to what department or team creates it. Yes, that makes it easier to find, it helps transparency for random managers who might want to check it.

    • nc_mike

      There are ways to achieve both team based localized product development across isolated agile development environments (team-based daily agile churn), and centralized enterprise content management at the same time using only one instance (no duplication or replication) of the documentation source files and collections but it isn’t easy without creating custom connectors to do so. On one hand you must understand the value of say, associating a defect, a work item, and epic, or story very tightly across dozen’s or even hundreds of small team (separate) development collaboration systems as they each need to micro manage development sprints, but at the same time seeing the value of a horizontal enterprise CMS vault for global sharing and reuse. The two are not mutually exclusive and coexistence is achievable; You have to be willing to invest the development effort to achieve system interoperability that you’ll never get out of any CMS box as the array of agile development systems abound.

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  • nc_mike

    Another problem typical with CMS implementations is for organizations that are far flung, they often choose CMSes that each have their own vaults per location. Even the best organized closet (vault) can only help so much if there are multiple closets. Some try to get around that by replicating the closets, but it still doesn’t solve the problem. What these enterprises must realize they need is a single robust enterprise closet!

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