This post was the feature article from my first issue of Informer, back in 2005. It’s just as relevant now as then. Jonathan Engel of Info Ark Ltd provides his own humorous take on current practice in information architecture:
Moses and metadata
Last week information architect Jonathan Engel fell asleep after reading the Old Testament and a book on information architecture in the same sitting. As you do. While he dozed, the following dreamy conversation occurred:
Engel – – So, Moses, still railing against graven images?
Moses — The people bow before other false gods. They worship the bells and whistles of information technology without reverence for information structure.
Engel — What can you do? Most IT directors are gadget freaks. They’d replace the London Symphony Orchestra with a golden I-Pod if they could round-up enough earphones.
Moses – – I have new commandments to put the people on the true path of information architecture.
Engel – – I hope you accentuate the positive this time. “Thou shalt not” was too downbeat. And between you and me, commandment number seven isn’t winning many converts.
Moses — Ah, that was a transcription error. It should have read “Thou shalt not commit idolatry.”
Engel—So let’s hear commandment number one for structuring information.
Moses — Business requirements should determine IT solutions, not vice-versa. You wouldn’t employ a building contractor before you had your blueprints, would you?
Engel — You haven’t seen my house. How about commandment number two?
Moses — Requirements for classifying content should be drawn from users and subject specialists. You need that bottom-up detail to balance your top-down business goal of information consolidation.
Engel — Speaking of bottoms up, can you turn your mineral water into something more interesting?
Moses — That wasn’t my schtick. But I’ll split it with you.
Engel — OK, then how about number three?
Moses — Information architecture should be component-based. An organization’s resources can be described with a multitude of metadata tags — by location, by subject area, by audience, by document type. That approach makes the structure infinitely expandable, yet consistent.
Engel — So it’s analogous to buying compact hi-fi components rather than a bulky music centre?
Moses — If you say so. Ready for number four? Information architecture should use and support international and industry standards.
Engel — Say, while we’re on that subject, whatever happened to the cubit?
Moses — OK, sometimes you need to map between standards, especially with legacy systems.
Engel — Where do taxonomies fit in?
Moses — That’s commandment number five. Taxonomy should be the core information structure. That way, you get the benefit of hierarchical inheritance. You can then refine the structure as a thesaurus with synonyms and an ontology that shows other relationships and shared properties.
Engel — Like the Red Sea and red wine?
Moses — You’re catching on fast. Now number six is one of my favourites. Your information structure will evolve but top levels should remain stable.
There should always be an obvious, existing location for future sub-headings.
Engel — So you can have a big vision, but realize it in small steps, perhaps over several years.
Moses — Tell me about it. Next time I journey to the Promised Land, I’m getting a good project manager.
Engel — OK, so how about number seven?
Moses — Your standard structure should be the unifying core of all knowledge management initiatives.
Engel — Sorry, when you said “knowledge management” I must have dozed off.
Moses – In other words, the same information structure should link content management systems, customer relationship management projects, expert location software, plus any information displays on the intranet, extranet and Internet.
Engel — Doesn’t that mean the structure has to be flexible?
Moses — You bet your burning bush. To keep it future proof, the structure should be platform-neutral and display-neutral.
Engel — For those who are counting, that was number eight. Hey, we’re on a roll. Hit us with number nine.
Moses — The same structure should support seamless search, hierarchical navigation and push delivery.
Engel — Can the same structure help integrate third-party information sources with internal content?
Moses — You have to ask?
Engel — So who are the chosen people to apply these metadata tags to content?
Moses — Ideally, the content authors themselves. Which brings us to commandment number 10. The structure should be simple enough to be applied manually. However, a well-structured classification scheme will make automated tagging much easier to implement, and more precise. Do you want to talk about Bayesian algorithms?
Engel — Maybe another time. So that’s it? The 10 commandments of information architecture?
Moses — Well, we had another five, but the man upstairs forgot to tag them as “commandments.” We lost them in a batch delete.
© InfoArk Limited 2005
Jonathan Engel is the director and chief information architect at consultants InfoArk Limited. He has built content classification schemes for Reuters, Syngenta, the NHS and other UK government bodies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.