Structuring Information for the Cross-Channel Experience

Structuring Information for the Cross-Channel Experience


Wednesday, April 4th, 2012 at 9:15 am

Cassandra Moore

Cassandra Moore, PhD is the Director of User Experience Strategy at Piehead

Last week I attended the Information Architecture Summit in New Orleans (oh yeah!) and talked about the Cross-Channel Experience with 700 of my closest peeps.

“What?” you ask, “You have peeps?”  Sure I do. Let me unpack that a bit.

I’m sure you’re familiar with New Orleans.  Aside from a monsoon or two, it was as fabulous as you imagine. Information architecture? Maybe not so familiar.

In a nutshell, information architects categorize things (like all the products on Amazon), label things, and create paths to things. Those “things” are units of meaning — content like images, text or video that are linked together to tell a story.  For example, they can tell the story of your brand, or your product or service offering. To quote Jorge Arango, one of the more poetic members of our community,  “Where architects use forms and space to design environments for in-habitation, information architects use nodes and links to create environments of understanding.”

For the last 20 years or so, information architects have focused on the structure of information in websites.  We’ve been organizing and labeling to aid understanding, help people find the content they seek and hopefully reveal some insightful tidbits they didn’t know they were looking for.

Recently, mobile devices like tablets and smartphones have become ubiquitous.  More connected devices, many of which have yet to be imagined, are on the way.  This phenomenon has us thinking about the whole information ecosystem and how we can ensure that content is consistent across devices while still being optimized for the device and the context in which it is being used.

In a previous blog, I wrote about how consumers have come to expect a smooth cross-channel experience.  People are purchasing products online and picking them up in physical stores, scanning codes in print circulars with smartphones, and using digital coupons delivered via email.  The channels for delivery of the content are different, as are the devices.  The content, however, is essentially the same.

Content was a hot topic at the IA Summit this year.  Not surprising.  The content is the product; it is the valuable commodity.  The channel, the device, these are just containers.  Josh Clark, mobile designer and author of Tapworthy, borrows a Bruce Lee metaphor to express the idea: content is like water, it takes the form of the container it flows into.  It can flow into a full website, a mobile site or an email.

In order to flow seamlessly into any device or channel, however, content needs to be housed in a central repository, structured in a useful manner, and accessible to any device.  In other words, we need to think about the content to be delivered before thinking about the devices for consumption.  By designing gadget-specific content, we necessarily limit the range of its influence. Alternatively, by taking the time to create a single, well-structured content management system, creating descriptive metadata and building APIs that will send the content to any device, we have focused on the organization of knowledge, rather than simply focusing on its delivery.

Granted, combining content currently held in different legacy systems will not be easy.  Database analysts, programmers and information architects will need to work together to create the new structures necessary to support the cross-channel flow of information.  Building a truly connected future will require placing the new customer needs and patterns of behavior at the center of our thinking.  By doing so we can be nimble and flexible in an ever-changing field of information seekers and delivery systems.