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Why you shouldn’t start IA with a Content Inventory

Leisa Reichelt has a blog post on Why you shouldn’t start IA with a Content Inventory

I totally disagree with this. But I work on really big, content rich sites, and they are usually in a *very* poor state, so that may differ from her experience.

I could not start a project without an inventory. I cannot imagine how I would reorganise a site if I didn’t know what’s there to be organised. A content survey is useful to get a quick feel for what’s there, but I know I’d miss some of the most interesting, most buried information. Without an inventory, I don’t really have an idea of whether I’m working with 1000 or 8000 pages and what the intricacies are within the inherent structure. It is impossible to do proper content analysis without detail to analyse.

She says that “It is also the best way to ensure that you’re *not* taking a fresh approach to how the content might be structured and related. When you’re doing a content inventory, you’re unavoidably indoctrinating yourself into the way that things are currently done”

That’s ridiculous. If that is happening, the person who is doing the IA work is just not good at what they are doing. A good IA can take the current structure, analyse it, determine what’s important, and can absolutely divorce themselves from the current structure. Even a poor site has some good chunks and it is important to know why someone has done what they have done. For me this is particularly important as I’m usually working in quite technical domains and never completely understand the domain at the beginning. I’ll just look stupid if I try to break apart something that absolutely belongs together.

Leisa’s alternative approach leads to pure top-down IA. And my experience is that pure top-down IA is just as bad as pure bottom-up IA. A blended approach is essential – where you look at ways of approaching the content, balanced by a detailed understanding of what you have to fit in.

I think the only time they are not useful is if you intend on ditching everything you have and starting from scratch.

Note: I wrote this initially as a comment, but it was so big I decided to blog it and trackback to it

5 Responses to “Why you shouldn’t start IA with a Content Inventory”

  1. Alex Says:

    Hmm, why can’t we all just get along? :) You’re of course both right; it always comes down how you as the IA use the information gathered. We read a book and decide what information to take to heart, if any. And yes, I totally agree that there are good and bad IA’s out there. The only reason you’re whinging Donna, is because you’re so darn good and don’t need no steeenkin’ beginners tips. And, er, I actually mean that. :)

  2. Donna Maurer Says:

    LOL!!!! You’re too funny.

  3. leisa reichelt Says:

    ah, just because we don’t agree all the time doesn’t mean we don’t get along :) I was wondering when Donna would weigh into the discussion… I figured she’d have an opposing viewpoint.

    I think that Donna probably nails it when she says that we probably work on quite different kinds of sites. Perhaps for the type of sites she works on, her approach is necessary. For the kinds I work on, it’s not.

    I also think there will also be a bit of confusion over how ‘thin’ a content survey is. When I’m doing a content survey, quite often I look at just about every piece of content (with varying degrees of detail), but I don’t document every piece of content to the degree of detail that I understand that Donna does.

    In my experience, I don’t think that’s necessary – in the initial stages at least. Too often I’ve documented vast amounts of content only to put a red pen through whole swathes of it. Often times when you’re doing a content survey you’re 90% sure that this is rubbish content (or, what’s the proper term – ROT). No point giving yourself brain numbness and RSI documenting all of this (disclaimer: at least, not for the vast majority of work that I do).

    So, I disagree with Donna when she says that the ‘content survey’ approach leads to top-down IA. It probably does if you don’t look at enough of the content in enough detail. I agree with Donna that a blended approach is better.

    I still hold that getting too down and dirty with the detail of the content makes you focus more on ‘what is’ than ‘what could be’. I think that to argue that it’s a matter of your skill as an IA to divorce yourself from that existing structure is a bit too easy. I think that the problem is inherantly cognitive – it’s just the way our minds work.

    I do admit though, that it’s probably not good form for an IA to own up to that weakness. ;)

    Perhaps, at the end of the day, it comes down to the kinds of work you’re doing and the kind of person that you are. Most of my clients don’t really care for the level of documentation that is the output of a full content inventory, nor do they have the time or the budget to allow it.

    Diff’rent strokes…

    (this almost looks like a blog-post sized comment, doesn’t it!)

  4. Donna Says:

    We might also be just differ in our understanding & terminology about the detail included in an inventory. I inventory, don’t audit. So I usually list everything out, but don’t do an assessment of every page (eg list out last updated, owner, assess for ROT etc).

    So maybe what you call a survey, I call an inventory and we are in complete agreement ;)

  5. Stig Andersen Says:

    I couldn’t imagine starting a project without doing a content inventory. Of course it depends on the kind of site I’m working on. But if it’s fairly rich on content, such as an intranet or enterprise website with e.g. product pages /and/ specifications in separate locations etc, an inventory would be essential. Otherwise how can you tell what to sort out, and so on? Also I find that it’s a good way to get some sort of understanding of what the site and organisation is all about. Even though I don’t study all the pages as such.

    I disagree in the claim that the work on content inventories should stand in the way of creativity and fresh approach. In my world the inventory will result in a bunch of LEGOs with which you can be creative afterwards. Of course restricted by the business needs and clients demands.

    Currently I’m working on a large intranet project. From the outset the client has told us, that they have no resources to develop new or more content. Therefore I need to get a clear picture of what I have to work with. This leads me to – the content inventory.