The Role of the Information Architect in Technical Publications

Sabine Ocker, Comtech Services

“Architecture is a very grand term. Information Architecture isn’t about designing the next cathedral, but more like figuring out how big of a barn you can make out of a stack of pallets before it falls down.” CIDM Member

In March, seventeen CIDM Members representing writing managers, content strategists, and information architects joined us to probe the question—what is the role of an information architect in your technical publications group? The short answer is, it is evolving.

What does an information architect do? In 2005 JoAnn Hackos defined the role as such:

  • Investigating the requirements of the customers for the content and structure of information deliverables
  • Understanding the underlying content structure of the information types that authors must produce and developing standards based on these structures
  • Instantiating business rules into the structures to support authors and encourage compliance
  • Creating structures that promote finding and reusing content in multiple contexts, including metadata schemes to label content appropriately for delivery to customers
  • Creating an authoring environment that accommodates both the preferences of authors and the needs of the business for compliance with standards
  • Developing standards for content assembly in multiple media that meet customer and business requirements
  • Building stylesheets that apply appropriate formatting to content for each type of deliverable

(For the full article, see The Role of an Information Architect in the Technical Information-Development World)

Most members agreed that Hackos’ definition still applies. However, in addition to the primary functions above, members indicated that the role is evolving in scale, moving from structuring individual publications to designing end-to-end system structures.

This evolution means that information architects are now being asked to work on taxonomies, search engine optimization, and business intelligence. They have shifted focus from structuring the content to be easy to find and reuse, to determining how successfully the content is being found and accessed by users on the delivery platform.

In addition, information architects are now tasked with increasing the efficiency of the content creation lifecycle. Although this could take the form of task automation or increased data consistency, these efficiency increases are more likely to be better processes. One information architect described it as “determining what content not to write.” This allows the finite resources and time to be focused on creating only content targeted toward what users want and need most.

Another important function of the role of information architect, which is perhaps implicit but not explicit in Hacko’s definition, is that of influence. Information architects in our member organizations are asked to provide the technical publication organizations with best practices and tips to writers.

An organization still in the process of migrating to DITA, or new to DITA, needs someone to keep an eye on the XML, help writers align with the information model—or content standards—and train writers. Over time, as writers become more familiar, the information architect does not spend as many cycles at the individual writer or publication level.

Organizations that have mature processes in place and well-trained writers can focus the information architect on aligning metadata with other parts of the company for an enterprise taxonomy, defining the customer or buyer journey, or optimizing the search experience.

With the plethora of responsibilities facing information architects, some content responsibilities are being shifted to the writers, leaving the information architects to concentrate on new and emerging enterprise trends. For example, one member company has asked leader writers to define the structures of their own publications, including the reuse mechanisms they will use—such as content references and conditionalization.

This company also created an Information Architecture Council, consisting of a larger group of senior and lead writers, to research and provide recommendations for content strategy improvements, one topic at a time. Their current project is to gather data on what their competitors are doing and to provide an overview to the rest of the team, including the information architect.

These changes are not intended to eliminate the role of information architect but represent one company’s mechanism for making sure their information architect is able to work on designing end-to-end system structures.

What is in the future for information architects? Members responded that trends and new technologies such as those listed below mean organizations continue to need information architects to help them define requirements for a deeply personalized content experience.

  • Machine learning, AI, and chatbots that enable content to be personal and transactional
  • The content tsunami the places a greater emphasis on SEO and findability
  • The Internet of Things where a content management system can make a cup of coffee
  • The emergence of corporate emphasis on the customer journey, which brings together product documentation and other content domains
  • Smarter delivery platforms that are able to serve up audience-specific, role-specific, product-specific content dynamically

The reasons for having an information architect in every technical publications organization are very compelling. As one CIDM member put it, “Every company has people working on information architecture, irrespective of whether they have someone in that role. The difference is that it is better to have someone thoughtfully working on it.”