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How Designing an Information Architecture is Like Building an Underwater Tunnel

By Josh Anderson, Associate Information Architect at Precision Content

Schematic map of the Eurotunnel (Channel Tunnel)
Imagine it was your job to build a 50-kilometer-long tunnel to connect two different countries. That’s already no easy task, but there’s one more requirement: the tunnel needs to be mostly underwater. How would you begin? In the real-life case of the Channel Tunnel, the builders took a counterintuitive approach.

While information architecture projects are not (yet) as challenging as constructing a massive underwater tunnel, the unique strategy executed by the English and French builders provides a powerful metaphor for how to think about complex content endeavors.

One Project, Two Sides

The earliest digging for the Channel Tunnel began in 1881, not from the English or French sides, but from both sides! Throughout the decades, both countries chipped away off-and-on at their end of the tunnel with the hope that eventually the two sides would meet in the middle.

Similarly, information architecture projects can be tackled from two “sides”: user-first or content-first. Digital content expert Joe Gollner describes these approaches as “outside-in” and “inside-out.”

“Outside-in” (or “user-first”) describes the practices that most people in user experience (UX) would associate with information architecture. The underlying goal is to increase the findability of content, in other words to design, say, a website or app in such a way that users can easily find the content they are looking for. This is accomplished by researching your users’ mental models of the domain space and then creating sitemaps, tagging systems, and other navigational aids. The users first arrive at a site and then bury deeper into it to find content that lives somewhere on the site. This approach was popularized in the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld.

“Inside-out” (or “content-first”) is the other approach. This entails the creation of content that is inherently findable and understandable—not only by human users but also by search crawlers and machine learning algorithms. This is accomplished by structuring content with semantic markup such as DITA XML. Instead of creating “pages” of content, authors create what might be called “chunks”—paragraph or even sentence-length content that can be easily swapped out for other chunks as the audience or delivery medium demands. These chunks are also deliberately designed without any inherent styling (e.g. formatting, colour, animation) so that they can be pushed out to any channel (e.g. desktop, mobile, smartwatch) without the need for arduous, costly format conversion.

Comparison of Outside-in and Inside-out Approaches to Information Architecture

Outside-in Inside-out
Perspective User-driven Content-driven
Goal is to make content… Findable Understandable
Methodologies
  • Mind mapping
  • User research
  • Structured authoring
  • Domain modeling
Examples of tools
Examples of deliverables
  • Sitemap
  • Wireframe
  • Taxonomy
  • User research report
  • Content model
  • Content audit
  • Metadata strategy
Related disciplines
  • User experience design
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Library science
  • Content management
  • Technical communication

Now, a “content-first” approach to information architecture is not new; Precision Content’s own Steve Manning co-wrote a book with Ann Rockley and Pamela Kostur in 2003 called Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy that spoke at length about modeling and publishing modular, semantically rich content. However, this practice has long been associated with the fields of content management and technical communication, as opposed to user experience design. It is only in the last several years that the UX information architecture community has shown a renewed interest in structured content. This 2019 case study from information architect Andy Fitzgerald describes the process behind a successful structured content design project. For a book-length treatment on the subject of structured content from an information architecture perspective, we highly recommend Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow, published in 2017 by Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton.

Futuristic underwater tunnel

Meeting in the Middle

When the two sides of the Channel Tunnel finally connected in 1990, the tunnels had an offset of only 36.2 cm. Such an incredible feat of engineering accomplished by two entirely different teams who approached the project from (literally) two different sides! While Precision Content may not be able to help you dig any underwater railway tunnels, we do have a team of accomplished content professionals with the diverse expertise needed to help you tackle your information architecture challenges from both the content-first and user-informed points of view. Contact us today to learn more about how we can connect your users to your content.

Acknowledgement

We would like to thank Joe Gollner, who introduced the Associate IA team at Precision Content to the Channel Tunnel metaphor during a personal interview.

About the Author

Josh AndersonJosh Anderson is an American-Canadian Associate Information Architect at Precision Content. He analyzes and structures content to reveal the insights that come from the creative organization of information. Josh was an English teacher in Japan and an SEO Specialist in the Chicagoland area before earning a Master of Information at the University of Toronto. In 2020, Josh co-organized and hosted a World IA Day event at the Shopify office in downtown Toronto. In his free time, Josh creates and listens to a wide variety of music.

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