Information architecture & content architecture

Recently I had a discussion in the AEM forums about how to reuse content. During this discussion I was reminded again at the importance of the way how you structure content in your repository.

For this often the term “information architecture” is used, but from my point of view that’s not 100% correct. Information architecture handles the various aspect how your website itself is structured (in terms of navigation, layout but also content). It’s most important aspect is the efficient navigation and consumption of the content on the website by end users (see the wikipedia article for it, ). But it doesn’t care about aspects like content reuse (“where do I maintain the footer navigation”), relations between websites (“how can I reduce work to maintain similar sites”), translations or access control for the editors of these systems.

Therefor I want to introduce the term “content architecture“, which deals with questions like that. The information architecture has a lot of influence, but it’s solely focused on the resulting website; the content architecture focusses on way, how such sites can be created and maintained efficiently.

In the AEM world the difference can be made visible very easily: You can see the information architecture on the website, while you can see the content architecture within CRXDE Lite. Omitting any details: The information architecture is the webpage, the content architecture the repository tree.
If you have some experience with AEM you know that the structure of the website typically matches some subtree below /content. But in the repository tree you don’t find a “header” node at the top of every subtree of a “jcr:content” node of a page, same with the footer. This piece of the resulting rendered website is taken from elsewhere, but not maintained as part of every page, although the information architecture mandates, that every page has a header and a footer.

Besides that the repository also holds a lot of other supporting “content”, which is important for a information architecture but not directly mandated by it. You have certain configuration which controls the rendering of a page; for example it might control which contact email address is displayed at the page footer. From an information architecture point of view it’s not important, where it is stored; but from a content architecture it is very important, because you might have the chance to control it at a single location, which then takes effect for all pages. Or at multiple locations, which result in changing it for individual pages. Or in a per-subtree configuration, where all pages below a certain page are affected. Depending on the requirement this will result in different content architectures.

Your information architecture will influence your content architecture (in some areas it even be a 1:1 relation), but the content architecture goes way beyond it, and deals with other “*bilities” like “manageability”, “evolvability” (how future proof is the content if there will be changes to information architecture?) or “customizability” (how flexible in terms of individualization per page/subsite is my content architecture?).

You can see, that it’s important to be aware of the content architecture, because it will have a huge influence on your application. Your application typically has a lot if built-in assumptions about the way content is structured. For example: “The child nodes below the content root node form the first-level navigation of the site”. Or “the homepage of the site uses a template called ‘homepage'” (which is btw also not covered by any information architecture, but an essential part of the content architecture).

In the JCR world there is the second rule of David’s model: “Drive the content hierarchy, don’t let it happen”. That’s the rule I quote most often, and even though it’s 10 years old, it’s still very true. Because it focusses on the aspect of managing the content tree (= content architecture), and that you should decide carefully considering the consequences of it.

And rest assured: It’s easier to change your application than to change the content tree! (At least if it’s designed properly. If it isn’t, … It’s even hard to change them both.)