A Closer Look at Structured and Unstructured Content

June 22, 2023
image features structured windows

This is a post about two types of content – structured and unstructured. Sometimes, the distinction between the two is unnecessarily complicated, but it’s actually very simple to understand. So, with the help of Jo Lam, information architect, and Paligo Solutions Engineer, we will break it down for you. We’ll start with examples of structured and unstructured content in everyday life situations and then move into examples of how companies use these content types to manage their technical documentation.

Let’s get started.

Let’s Get the Basic Definitions Out of the Way

Let’s start with a basic definition of structured content (see a more detailed definition here):

Structured content refers to information that is organized in a defined format or schema, allowing for easy categorization, retrieval, and analysis. It follows a specific set of rules, such as a content model, that defines the structure and relationships of the content elements. Structured content is typically stored as XML or other structured formats and is free from style and formatting.

Unstructured content refers to information that lacks a predefined format or organization. It doesn’t follow specific rules, making it more flexible and less constrained. It also mixes formatting and style with the content. Unstructured content can be found in various forms, including text documents, emails, social media posts, videos, images, and audio recordings.

Jo Lam Simplifies It For Us

Jo Lam knows a lot about structured content; she did her Master’s Thesis on the adaptability of structured authoring models with ever-evolving technologies by analyzing how humans function and process information. Her basic explanation of structured content is:

“Content that uses patterns we recognize and process well to efficiently and effectively consume content.”

That might sound a bit academic, but what Lam is saying makes sense. It’s a methodological approach to writing content using patterns.

Think of it this way. We were not born knowing how to read and write. We had to train ourselves to do these things. And we trained ourselves to read and write by recognizing patterns.

When content is structured, it follows a pattern, allowing us to process the information logically and, in many instances, take action on it. A good example ‌is a list of steps or procedures.
Unstructured content doesn’t follow any rules or patterns. It’s typically free-flowing text with little consistency in how it’s formatted. And it’s designed to get people to emphasize, understand, and think about what’s written. It’s written to evoke an emotional response.

According to Lam, there is a spectrum, with one end being the unstructured side, requiring a significant amount of thoughtful consideration regarding the content itself and its underlying message. On the other end is the structured side, which is about intent and taking action. Also, content can exist between the two. Lam then explains that comprehension will always be a mixed bag of logic and emotional responses.

So, let’s talk examples. Lam believes the easiest way to understand the difference between the two and where each works best is to use everyday examples.

The first examples are the resumé (structured content) and the cover letter (unstructured content). An interviewer walks into an interview knowing which document is‌ which. If they want to learn more about the person’s personality or see if they’re a good fit for the position, they will read the cover letter. But if they are looking for specific information, like skills, education, or job experience, they will start with the resume. The resume is structured to help us quickly and easily find the information we need.

Another example Lam often uses as a great example of structured, technical writing is a recipe. A recipe typically includes the context concept, a list of ingredients, a set of procedures, and a result. Recipes are created for us to create something (take action), and they’re written in a way that makes it easy to understand what we are cooking, what ingredients are needed, and how to cook it.

These are simple examples of structured and unstructured content. Let’s go a step further and look at some business examples of structured content and explain why a structured content model works best.

Business Use Cases for Structured Content

Lam explains that for technical writing, the sole focus is on user-intended responses. One of the best examples is manufacturing content.

Manufacturing companies use structured content to ensure consistency, accuracy, and standardization of information across different stages of the manufacturing lifecycle. This improves productivity, reduces errors, and enhances overall operational efficiency.

Some examples include:

  • Bill of Materials: A Bill of Materials is structured content that lists all the components, parts, and raw materials required to manufacture a product. It includes details such as part numbers, descriptions, quantities, and relationships between the components. The BOM is a reference for procurement, production planning, and assembly processes, ensuring accurate and consistent material management.
  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs): Manufacturing companies maintain structured content in the form of Standard Operating Procedures. These documents outline step-by-step instructions for various manufacturing processes, quality control procedures, equipment operation, safety protocols, and maintenance activities. Structured SOPs enable consistency, standardization, and effective knowledge transfer among employees, ensuring consistent and reliable production practices.
  • Work Instructions: Work instructions provide structured content for specific tasks or operations within the manufacturing process. These instructions detail the steps, tools, equipment, and parameters required to perform a specific task or operation accurately. They help ensure consistency, quality, and efficiency by providing clear guidelines and standards for workers on the shop floor.

Legal documentation is another example where structuring content is important. For example, capturing compliance information consistently and in a structured format makes it easier to aggregate, analyze, and report on compliance data. This helps organizations demonstrate adherence to regulatory obligations, identify gaps, and take appropriate remedial actions.

Another example involves audits and traceability. Structured content facilitates auditing and traceability of legal and compliance documents. By capturing metadata, such as creation dates, revision history, and authorship, it becomes easier to track changes, verify document authenticity, and demonstrate compliance with legal and regulatory retention requirements.

Lam also said that structured content is important in the medical field. She offers the example of using structured authoring to put patient information in concise lists and tables that are tagged rather than monolithic chunks of information. Authoring content this way provides consistency across patient data and allows practitioners to easily compare patient symptoms and medical issues. Of course, the PDF version of the patient history is also available if desired.

The Key Benefits of Structured Content v. Unstructured Content

One significant benefit of structured content is its ability to be reused across multiple documents or channels. There are many examples where policies, procedures, or manuals have much of the same information. Structured authoring allows you to create the content once and reuse it wherever needed. You can pull in existing content and create unique content for a specific document.

Structured content is also easily scaled and extended by adding new topics or paragraphs. And if you update a document, you don’t have to put the entire document through a review and approval process, only the content added or modified.

According to Lam, structured authoring enables you to clearly and concisely define the differences (and similarities) between different documents. For example, regulatory information can differ slightly across countries or languages by a couple of words, or maybe a year. You can define filters or variables to apply those differences instead of copying/pasting and manually making changes.

Another benefit of structured content is that it is easily searchable and can be retrieved based on specific criteria using tags and metadata. On the other hand, unstructured content is more challenging to search and retrieve since it lacks a predefined structure and may require text analysis or natural language processing techniques.

Structured v. Unstructured Content At a Glance

Structured Content Unstructured Content
Organization Information is organized in a defined format, in topics (chunks). Information is not organized in a specific format and is stored as Word, text, Google Docs, or other formats.
Consistency Follows a consistent and standardized structure. Lacks consistency in structure or formatting.
Translation Easily translate individual topics, sections, or paragraphs. Must translate the entire document, regardless if some of the content has already been translated in another document.
Reuse Select topics or paragraphs to reuse in different documents. Reuse is limited to copying and pasting into a new document. (Essentially, you can't reuse it).
Searchability Easy to search and retrieve specific information. Difficult to search and extract specific information.
Analysis Well-suited for quantitative analysis. Less suitable for quantitative analysis.

Structured Content isn’t Hard

Lam said that too often, we talk about structured content in a complex way, making it difficult for people to understand what it is and its benefits over unstructured content. But it’s actually very instinctive, she said, and something we use every day. (By the way, Lam did a podcast on the misconceptions of structured content. It’s worth checking out.)

Structured content is about being concise and to the point, invoking some kind of action by the reader. It’s reusable, easier to update and translate, and easier to find. When used properly, it drives efficiencies and improves productivity, yielding higher ROI.

Unstructured content is the best approach to evoke emotion in your reader. When you want them to think and internalize what you are saying.
Both types of content have their benefits, and it’s not unusual to have both in your company and in your technical documentation. The decision on which to use ultimately depends on what you are trying to achieve.

Hopefully, this comparison has helped clarify the differences and where structured content (and structured authoring) services the most benefits.