December 5, 2023

Product Spotlight: Josh Anderson on Information Architecture in a CCMS

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Writing and structuring content in a component content management system (CCMS) requires an approach that some technical writers may not be familiar with. Josh Anderson, Information Architect at Paligo, explains some of the mistakes writers can make when creating content in a CCMS, and what they should do differently.

Based in Toronto, Canada, Josh has a B.A. in Professional Writing and a Master of Information degree focusing on Information Systems and Design. After graduate school, he worked as an information architect at a consultancy company before joining Paligo, and he has experience working with several types of CCMS.

Information architecture

What do you do as an information architect at Paligo?

Josh Anderson: As part of the sales team, information architects at Paligo work hand in hand with solution engineers to give demos to potential customers. Part of this is making sure that the client’s goals are a good fit for the kind of multi-channel, component content publishing that Paligo specializes in. For current customers, I also explain Paligo features that help them organize their content in the best way.

What does information architecture mean in the context of Paligo?

Josh: Information architecture is about how you organize content, and in Paligo this means how you are going to manage the parts of your content within our CCMS in a way that makes sense. Topics are the main way we structure content in Paligo, which are smaller chunks of information. We call this topic-based authoring.

For my role, it comes down to helping people with things like topics and content reuse. To explain the structure in a little more detail, topics include a title and some sort of description. Then within a topic, you have what we call elements. Elements are ways to structure the content within a topic, so there is an element for paragraphs, for example, and an element for step-by-step procedures, images, plus many others.

If you want to provide extra information in your elements, you can do that through attributes. An attribute is a type of metadata about the element, so for example, an attribute of an image could be its width. As an information architect, I help people make the right decisions about which elements and attributes to use.

Topic-based authoring and structuring content

What are some of the mistakes people make with topic-based authoring?

Josh: When people first start creating topics in a CCMS, they might write topics that are very long or unwieldy, so they haven’t quite adopted a structured, microcontent approach yet. They might still be writing in terms of full chapters, as opposed to individual topics.

With a CCMS like Paligo, it’s only at the time of publishing when you might decide that you want a full collection of sections to comprise a certain chapter. So some people might approach Paligo trying to put too much into one particular topic. If you notice that you have to keep scrolling when writing a topic, then you should probably take that as a sign that it’s time to break it into smaller chunks.

People might also try to fit content into elements that are not well suited for what they’re trying to do. I’ve seen tables inside of tables inside of tables, and usually there’s a better way to organize and display that information.

How do you help users structure content in a different way?

Josh: To get the best results with component content management, I would say that when you’re writing your content, try to think of the intended reader response from that content. There should usually just be one intended reader response per topic.

So you might ask yourself, do I want my reader to just learn this information and remember it, so it’s reference information? Or is this something I want them to do, so it’s a task? Is it some kind of concept they need to learn? This is what is called information typing, where topics are defined by their objectives.

If you try to write your content in this way, in terms of what the reader will do immediately after they finish reading the topic, this will probably result in you writing smaller chunks that are more usable. Helping clients think in these terms is part of the way we empower them to become proper information architects and content strategists themselves.

Creating content in Paligo

What do people need the most help with if it’s their first time using a CCMS?

Josh: If they’re new to using a CCMS, this might be the first time they’ve worked with structured authoring. In structured authoring, you write content according to predefined rules that make content easier to find and reuse, which helps keep it more consistent and accurate.

With structured authoring, there are a few important things to keep in mind. One is that instead of writing free-flowing text, your writing is more like filling in a form. In Paligo, for example, writers use an XML editor that adds important metadata about what they are writing, which makes the content easier to organize and search.

One thing I really like about Paligo is that even though you’re authoring in DocBook XML, you wouldn’t even really know that unless you open the code editor. I think Paligo does a good job of letting authors take advantage of the benefits that you get from structured authoring and XML without getting bogged down by too much complexity. Paligo makes it obvious what elements you should use and when.

What else should writers keep in mind when writing in Paligo?

Josh: We really emphasize that in structured authoring, the content is separate from how it will be presented. When people are writing in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, they’re used to being able to highlight text, adjust the font size, or change the color.

With the Paligo approach, you’re not styling content on a one-off basis. You don’t need to worry about whether a particular title needs a certain font size, because with structured authoring, your content is written without any kind of inherent style to it. The style part comes later when you publish the content.

I think quick publishing is one of Paligo’s greatest strengths. You can generate good-looking PDFs and HTML5 help sites within seconds or minutes. There are default layouts ready to go for all kinds of different outputs. And, of course, for those who want to style their content with a certain look, such as according to their organization’s branding standards, we have all the tools for that.

With Paligo, you don’t need to be an extremely knowledgeable programmer, or need to know all about the DITA Open Toolkit, to get your content published fast.

What do you like most about the Paligo platform?

Josh: I think the product is genuinely the best at what it is, which is a software-as-a-service CCMS. Paligo really has its finger on the pulse of what technical writers in a modern-day setting need, which is structured XML-based authoring and easy multi-channel publishing. For writers who might otherwise be intimidated by the complexities of structured authoring, Paligo gives them the tools they need with an interface that is easy to work with.

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