Content Modelling: A Master Skill

by Rachel Lovinger

15 Reader Comments

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  1. I have to admit that it bugs me a little that reading this article makes it sound like “content modeling” is some new shiny tool to go in the content strategist’s toolbelt. The reality is that this is a fairly old technique in the web world, and even moreso in the data systems world – except the rest of us call it data modeling. I’m not sure why we need to give it a new name and pretend like there’s new strategy around how to use it when the reality is, this is all stuff a lot of folks have done for ages, just under a different moniker and using a good project manager to coordinate the construction and sharing (and as a side note, why are we trying to turn content strategists into project managers anyway?).

    We can debate who’s responsibility it is to actually create the data model, that’s pretty objective in a lot of cases. But it’s definitely not new, and I think it harms the industry to not at least give a hat tip to all the work that’s been done in this area prior to today. This seems to be a common and growing problem amongst content strategists lately, in trying to carve out their niche, they’re cannibalizing parts of other fields but acting like it’s new ground.

    Sorry, rant off.

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  2. Having been in this field for well over a decade now I have seen hundreds of projects come and go and content is so often viewed as less important than design, less important than functionality, less important.  I disagree with fienen above because his comments imply that content hasn’t been an issue in our world.  It has been.  It still is.  The more articles like this that are published the more people will start thinking along the lines of content first, which, in my experience, increases the chances of a successful project immensely.

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  3. I should remark following Derek that I absolutely understand the importance of content in our field. I’m a huge proponent of content and content strategy, as a matter of fact (I’ve debated it, written about it, and spoken about it on more occasions than I can count). What draws my ire is definitely not the strategic principle of “content first.” Nor is it the practice of ensuring content is considered throughout whatever project methodology you use. Content is enormously important. Understanding its roles and usable applications is vital for determining its place in overriding marketing strategy. And the practice of “content modeling,” as presented in the article, definitely is a crucial part of that.

    My main issue in this case is simply in the way this particular concept was approached in this article
    – that an entity-relationship model development process was picked up, repackaged, and made to look like something new and shiny for content strategists. I wouldn’t even argue that a content strategist shouldn’t be the one responsible for this necessarily. But I do think it’s a bit disingenuous to present it without acknowledging what it really is, and I see it as a symptom of a bigger problem within the field of content strategy in how we approach concepts of web design.

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  4. Rachel’s observations on the assembly model are well made. Certainly every project should involve a detailed and concrete briefing on the intrinsic data model of the target CMS, early in the process.

    That said, I fully agree with fienen, that large chunks of this appear to be data modeling in a shiny new hat.

    By not relating it to the 30+ year history of data modeling and diagramming, the reader is denied access to a rich history of related, highly relevant techniques. While the simple “content model diagrams” shown in the article have value, they would be so much richer using Crow’s Foot notation (or UML, et al)  with little increase in complexity.

    A good entity relationship diagram can simultaneously appear simple to a lay person, while encoding valuable information for a developer. That’s a great artifact. And one that better serves the stated goal of being an effective advocate for content into the technical realm. A master technique indeed.

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  5. Hello folks, this is an interesting debate. I certainly didn’t intend to give the impression that I had invented a new thing called content modeling. My goal was to share information that would be valuable to people who are working with content but might not have done this kind of activity before. It may not be new, but for people who haven’t done it, I’m hoping this article provides a good introduction to the concepts and practices, and a way to get started thinking about it.

    This kind of activity has been part of my work for 12 years, though I never had formal training in data modeling. What I’ve shared here are the ideas and activities that I’ve used in my own work, and that I think will be most useful for people who are doing content strategy. My editor suggested a quote that I think captures this well:

    “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” – Audre Lorde

    fienen and chetamahori (and any others reading this article), if you have additional resources that you feel will enrich people’s understanding of the history or nuance of this practice, please feel free to share them here. This should be the beginning of a conversation, not the last word.

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  6. While I take fienen’s point that the UX/CS/IA community is sometimes guilty of land-grabbing existing practices, I think it’s valid to call this approach ‘content modelling’ (I say ‘domain modelling’ but potato/patato…)since we’re dealing strictly within the domain of content objects and their thematic, semantic connections, wheras general data modelling might include actors, system states etc.

    It’s great to see this practice getting traction on ALA where hopefully it will be tried by a wider audience to build great, graph-like products. I did a talk on this subject at the IA Summit in 2011 and was greatly encouraged by the positive response from IAs and Content Strategists alike, especially given that domain-driven design is a practice that smells a bit technical at times :)

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  7. Good points Mike. I looked through the slides for the presentation and I love the way you frame data modelling within IA. (Here it is, if people want to take a look: http://www.slideshare.net/reduxd/beyond-the-polar-bear). These are definitely interlocking practices, each with a slightly different focus.

    Here’s how I see all of these models fitting together. There are basically three types of metadata:

    • structural metadata – which describes how the types of content, their attributes, and how they relate to each other)
    • administrative metadata – which describes various administrative states of a piece of content, such as who authored it, or when it was created
    • descriptive metadata – which describes what the content is about and gives it more context and meaning

    The Content Model is primarily concerned with structural metadata, while the Domain Model is largely concerned with descriptive metadata, though there’s some overlap (especially when you start talking about how content objects will be tagged, and how they’re related to other content objects).

    Of course, all of these models have a common purpose, which is to help translate and communicate concepts and intentions into something that can be validated and built. Which makes them ideal tools for creating a bridge between design and technology.

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  8. Thanks Rachel! Agreed that we need a separation of concerns when it comes to managing and designing for metadata.

    I agree that the modelling I looked at in the presentation was about the context and meaning of content: modelling conceptual entities and the real-world connections between them. ‘Things’, if you will, rather than documents about those things. RDF is good for expressing such relationships as subject-predicate-object, e.g. Giant Panda – lives in – Broadleaf forest.

    I think this approach is nice because it frees us from the confines of thinking about ‘pages’, or indeed any specific platform-implementation at all, which is of course the new hotness in this context-centric, platform-agnostic world :)

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  9. I concur with chetamahori, UML based diagrams would have added value to the article both for lay persons and specialists. Else, it’s a well put overview.

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  10. I totally agree that content modeling is important, and really it is “data modeling from the other end.” Honestly, the issues and challenges you describe here could easily be addressed and modeled with ExpressionEngine. I don’t know if the other CMSs are as capable, but EE really shines in this area.

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  11. Intriguing, useful article – thanks much, Rachel… but I agree with others that it would have been richer, more nutritious with a broader perspective, key sources cited, credit given (dare I say more “context” provided?) – e.g. mention of and differentiation from data modeling, maybe via an editor’s intro (dare I say “content curation”?). Here are Rosenfeld and Morville a decade ago in Polar Bear (2nd edition), p. 293:

    “If you’re already familiar with data modeling, then content modeling should seem similar. However, keep in mind that the unstructured text that makes up so much of our web content presents many challenges that don’t come up in data modeling. In effect, content modeling is an effort to apply structure where there is little or none, with the goal of supporting improved searching, browsing, and managing of content. In a sense, content models are perhaps the truest form of bottom-up information architecture: by determining what types of chunks are important and how to link them, we make the answers embedded in our content ‘rise to the surface’.”

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  12. chetamahori and fienen have very valid points, and I’d be really interested to read a deeper piece about the history of data modelling and how this practice has evolved. I’d love more context, but as a relative newbie with a background in journalism, framing it as content modelling makes the most sense for me – and means I can pass this along to other journos to show how and why this field is important, and what sort of thought goes into building a CMS, why semantic markup is important to understand, etc. Super basic for this audience, maybe, but it’s still something I have to argue about with people who don’t understand why submitting Word docs with a list of links is not ‘online publishing’.

    Plus, it’s generated some great resources to follow up on – thanks John and Mike for those. The comments gave some pretty great context.

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  13. I have similar thoughts as Leilani Graham-Laidl also being a relative newbie to this concept and having come from journalism/PR background. Framing it this way was helpful to me because it was simple to understand and gave me a place to start. But, I’m also glad I read the comments to understand that there is a longer history to this practice and a variety of resources.

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  14. Very informative article. Thanks so much. Friends, is there a good book or resources available on Content Modelling?

    My experience is that unless business understand and come out with a definite and intuitive content model – that will be easy to you and group similar content together for increasing its findability – there’s a chance that vendors implementing solutions like WCM will be just happy to refer to existing site layout and design to come up with some kind of a “content model”. This gives you a better underlying technology, but without a solid taxonomy-driven and intuitive content model, investments in technology doesn’t really reap any benefits to the business.

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  15. Data model, content model, domain model…super model :)

    It’s all subjective, but each bring their own unique abstractions to the table, IMO.

    Data modelling may have been around since the dawn of relational databases (likely before). But concept such as relationships, constraints, normalization, etc make understanding this subject difficult (if not impossible) for a business person or project manager with no formal experience in RDBMS.

    Likewise, a domain model (especially in the context of DDD via Eric Evans) is more even abstract still, with a greater focus on business rules/logic and providing a tool to programmers to tease these business requirements from stakeholders and business experts.

    After reading this, I see the content model as being something of a in-between. A modelling framework, specific to those working at the level of CMS (ie: Drupal) not the RDBMS or OO Domain.

    Basically, what I am trying to say, is no harm, no foul in calling it “something else”—it is something else. It would be far worse if you called it data modelling and missed key concepts and made it your own.

    Great article thanks for sharing :)

    Regards,
    Alex

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