March 15, 2013

Map Existing Structures Instead of Using the Three Topic Types

It is not that I don't like the kernel that germinated topics. I do like the idea of breaking big ideas into smaller, more manageable, and reusable chunks. It is one of the cornerstones of good writing.
What I don't like is the reduction of all things into three containers that are both too restrictive and not specific enough. Tasks, for example, cannot contain any conceptual information despite the fact that for most complex actions a reader will need some conceptual information to ground the task and explain its purpose in the larger scheme. Also, given the context free nature of topics, a task cannot depend on any other tasks despite the fact that many tasks are meta-tasks where each step in the task is itself another task.
One way to solve the need for adding context to a task is to redefine task to include an overview block that allows for conceptual information. Another way is to define a concept type that, by definition, precedes a task to provide the required context. Both cases create a more specific, and more useful, architecture for writing.
Similarly, to solve the meta-task issue one could define a new task type that allows dependencies on other tasks. This type, called a procedure, doesn't need to have hard dependencies; it could allow for output generation without inclusion of the sub-tasks. However, it would make it harder to ignore the need for the sub-tasks.
It is not that information architects are not free to make new content types; it is that most don't. They have their three types and try to force everything into them. They ignore the fact that an existing information set will have organically developed topic types that make sense for it. In most instances the argument is that the starting point set was narrative and therefore flawed. It needs to be tamed into the three canonical types for its own good.
The mistake here is that by assuming the new model is better, they lose the native intelligence in the existing structure. They assume it has none and impose it. Unfortunately, this approach typically results in more work and no net increase in the value of the information.
A far better approach is to analyze the structures used through out the existing set and attempt to build types, based on the canonical types, into which the old structure map. This requires some upfront work, but makes the move into topics, or modules, smoother. It also retains the knowledge encoded into the existing architecture. It has grown up as a reflection of the needs of the information, the needs of the consumers, and the needs of the authors. Hopefully, the standardization of the existing structures will result in a net increase in value because it will smooth out the bumps in the existing set instead of chopping it up. It will also give the authors more investment in the task of migration and more able to spot places where it can be improved.
The other benefit of remembering that the structure of existing sets has value, is that it sparks an iterative process. The architecture can be modified as needed. New types can be introduced; old types can be refined or removed.