• Marianne Calilhanna

Structured Content is Like Your Closet

a featured post by Val Swisher, Founder and CEO of Content Rules, Inc.

I’ll admit it. I watch a lot of shows on HGTV. And one of my favorites is, “House Hunters.” In House Hunters, a couple (most often) puts together a list of things each person is looking for in the next house of their dreams. Some people want granite counters (I think this is silly, counters are easy to replace, but I digress…). Some people want a finished basement. But, so often, at least one of the people wants a big closet.


The Big Closet of Your Dreams

Imagine you are on House Hunters and you score a house with a decent-sized closet. Your mind fills with fantasies of how organized, neat, and efficient your new closet life is going to be.


On move-in day, you start unpacking your wardrobe. However, the closet only has a couple of hanging rods across the top and middle. Into this closet, you attempt to put all your clothes, from shoes and socks, to suits and ties, sweatpants, everything.


You try to loosely organize the closet – given that all you have are a couple of hanging rods. You have a hanger for all your ties (hanging haphazardly across the middle), you have a pile of socks in one corner, your shirts are on hangers, but placed randomly on the bars. You get the picture.


Your new closet looks ends up looking like this:


So much for the glorious new lifestyle of organization and efficiency, right?


The Content Closet of Your Nightmares

Now, let’s think about content. Specifically, think about a server and unstructured content. The server is like the closet with one or two hanging rods. It provides a little bit of organization, but nothing that you can really work with. The content is like the scarves hanging all over the place and the pile of shoes on the floor. It’s a big mess in a big heap. And as you add to your content (or, if you are like me, your shoe collection), the situation just gets worse and worse.


What if you wanted to reuse your black pumps to go to a party? You know, those same pumps that you wore to the business meeting in Las Vegas last month? You cannot find them. You must go and buy a new pair of black pumps – who has the time to dig through that pile?


Reusing content is exactly the same thing. You know that someone else wrote an overview of the feature set that you now have to write an overview for. And you’d reuse it if you could. But you cannot find it and you don’t have the time to go digging through the pile. So, you write a new one that’s almost the same as the existing one.


Just like reusing my black pumps, I cannot reuse an existing piece of content if I cannot find it.


Structured Authoring and the Clothing Management System

Now let’s think about organization. Let’s imagine that you remodeled and brought in a company to install this beautiful closet:


Ahhhhh. Shelves, drawers, a place for shoes. This is your Clothing Management System, or CMS. It has a place for everything, and everything has a place. It is your built-in system with models for storing all your content. Socks go in a drawer. Jackets go on a hanger. Rings go in a little slot in a special jewelry drawer.


Similar to your closet, in a structured authoring environment, you need to create models for different content types. Your installation guide model is going to be different from your software setup model. After all, you cannot hang a skirt on a pants hanger.


I know, it may seem corny, but it is such an accurate analogy.


Structure Is Literally ‘Use it or Lose it’

One final thing – and here is really the important part.


As you put your clothes into your new closet, you must come up with a system – a clothing taxonomy – for organizing and storing your belongings. If you do not know how to categorize your clothes, you still won’t be able to find the elusive pair of black pumps.

Then, as you add to your collection, you need to stay within the system. If you start mixing your white socks with your blue socks, after a while, you won’t be able to find your red socks anymore.


You can have the best organization in the world – a place for your blue socks, a place for hats, and a place for coats. But if you don’t commit to using this organization, you’ll soon end up with the same mess you had before.


Same with your content. No amount of modeling, style sheet development, tagging, and so on will help if you do not rework your content to fit the model.


You cannot keep shoving your shoes into a pile on the floor and expect that you will be able to find the black pumps because your closet now has shelves and drawers. It simply doesn’t work that way for clothes and it doesn’t work that way for content.


Before you get really excited that your CMS is in, your authoring tools are selected, and your taxonomy has been completed, realize that the real work begins now. Now you must transform the content itself, organize it, segment it, put it in its proper place with its proper metadata. Only then can you achieve your content goals.


I’m going to buy a new pair of black pumps anyway. But that’s just the way I am.

WEBINAR: The Tale of the Structured Closet: How Structured Content Saves Time & Money


Do you have questions about structured authoring?

Many people do. Content Rules will be presenting all about the topic on December 5th at 10am (PT). The webinar is called “The Tale of the Structured Closet: How Structured Content Can Save You Time and Money.” Get your questions ready and save your spot now.

This webinar introduces the basics of structured authoring: what it is, how it differs from unstructured writing, and the tools you need to support it. If you don’t know what structured authoring is, or if you have lingering questions about the topic, this webinar is for you.

In this talk, you'll learn:

  • The differences between unstructured writing and structured writing

  • How to organize structured content

  • What a taxonomy is and how to use it

  • How structured content separates text from format

  • How translation works in a structured environment

Date: Thursday, December 5, 2019 Time: 10am - 11am PT / 1pm - 2pm ET

Register to attend (it’s free!) The Tale of the Structured Closet If you can't attend, you'll still receive access to the post-webinar recording.

Val Swisher is the Founder and CEO of Content Rules, Inc.


Val enjoys helping companies solve complex content problems. She is a well-known expert in content strategy, structured authoring, global content, content development, and terminology management. Val believes content should be easy to read, cost-effective to create and translate, and efficient to manage. Her customers include industry giants such as Google, Cisco, Visa, Facebook, Microsoft, and Juniper Networks. She's the author of three books. Her latest is, "Global Content Strategy: A Primer," an introduction to creating and managing global content.


Val is on the Advisory Board for the Technical Communications Program at the University of North Texas. When not working with customers or students, Val can be found sitting behind her sewing machine working on her latest quilt. She also makes a mean hummus.

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