Think Info

Exploring the information space

KISS and the black box

I have been told, over and over, to keep the systems I design simple. The mantra is familiar; we all know it well: KISS – keep it simple, stupid.

Everyone and his half-brother is quoted saying something of the sort:

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Steve Jobs

Now, I have a big problem with how many people choose to interpret this concept of simplicity. There are several ways in which KISS can be applied.

KISS and the black box

KISSing the system

This is the aspect of KISS that people like Jobs have referred to: it is about reducing the set of requirements; eliminating second-tier functionality.

KISSing the system is about identifying the tasks that really need to be supported, and eliminating the rest. If you can halve the number of tasks the system supports, thereby halving the overall complexity, while maintaining 90% of the user-task needs (i.e. the retained tasks are used more than the discarded), your return on effort will increase.

Of course, just because a task is not frequently performed does not mean it is not critical (e.g. a purchasing process involves putting items in a cart, and a check-out; just because the average shopper selects five items before checking out does not mean we can do without the less-used step). Read more of this post

Dependency awareness (content’s identity crisis)

Is your content having an identity crisis? Does it know what it is?

Content's identity crisis

When elements of content become individual entities, separate from the environment in which they are presented (which is the whole point of a CMS, but that’s another story), the need for awareness of these dependencies becomes critical to the “management” part of the CMS.

Most vendors will tell you that their systems are aware of content dependencies: if you create a new page, with an image in it, publishing the page will also publish the image. Hey, the page is aware of what its dependencies are; what more could you want? Read more of this post

Double standards in the Google Empire

Google is big. Google can do pretty much anything it likes; with a code change – justified by its vision of what the web should be – Google can change the fortunes of companies of all sizes. As such, it sets the rules everyone else must operate by. It is accountable to no one but outdated laws. Google hates contextualisation of the internet; a practice it refers to with the shady term of “cloaking.”

Google logoWhat, though, are we to make of Google employing double standards?

While this post is about cloaking, the thought process was triggered by Google’s announcement that, in the name of security, search query data will no longer be included in referrer strings for logged-in users; this information being critical contextualisation (as well as SEO) data for site owners.
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Silicon bullet syndrome

“When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For the last fifteen years or so, we have all been living this proverb. It seems like every second problem business has come across in the last sesquidecade has been that nail, and the hammer has been computers.

The silicon bulletThe following is a tale of a client, who approached me for some integration information for a new system they are having built. It covers what I tried to explain to them. To my knowledge, while the person I was talking to understood and agreed with me (and had the same ideas) they are still going ahead with the project.

The problem

The client is a commodities association. Every few years, they host a major industry event: a dinner. Association members book tables, then invite guests. The client, intent on making this event prestigious, prints fancy invitations, place-settings and a guest list.

Read more of this post

The Quantum of Content Management

Content management, if done right, bears parallels with quantum physics. (Please stick with me: I will keep this high-level, and only maintain the analogy for a paragraph.)

The uncertainty principle of contentThe principles of quantum physics are confusing. Basically, though, they relate to the smallest elements that can be described, which have a subtle property: their actual state (where they are and what they are doing) can only be determined – is, in fact, only realised – by the presence, the contextual forces, of the elements around them; those they interact with. A single particle can be in multiple places at once, in different phases, until something needs to react to its presence (e.g. it is observed).

When developing (or customising) content systems, we need to give our information structures the granularity of quantum particles, and the flexibility of uncertainty.

Why quantum content?

One of the base principles of any CMS worthy of the name is that content is separated from its presentation. An element of content is reusable. In order to achieve proper reusability, elements of content need to be the smallest that can be formed whilst maintaining identity. Read more of this post

Bubbling knowledge in business

Businesses have a problem: there is a disconnect between the people with knowledge, and those in customer-facing roles. Whether the communication is pre- or post-sale, those charged with providing customer interaction are, by and large, operating half-blind. The salesman lives in the sales silo; the customer service rep lives in the service silo; the technician with the answers lives in a dark cellar.
Siloed communication

So what? We know our message.

“Marketing departments know the customers, they have product spec-sheets to educate them; they can craft appropriate messages.” “Service centres have customer profiles, case histories, and Q&A filtering methods that allow monkeys to find the right answer; what more does the customer want?” Somehow, this model is still hanging on. Read more of this post

The Enterprise as the Context

Rick Yagodich asked the question: How do we manage this Context thing, anyway?

He identifies that context has two main purposes:

  • to provide a baseline for understanding, the assumptions of meaning
  • to make the choices to communicate the appropriate message to the other party, in the best possible way

By focusing on the latter, he identifies a gap in current CMS technology and suggests how we might begin to deal with this problem. It’s an excellent starting point, but I would like to throw the net much wider; I would like to suggest that context is so important that it requires us to rethink the entire enterprise.

We are only at the beginning of the digital age; postulating about the digital future is much like asking a monk (in the Middle Ages) what the impact of the printing press will be on ecclesiastical affairs. Enterprises are faced with a similar question: what does all this mean? What will all this mean?

Monks' Mead
Ultimately, what Enterprises are dealing with is an explosion in the variety of people, experiences, products, services, geographies, societies, and markets they must cater for simultaneously. Compounding this is the accelerating emergence of new markets and communications channels. Context management is critical, and will only become more-so in determining the success or failure of enterprises online. Read more of this post

How do we manage this Context thing, anyway?

When people discuss content, another word is bandied about with impunity: context.

context [kon-tekst] n. the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc., based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2011.

Everyone is in agreement that we want and need it. When we communicate with others, it is vital that we take context into account. Context serves two purposes:

  • to provide a baseline for understanding, the assumptions of meaning
  • to make the choices to communicate the appropriate message to the other party, in the best possible way

I am going to deal here with context in the second of these forms: the process of determining how to communicate with another party. Most people do this instinctively in person (a salesman reads his customer’s body language and responses, and adjusts his pitch accordingly). But when we move context management into the digital realm – when we have to hand these decisions over to a computer – things get tricky.

It’s complicated

Context is a big problem; it is convoluted.
The problem with context - who is responsible / qualified?
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Which came first? The CMS or the failure?

I thought I harped on about it enough myself, but earlier this week, the theme was repeatedly brought up at Content Strategy Forum 2011: Content Management Systems are selected too early in the process.

Which came first? The CMS or the failure? (current process)

This is how the story goes:

  • Marketing decide the web site isn’t performing well enough
  • Marketing instruct IT to fix it, providing some high level requirements or a pre-selected “solution”
  • IT issues an RFP for the new CMS
  • A new CMS is selected based on the vendors’ sales techniques
  • Designers and IAs are brought in to design the new site
  • The CMS vendor’s development partner builds the site (including pushing back most of the new ideas in design)
  • Marketing are given their new site and reminded that they need to populate it before it goes live tomorrow
  • 6-18 months later, repeat

Read more of this post