Design Artefacts Part 2: Content Inventory | May 5, 2008

If you’re redesigning an existing site, and especially if the site is a traditional content driven site, then one of the best ways to start is by performing a content audit. The process involves going through every page on the site and noting what the page is about and where it sits within the existing navigational structure. Looking at the content from a macro level allows you to generate a clear picture of how the site is currently structured and whether this structure makes sense.

If the site has been around for any length of time, new content will almost certainly have been added since the original schema was devised. Unless the structure is particularly robust or well planned, there is a good chance that some of this new content will have ended up in areas where it doesn’t quite fit. This is understandable as it’s very difficult for organisations to anticipate their content needs several months in advance, let alone several years.

Unfortunately websites tend to become dumping grounds for content that doesn’t fit elsewhere in the organisation. I’ve seen countless sites become little more than glorified filing systems, full of annual reports and messages from the board. Content that nobody cares about or will ever read, but that needs a home. This is very much an organisational-centred rather than a user-centred approach to content, but sadly one that is still prevalent in many of today’s websites.

There is a strong chance that the site publishers haven’t taken a proper look at their content since it was initially developed. So a site audit is a handy way to find and cull out of date or irrelevant material. Stuff that has been hidden in the dark recesses of the site for years and left to gather dust. As such it’s a good idea to note the date the material was created and who has responsibility for that page. That way you can pass the information back to the relevant people and get it updated or removed.

With a full understanding of the existing structure, you can tell wither the schema is still working. If not, the process should have provided you with enough insight to start forming opinions on a credible new structure. This is ultimately the goal of the content audit.

However there is one added benefit of the content audit which I’m yet to mention, but which I think is vitally important. A structured review of the site forces you to read every singe page, understand the content and talk confidently about the results. By doing this you gather a huge amount of intelligence on what the organisation does, how they work and how they communicate with the outside world. It’s a great way of developing your domain knowledge and getting up to speed on a project or organisation.

A thorough content audit will often unearth important information that has hitherto been brushed over or forgotten. Stuff you may never have learnt from your clients or only found out when it was too late. You may even end up knowing more about the organisation than many of its employees, who will often have a particular specialism, area interest or personal bias. This thousand-foot view can come in very handy as it allows you to cut through a lot of the politics and make informed strategic decisions.

The information architecture reasons for a content audit should never be overlooked. However it’s the deep understanding you develop for the content, the organisation and ultimately the domain where I think the real value lies.

Posted at May 5, 2008 10:47 PM


brad said on May 6, 2008 2:43 AM

I agree about the value that a content audit can have when redesigning a site. But I’d like to know who, within an organization, you think would be the best to perform a content audit.

Personally, I have always felt that the person responsible for the new sites architecture (IA, etc.) would glean the most value. However, at work it seems the the Front-End Developers usually get tasked with the content audit (I think mostly due to lack of resources). They then don’t have much input into the design until slicing, which under-values the “intelligence on what the organisation does” they have received from reading every page.

I also wonder the value of the main client contact (if there is such a thing) performing a similar audit?

David Mead said on May 6, 2008 11:56 PM

@brad - I don’t think it matters who actually does the audit but the IA should look through the results. All that can help them develop the taxonomy, site map, URL mapping, etc.

@andy - Great article! It highlights one of things that can be hard to sell a client on, who only just wants a new look for their large site.

Andybudd said on May 7, 2008 12:37 AM

actually I disagree. I think it’s very important that the IA or UX lead does this as it’s important for them to gain the valuable insight. Sure you can read the documment afterwards, but you learn much more about the project by doing as it forces you to enguage your critical thinking processes rated than just passively consuming. Of course the developers need to have a good understanding of the content types as they will be building the database scema, but that can be gofton from reading a third party report.