CM, IA, UX and other alphabet soup

I suppose this must have come up before – most notably, at the inception of CM Pros (sorry – I wasn’t there). But what exactly would we define as the difference between content management and information architecture? Is CM part of IA, parallel, overlapping or something altogether different? Not to mention the further confusion that user experience (UX) is adding to the soup.

I was looking at a blogpost by Peter Boersma on his model of IA (see his blogpost from 2005). Somewhat to my surprise, CM is absent from his schemas whereas I would consider many of the things he puts in there to be part of CM, as well. From my own centric and shallow view of the world, I’d say IA is part of CM… Admittedly, that’s because I tend to think of CM as a process (involving organisational dynamics and supporting technology) and IA as somewhat static design (and therefore part of CM efforts). That’s based on my own experience of IA’s being either in “information design” (content models, taxonomies, etcetera) or “interaction design” (GUI, webdesign, etcetera) – but I might be very much mistaken. And it can be quite conflicting with IA’s view of CM (as in, CM as a technology, imposing rules, boundaries and limits on an IA’s efforts). Peter Boersma diagram, however, is all across the board – and now I’m confused, in the same way I’d be confused if suddenly catapulted in a parallel universe where everyone suddenly drives on the left hand side of the road, and not on the right side 😉

Off course, I’m not looking for the definitive dotted line to put on the map here, but some clarification on the subject could be interesting. What do you think?

This post was originally published on the blog of Content Management Professionals Benelux. I have added the comments received on the original post as one, below.

One thought on “CM, IA, UX and other alphabet soup”

    I would be inclined to agree with the IA’s, actually. I’d say that the Information Architect is to Content Management as Architect^ is to Architectural Engineering^ or Civil Engineering.
    Coming from a CM specialist with a very technical bent, I’d say that IA is often way too divorced from the web design / system design aspects of what a system is actually going to look or behave like, relative to their information architecture. When working with non-technical IA guys I frequently receive requirements from them that may be very complex to implement technically but produce little or no difference in the appearance of the CMS-managed web site I’m building with them… it often seems that they’re doing organization of information purely for organization’s sake, rather than with any specific functional or operational goals in mind.

    Adriaan: Thanks for the courage to bring this up. It is this very question that lies at the heart of what Forrester is missing when they seemingly keep wondering why Web implementations are not progressing in the ‘success’ scores.
    I have been inside company after company, and while there are the many exceptions (particularly in the case of pure eCommerce plays—although I’ve been shocked here as well), predominantly companies often do not allocate any let alone sufficient resources to these activities so that we could be having more intelligent conversations around them.
    Indeed, where there are resources allocated, they are often disjunct. That’s why I took the time to look seriously at this problem and created materials to have conversations around where/how these distinctions need to occur. What is interesting is that you clearly picked the three areas of distinction that are necessary. And one is missing.
    In the model, which I won’t bother to share here, there are 4 layers of activity, which may infer more than one role. Depending on the organization, there can be a mix and match of activities and roles into actual job descriptions—but I’ve seen some very specific patterns occurring.
    The 4 layers of activities are:
    Design Research
    User Experience
    Content Management
    One of the bigger challenges is that there is not a clear ‘ownership’ of any of these activities. I literally sat through a meeting where IT was on one side of the table and Communications on the other (as a government organization they had no Marketing). I laid out a high-level list of the related activities and asked who was responsible and they quickly pointed at each other. I have seen this ‘nasty little secret’ appear in organization after organization. The flip might be that more than one organization thinks they’re responsible—the results are the same, no one is (unless they have a common governance model).
    In the model above, Information Architecture at a deep taxonomy level applies at the Findability layer. The practice of Information Architecture as it relates to User Experience, is inferred in User Experience.
    The last challenge is one that I’ve been screaming about for years (the same reason I’m on this discussion at all), we have all these independent groups of practitioners and no one synthesys of them all. So if we can’t find a way by which to define ourselves in a synthesized package, how can we convince businesses to address the model?
    Indeed, I’m still trying to get Forrester to see their opportunity to talk to this as a source of the ‘voice of the industry’. They have yet to truly see that they’re suffering from these disjunct distinctions in their own model. But I’ve gotten their attention…

    At the IA Summit in 2004 Bob Boiko, Tony Byrne, Ann Rockley, Peter Morville, Lou Rosenfled, and I discussed whether CM Pros (not yet a community of practice) should just all join the IA Institute, which we much admired.
    Peter suggested that CM was significantly different, because it had tool vendors, among other things. He encouraged us to form a new community, and Bob Boiko asked me to organize it.
    In his presentation on CMS and IA, Bob compared them to the peanut butter and chocolate in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Sort of two sides of a coin.
    I videotaped all the presentations that day and they are visible on CMS Review. You can see and hear Boiko choke on his bites of now CM, now IA, now CM, etc.
    I told the story of those founding days here:
    Our content management glossary has an entry that situates CM – as seen by UX – with respect to IA, UX, IxD, and other neighboring fields here:

    I believe that there is a great similarity between CM and IA, but as you mentioned, CM should deal with the process (defining the situations where we expect people to contribute content, and the situations where we expect them to use it), the possible tools that can be used, and the behaviour of people. IA deals with the organization of the content, which is an important part of CM, but only a part.

    Great question! Here’s my $.02:
    Information architecture and content management are really complementary and do overlap quite a bit, but not the same. I like to think of CM as describing the lifecycle of content in an information system. An information architecture serves as a snapshot of how that content is organized and accessible at a given point in time. The former is temporal, the latter is spatial. Two views of an information system, both quite useful, even better when combined.
    User eXperience is an umbrella term for something that’s not quite yet a field and may never become one. It’s better described as a shared belief or reckoning among designers from many different backgrounds and professional affiliations that interdisciplinary expertise is required to design today’s information systems and experiences. We can’t hope to do justice to these design challenges if we “go it alone,” and yet we don’t have a shared vocabulary that enables different kinds of designers to work with each other effectively. People interested in UX are essentially acknowledging these issues, and are trying to develop the multi-disciplinary teams and methodologies necessary to tackle really complex design challenges.
    It may be a confusing alphabet soup, but it is nutritious…

    There can be IA work in cases where there is no CM, but it’s hard to do CM without IA (though from the state of some installations, it would seem that it was tried).

    Adriaan (who invited me to join this conversation, thanks!) has every right to be confused. As Lou indicates in his reponse, the field of User Experience is still very much in flux and it may take a while before enough people agree on its boundaries.
    And, to a large extent, the same is true for Information Architecture. As indicated in the original T-model posting ( some people saw IAs function in a big, overarching role, while others prefer to stick to the core tasks of organizing information aimed at indexing, searching, finding and maintaining information.
    Even this month, there was a debate ( on the public IA list over an article by a self-proclaimed founder of the IA movement who wrote that all current IAs were only in the findability business when true IA was aimed at strategic design (or something similar; the article (, PDF) is a bit out there).
    My T-model tries to explain that such thoughts are likely to occur in any of the related fields under the UX umbrella, if not in more fields. I used the Interaction Design (IxD) field as an example but I might as well have used another: I wouldn’t be surprised if there were “little CM” and “BIG CM” factions in your field.
    Which is where Content Management comes in (or not) 🙂 I am sorry to inform you that I totally forgot about Content Management when I was writing the original article and it never occurred to me to include it afterwards. And this is coming from
    someone who helped clients choose between CM tools, helped define the functionality and interface for several of such tools, who deals with implementors of CM tools every other month, and who is deeply concerned about both the maintainability of the information that he helps shape for online use as well as the organization of the process of keeping that information up-to-date and in line with the client’s needs! Please accept my deepest apologies.
    If I were to correct that now in my original posting (again:, I would place the field of Content Management in the box with the names of “related fields” (in the second picture) and create its own pillar for it under the box “UX” (in the fouth picture).
    In fact, Content Management may have a special place in the diagram, since many of the deep and shallow subjects overlap (as Adriaan noted in the posting).
    I must say that these overlapping subject are, to my knowledge, mostly approached with different intentions. Again, as Lou notes (he’s good isn’t he?) the IA aims at displaying the current information to serve the needs of the end-user, while the CM-professional aims at making sure the best information is currently, or rather: always, available to end-user and maintainer alike.
    As for the other fields that Adriaan mentions, Information Design and Interaction Design have slightly different definitions where I come from: Information Design is concerned with the understanding of complex information and looks at visualizing it and putting the result in the right place. This means it runs from infographics to wayfinding systems. Interaction Design works with complex dialogues between people and interactive products. I sometimes jokingly say that IAs make sure you get somewhere and IxDs help you actually do something.
    I’ll finish with saying that this is just my opinion. I do not claim that any of my definitions or models is right (or left). Your mileage may vary!

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