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The Challenge of Networked Content

Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.
Principal, iorg.com
August 2003

The combination of digital content, ubiquitous networks and effective presentation standards have led to both new opportunities and new challenges for those trying to find specific digital content or have their digital content found. Maximizing the possibility that each individual can find the content he or she needs on a given visit has become a critical issue.

The challenge of networked content is navigation through the whole content network rather than any one content destination within it. This distinction between the navigation and destinations within a content network often is overlooked and blurred in research studies on individual success, satisfaction and overall experience. The time has come to recognize the existence of content networks, separate from their digital content, and begin to identify principles and practices that maximize the effectiveness of the overall network.

When knowledge domains emerge in science, they follow very specific steps. The first is to create a vocabulary and framework. Until individuals agree on what the relevant objects are, and how they relate to each other, there is no way to communicate without misunderstanding. This is not a simple task as the objects defined by the vocabulary define the scope of the system being studied, and at the lowest levels need to be independent so they can be identified and controlled for in testing.

Currently, networked content is in the natural history stage. Many human-computer interaction studies have been run on web site usability and customer experience, often with a great deal of effort on controlling the demographics of the testers and making the tests as neutral as possible. What has most often been overlooked is the adequacy of the vocabulary and framework for describing the principles and practices utilized across the content networks being tested.

From a practical perspective this creates two problems. First, comparing the results from tests on different content networks becomes subjective as the interpreter intuitively identifies, or fails to identify, key variables that might affect the results but were not controlled for. Second, the prescriptive recommendations made by the expert become difficult for the owners of the content network to actually implement. Again, this occurs because significant principles and relationships have not been explicitly defined and so are left to chance in the implementation.

Two types of testing are frequently encountered: usability testing and heuristic testing. Other than the goal or scenario being tested, usability testing is completely open-ended with regard to web site principles and practices. The principles are interpreted from the behaviors of the testers. Some heuristic tests do begin to define principles. However, because of their function, they generally have a restriction on the number of principles and practices that can be included. Therefore, the principles are either too high level, or too few, to adequately characterize a site for scientific testing.

What is needed is a larger framework, explicitly aimed at defining and organizing principles and practices in a way that they can be tested, modified, added or deleted. At the highest level this involves distinguishing between concepts like navigation and destination and treating them as separate objects. Another high level concept is the distinction between principles that relate to the web site universally versus principles that relate to specific functional archetypes when they are used.

The functional archetype concept was originally presented in a Planning Assumption I wrote in May 2002 while at Giga Information Group (Developing a Web Site Functional Specification). Examples of functional archetypes are “Transactions,” “Account Management,” “Customer Support”… These are functions that may occur independently in separate business units, but have underlying principles and practices that apply to the functionality regardless of the specific application.

For example, a bank might “sell” both home loans and credit cards. Both of these businesses have a need to (1) close the transaction and (2) provide the customer with account management functionality. In addition to the universal principles, there are principles that apply to each of these functional archetypes.

As the conceptual hierarchy develops, it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this process is to define principles and practices that can be controlled independently to evaluate their effect on visitor behaviors. Only by doing this can the science of customer experience in networked content environments progress to the next step – rational testing.

Rational testing requires that variables and dependencies are identified and included in the test or controlled so they do not affect the outcome. With repeated testing over time, the importance and relationships of various practices will become clearer. The testing results also will modify the vocabulary and framework as additional objects are identified and described.

The practice of improving networked content can be implemented in your organization today. The first step is to define the initial principles and framework based on the existing knowledge. The next step is to identify where the current web site deviates from those principles, followed by a determination of which deviations are believed to have the most impact on specific desired outcomes. The current status of those outcomes needs to be documented as baseline data, before the changes are made. 

Once the changes are made, the outcomes need to be monitored and the results compared to the baseline data. If the outcomes change as expected, the hypothesis is supported. If not, an analysis as to why will lead to modification and improvement of the principles and framework, and further testing. This process provides a rational approach that allows you to document what works, what doesn’t, and to continuously improve your visitor, employee or customer experience.

iorg.com provides support setting up improvement programs for content networks, be they public web sites, portals or intranets. Clients who have used this process have seen two to ten times improvement in completion of their desired outcomes by visitors and 30% reductions in calls to their phone support.

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