Content Integration

by Jakob Nielsen on June 27, 1999

The Internet is a net . Much of its power comes from dissolving the boundaries between hitherto isolated pockets of content. Many of the best hopes for improving the Web bring separately-sourced content together in integrated designs:

  • A huge multi-national corporation wants to build a " mini-Yahoo " intranet portal that allows employees to navigate and search documents from different divisions as well as various licensed content feeds from outside information providers (e.g., news about their industry). Chaos ensues with directory listings and search results that resemble pack-rat nests.
  • A small country wants to create a unified interface to all online government information , including the many ministries and departments of the national government as well as a large number of local jurisdictions. Of course, each ministry has its own information architecture and does not want another department to dictate its design. To say nothing about the difficulty of getting a city or county administration to follow guidelines from the capital.
  • An e-commerce site sells several different product lines , each with different characteristics: books have authors and page counts; videos have stars, directors, and playing time in minutes; compact disks exist with multiple recordings of the same Mozart symphony by different orchestras. Each product line has its own database, category listing pages, and search engine. But for some sales situations, it makes more sense to organize the user experience around customer needs and the buying situation: for example, gift ideas for a certain occasion. Or cross-sell between a film based on a book and the book itself.
  • Computer companies have multiple sources of help information , including traditional manuals, "knowledge bases" that document support calls, tutorials and textbooks, man pages, FAQs, white papers, newsgroups, and much more - sometimes scattered over several websites (as of this writing, Microsoft lists 9 different support sites in a drop-down menu and many of these sites link to further resources). Users just want the answer to their question, no matter what the source or what department inside the company maintains it.
  • Vertical search engines like NewsSearch.UserLand integrate multiple search result formats in a single listing, highlighting the differences in writing style and annotation detail between the constituent sites.

In all of these cases, usability suffers if users have to perform the integration in their head. It is hard enough to find information on websites when you can compare two things and assume that they are indeed comparable because they were designed by a single source. Without content integration, we might as well return to the dark ages before the Web where each database was a stand-alone closed system.

Uniform Meta-Content Needed for Integration

For content integration to succeed, the separate sources need to agree on standards for meta-data to describe each content unit:

  • Writing style for headlines so that users can scan listings and understand what each headline links to
  • Controlled keyword vocabulary - or at least guidelines specifying:
    • when to use what type of keywords
    • how many keywords to use
    • how much something should be discussed to warrant a keyword
    • rules for weighted keywords
  • Conventions for linking between collections
  • Standards to support parameter-driven access ; for example, what is the definition of a creation date and how much does something need to change to get a different modification date?
  • Differentiating classes of content in the unified interface; for example making it clear whether something is a detailed research report or it is a one-paragraph news item

 

It is utopian to hope for total uniformity in content from multiple sources. Thus, we also need advances in software to handle heterogeneous content collections, including search engines that go beyond free-text search and yet don't require everything to be in exactly the same format.

When you bring together content from different sources, interface complexity increases immediately unless integration is made a priority. The stakes go up in aiming for a unified design and it becomes harder to overcome organizational politics and petty squabbling between groups. But users don't care: all they know is whether the user experience is a whole or a patchwork.


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