Carrie Hane is an evangelist at Sanity, a cloud-based content platform provider. Carrie is co-author of Designing Connected Content, which advocates for content modeling as part of the digital design process. This is also the subject of our conversation.
A side note: Carrie is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Information Architecture Conference, which takes place in New Orleans from March 28 - April 1. I’ll be teaching an introductory IA workshop at the conference, so if you want to learn about IA and can get to the southern U.S. in late March, come see Carrie and me at the Conference.
- Carrie Hane - LinkedIn
- Carrie Hane - Twitter
- Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow by Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton
- Information Architecture Conference
- Tanzen Consulting blog
- Content Modeling: What It Is and How to Get Started – Content Modeling Guide
- Sanity newsletter
- What is Lotus Notes? - Definition from Techopedia
- What does it mean for a database to be schemaless? - Quora
- Andy Fitzgerald
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This episode's transcript was produced by an AI. If you notice any errors, please get in touch.
Jorge: Carrie, welcome to the show.
Carrie: Oh, thanks Jorge. It’s great to be here.
Jorge: Well, it’s great to have you here. We’ve known each other for a while and I oftentimes see you at various conferences and events around information architecture. Folks listening in might not be familiar with you and your work. How do you go about introducing yourself?
Carrie: I guess it depends on the audience. Yeah, so I think to work backwards, right now, I am an evangelist at Sanity, which is the composable content cloud. It’s a content technology to help people create, manage, and publish content with structure. So, it fits really well with what I’ve been doing for my whole career, really, in UX and content and web work, which I started in the late nineties in the very early days. So it’s kind of this culmination of working with IA, content, finding patterns in things, finding structure in things, and then using that to assemble and reassemble content into various interfaces.
Carrie: Started hand coding HTML way back in the day. Worked on my first database-driven website in 2001 with Lotus Notes. If anybody remembers those days. And then, eventually, moved into to the more formal content management systems, as those grew up. Ended up here, partly after writing the book, Designing Connected Content, which lays out a framework for modeling structure and using it in a more sustainable way across any sort of digital product or property.
Jorge: That’s great. And I’m hoping that we’ll get into the subject of the book. And just for sake of giving credit there, when you say ‘our model,’ you’re talking about your co-author Mike Atherton, right?
You used the phrase, ‘composable content cloud’ when describing Sanity. What is that?
Composable content cloud
Carrie: That’s what we call ourselves now, as of last month! So the term composable has… Gartner started talking about composable business and composable architecture when it comes to IT a year or two ago. And I think it’s a good word because we had been calling ourselves a platform for structured content. But people don’t know what that is either, necessarily.
Carrie: So ‘composable’ means to bring together different components or different blocks, and make something of it. And so that’s what Sanity allows us to do with the pieces of content that we define based on meaning and intent. And then we can pull them together in many different interfaces.
Carrie: And really anything you can think of, not just websites. And the cloud part for us is because we store the data in a schemaless database — I think that’s the right term — we call it the content lake — and so it can be pulled out in any way, in any combination of form, at the data level.
Jorge: When you say, I think you said ‘modular content blocks,’ the impression that I get is that would be understood in distinction to the way that content management systems have traditionally stored content. Which is as these kind of monolithic… I’m going to use the word blob, but I know that has a technical meaning. But like a monolithic blob that describes the entirety of a page.
Jorge: Whereas I think that what you’re talking about here is breaking up the content into more granular units that can be brought together arbitrarily to form pages on the fly. Is that fair?
Carrie: Yes. Yeah, that’s exactly it.
Jorge: I’ve heard the phrase ‘headless content management system.’ Is that what this refers to?
Carrie: So that is one use case. I think the reason I say it’s a use case is because the market in general tends to think of content management systems as web publishing systems. And so they are focused on one website. And they end up, just like you said, you know, a blob. It might be broken down into smaller blobs, but it’s still for a single webpage, and a single website.
Carrie: And so, in that sense, Sanity can be used for that. But it can also be used for so much more. We have customers who use it to run fast food chain menus and apps for customer service apps and all kinds of things. You can even export and print a book on demand based on the content. So, it’s more than just a web content management system and that’s why we stay away from describing ourselves as a headless CMS, because of the expectation in the market.
Jorge: Right. It seems that it might exist at a kind of different level of abstraction.
Jorge: Where it can be instantiated in any way that people encounter information.
Jorge: Whereas CMS implies that it’s going to serve up some kind of web artifact, right?
Carrie: Right. Even though I fundamentally feel like the purest sense of a content management system is managing content, and is agnostic of where the content shows up. But I realize I’m in the minority. We actually recently asked ChatGPT, "what is a content management system?" and it said, "it’s a platform for managing content that gets published on the web." Because that’s what’s out there in the known universe of knowledge. That’s how people are describing it. So, clearly, I’m wrong.
Jorge: Well, I think that the right thing for the information architect to do is to go with the label that people understand, right? And the meaning that they grok. So I think that it’s totally understandable why you would shift terms there.
Jorge: In hearing you describe it, I can get a sense for how this is highly related and relevant to the subject of your book. Folks listening in might not have read the book, so could you give us a brief overview of what the book is about and how it relates to this subject?
Designing Connected Content
Carrie: Yeah, so the book provides a framework for publishing digital content across any channel. And that in involves… so it’s kind of a five step process, starting with domain modeling — modeling the truth of the domain and the subject area that you’re working in — and then, the content model, which is the content that the organization wants to represent in various ways. And then, designing the content based on that structure that you’ve defined in the models, and building the content management system - the content repository - to enable that. And then designing the interfaces and the navigation to showcase the content and the reason for being: to serve the user needs.
Carrie: We try to break things down so people can understand why and how using the chunk… chunking inside of blobs, makes things more sustainable and future friendly so things don’t have to be disposable. Websites don’t have to be disposable anymore because you don’t have to redo the content every time because it’s more semantic and intentional than just serving one website need.
Jorge: An analogy there might be — and I think that this is an image used in the book — something like a LEGO set, where if you’re making, let’s say a model of a house — and this is a different use of the word ‘model’ — but if you’re making a scale model of a house, you could carve it out of a piece of wood, in which case, that’s it, the house is what you get, right? It’s not very flexible once you’re finished. Whereas if you start with a set of building parts, something like LEGO blocks, it could be a house, it could be a spaceship, it could be a castle, it could be a submarine.
Carrie: Yeah, exactly. But the blocks don’t change. They’re still a red four-by-four or a blue two-by-eight and they’re interchangeable.
Jorge: Right. And the framework that you lay out in the book, the sense I got when reading it was that it lays out step by step how you go about creating the model that will allow you to put such a system in place. And it’s agnostic of the… I’m going to turn the phrase around. The system used to manage the content, so as not to say content management system.
Carrie: Right, right.
Jorge: But, the book is agnostic about that. It just says basically, you need to define the concepts that this system must instantiate in order to serve up the information that users need and the attributes of those concepts, is one thing that I got out of it. And I’ve taught this kind of structure in the past. I always find that when talking about this stuff, it can be a little abstract and people can tune out. And I wonder how you talk about it to folks to help make it come alive and to help make it more relatable?
Carrie: Yeah, that’s the biggest challenge. Ultimately, it’s examples, having some examples. You know, having them give me an example of something that they’re working on and then me talking through or showing, you know, sketching out what their model might look like and how they might use it. Really that’s what it comes down to. Because you’re right, it’s so abstract.
Carrie: And I remember not too long ago reading one of your posts on LinkedIn or Twitter or somewhere talking about this. Like, how do we get people to understand this? And it really comes down to doing. Doing it and helping someone work through it. And in fact, this is a challenge I’m working on right now is creating a content modeling guide that is kind of an extension of the book. It’s not a regurgitation, but it’s kind of like, "well, how do I explain this now that the book’s been out for a while and I know what challenges people are facing?"
Carrie: And then, getting feedback from my colleagues who it’s new to them as well. Which gives me a really great way to simplify, exemplify, and clarify what I mean. Because I’ve been doing this now for a while, and it’s kind of second nature to me. And even when Mike and I wrote the book, you know, a lot of this modeling — the domain modeling, and the initial content modeling, is what he introduced me to, but I picked it up right away because it made sense to me; it was complimentary to what I was already doing. But it’s not like that for everyone.
Carrie: So, yeah, it’s a constant challenge to find ways, not just how to do it, but why. Because it’s so easy to fall back into that, "well, I just need this webpage. I’m just going to model it like this webpage." And then you… it’s presentation based. It’s format based, instead of semantic.
Jorge: Yeah. And people are used to critiquing things that they can see and interact with, right? So, the webpage is something that they understand much more viscerally than these abstractions of how things are put together.
Jorge: First of all, I’m really excited to hear that you’re working on a guide because it seems like something that would be very useful. And also on this note of understanding it through doing it, I can see how that is the way forward. And the reality for a lot of folks is that the people who are going to be doing this work are not often the people who make decisions about how the business is structured, what kind of systems we’re going to use to deploy things, right? So how would we communicate this stuff to stakeholders and decision-makers? Have you found any good ways to do that?
Getting stakeholders involved
Carrie: Involve them. Ultimately, when it has worked out best is when we can the business stakeholders involved in making the models. Because after all, it’s their work that needs to be modeled and represented, ultimately, because that’s the business. They all own different types of content for different audiences.
Carrie: Sometimes it crosses over with other people and that’s where it really benefits because you’re not making things in silos anymore. But the more collaborative the model is made, the better it’s going to be and the more it will be used. Because you’re not constantly selling people on new ideas and what does a webpage look like; you’re agreeing fundamentally early on the reason for making this in the first place and how it can be better and serve the audience’s needs and the business goals.
Jorge: Do you have to keep it at at a high level of abstraction when working with stakeholders? I’m just imagining…. I’ve been involved in projects where the conceptual model can get very granular and my expectation would be that stakeholders would tune out at a certain level of granularity. Is there like a right level at which to keep things?
Carrie: I think so and it’s always going to be multi-layered. So that’s why with stakeholders, essentially, business stakeholders, work with boxes and arrows. What types of content do we have? And just start putting stickies up. Narrow those down until you have a set that everyone can agree on and then connect them. How are they related to each other?
Carrie: And then you can take that and with a smaller group or even sometimes yourself as a facilitator, start working through the attributes. And then check in with the stakeholders. Sometimes you can work through the attributes with the stakeholders, but in less of a group environment if they understand it. But also always validating. Like, "are these the attributes of this content type that we care about?"
Carrie: You know, I use an example of a live event. If you’re a concert venue, you’re going to care about different things about the artist than the artist does. But you both have an artist as a content type. But the artist itself will have a lot more details than the venue, which has basically the name and maybe a description and photo of the artist because that’s all that matters for them. And then they can link off to the artist’s website, which will have all the details: the history and the discography and everything else, which is a different content type. So, yeah. It gets down to what really matters to us when we’re creating the model.
Jorge: One of the things that comes to mind in hearing you describe it like that is the importance of frames and perspectives. It’s like in this example that you’re bringing up for a live event, you could go nuts doing a model that tries to capture everything about the event and tries to be super comprehensive. And that might or might not be useful depending on what you want to do with it. But I think that if you are planning to… you know, if the output that comes out the other side is a website or an app or something like that, it’s likely going to be designed for a particular use case for a particular persona, and those folks might care only about certain aspects of the domain model.
Jorge: What role does research play in all of this and how do you go about finding what the right concepts are to include in the model?
How research informs the model
Carrie: I think there’s a few ways. This is included in the guide, so it’s fresh in my mind. Market research; finding out what competitors are doing, what’s out there. We often call this a competitive analysis, but doing it in a different way, and just saying, "okay." You know, "what do other venues offer? Do we want more? Do we want less? Do we want the same?" going through current inventory, doing a content audit of your content. And then also just thinking about the domain in general. Like, what are we missing? And filling in blanks. Or not. Or deliberately deciding not to include them.
Carrie: But you know, learning. Talking to experts and users. I think that’s something that’s different about domain and content modeling is you’re talking to experts themselves, and not just users so that you can get both views and find that middle ground. Often for naming purposes, you want the user input and you want just the understanding of the subject area from the subject matter experts, which allows them to contribute at their level of expertise without having to worry about fighting over what’s on the homepage, which is usually what happens.
Jorge: Right. And what I’m hearing there is that one of the advantages of working at this level of abstraction is that you defuse conversations around more subjective issues. Like, you know, "I don’t like this particular text!" Or, I don’t know, the layout of the page or whatever.
Carrie: Yes, exactly.
Content modeling and other disciplines
Jorge: I’m wondering about the relationship between content modeling and other disciplines like content strategy and content design, which a lot of folks are practicing and interested in.
Carrie: I think a content model is a content strategy tool because it helps you see all the types of content and their relationships to each other. And then you can make decisions from there. So I never start an engagement with an audit.
Carrie: I start with a content model and then I do an audit against the model. So I can say, "oh! We’d said we needed all these types of content, but we don’t have this type." Or, "we have too much of this other type." So it helps be more forward-looking than just reorganizing the content you have, which is, I think, what happens most of the time as part of content strategy work. And then the overarching content strategy of what type of content are we going to create, you know, the planning for content.
Carrie: And then for content design using the chunks, the pieces, the bricks, the blocks to create different pages so they’re not starting from scratch every time. And I don’t see that talked about hardly ever in content design because they’re so focused on a page, and serving a need at the page. And actually Andy Fitzgerald at the conference said we’re an industry addicted to pages and once you get out of the page, people kind of start blowing up.
Jorge: Well, that’s great.
Carrie: Because yeah. It’s too abstract for them until… most people can get content modeling after some practice. Some people have a harder time with it than others.
Jorge: Working at this level of abstraction is a skill that can be acquired, but I also believe that some people are drawn to it. You mentioned when you first heard about some of these things, you were like, "oh yeah!" I don’t know that’s the reaction that everyone has. And I’m wondering how thinking through the lens of seeing situations and content as something that can be modeled, I’m wondering how it’s influenced your day-to-day life? Or like maybe how you approach things in general, if at all.
Carrie: You know, I actually have thought about this a few times, especially when I was independent and trying to explain what I did and what my strengths were. I think it’s the opposite. I think how I see the world has made the modeling easy for me. I think that is super natural for me to pick out the pieces and the shapes of things and their connections. And so then modeling is a natural extension of that.
Carrie: I think where doing more modeling has changed my day-to-day is it’s helped me clarify that a little bit more instead of it just being in my head. You know, it’s kind of like parenting: we just do things and we know things, and then we have to explain them to our kids! And we learn. And my kids now see taxonomy everywhere!
Jorge: Don’t we all? That’s great.
Jorge: Well Carrie, it’s been such a pleasure catching up with you and talking about this. Where can folks follow up with you?
Carrie: Yeah. That’s getting harder, isn’t it? ? I used to just say Twitter. I am still on Twitter right now @carriehd, for as long as that lasts. I’m on LinkedIn. You can find me, Carrie Hane, or, you know, you can also… I have a blog at tanzenconsulting.com/blog. There’s about five or six years of writing there. And then also at the Sanity website: sanity.io. And I’m contributing more content to that pretty regularly.
Jorge: Fantastic. And where can we expect the guide that you’re working on?
Carrie: That’ll be on the Sanity website. I think the URL is just sanity.io/content-modeling.
Jorge: Alright, so I’m going to include all of these in the show notes and maybe by the time this conversation comes out, that will be out. I mean, I don’t know what the timing is on it but…
Carrie: I’m releasing chapter by chapter. So it’ll be kind of like, “stay tuned for the next installment!”
Jorge: That’s very exciting. All right, so can folks sign up for it somehow? Is it like a newsletter?
Carrie: No. I think you can sign up for the newsletter on the website. I think we call it the “Structured Content Newsletter.” So we’ll definitely be including more about that when it’s enough ready for people to kind of go through the whole thing instead of leaving them hanging after “here’s how to get ready for a content model!”
Jorge: Fantastic. That seems like a great resource as well for folks who are interested in this. Thank you so much for sharing with us, Carrie.
Carrie: All right! Thanks for having me; this has been fun.