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March 11, 2005

Pissing Off Librarians: My Talk on Document Genres

I plan, some day, to discuss my thoughts/research/practice involving document genre in great detail.

For now, I'm offering for download the PDF of my presentation at the IA Summit 2005.

Document Genres: The Hidden Workhorse of Information Architecture.

I just wrote a little thing to a mailing list which might provide some context:

For those who missed my talk at the IA Summit, I spoke (at some length, and awfully rapidly) about document genres as an overlooked element in the standard practice of information architecture.

By genre, I'm referring to things like
- press release
- map
- home page
- weblog
- feature list

Any type of document that has been developed to serve some specific purpose (usually the accomplishing of a task) and for which has emerged a fairly stable form.

So, in this case, even though all that PDF says is "chicken," when you look at it, you know it's utilizing our understanding of the "academic paper" genre. The genre has such a well-developed form that it's obvious in the blink of an eye.

In my talk, I discuss how genre is woefully underused in an explicit fashion. Genre is essential in helping people set expectations for 1) information and 2) use of that document, and while we have very many explicit affordances for such things in "the real world," online all we usually have is a link... So those links need to be explicit, and often explicit about the genre of what is to come, so people can make reasonable predictions of what to expect when clicked.

One thing I've heard since I've returned to SF is that I "pissed off librarians" with my talk, because I am only just repackaging what they've known all along, so what's the big deal? And who am I to take credit?

The big deal is--why aren't they talking about this with information architects? Why is genre never discussed on any website project I'm working on?

I'd be more than happy to make a career out of taking the wisdom from library and information science, and bringing it to the web design masses... Whether its faceted classifications or genres, someone's got to spread the word.

If you're interested in pursuing digital document genres further, in ways that seem to me highly relevant to information architecture, the single best resource is Prof. Kevin Crowston's papers.

Posted by peterme at March 11, 2005 02:28 AM


We are back at vocabulary and sharing across discipline problems. Sounds familiar. Anyhow...

I attended the first Adaptive Path seminar at the Web 2001 Conference in September 2001. There I added a much better content inventory (CI) tool to my tool belt. One of the things I tied into the CI was a content object listing, which tied in to a document type matrix. I have been using the content object and document type matrix since 1998 or 1999 as a tool to help build templates for sites and later on to help build CMS. Knowing genre or the librarian's research would have greatly helped.

What are content objects? These are the granular components on a page: logo, bar chart, address, breadcrumb, contact info, paragraphs, ordered lists, data tables (simple, complex, hierarchal, etc.), related links, local navigation, global navigation, document navigation, etc. These are the objects that will need to be designed for consistance across a site. They also become entries in a cascading style sheet (CSS).

What is document type matrix? Similar to Peter's genre and along the lines of shape of information, I use the CI and then add a column to enter the type of document (trying to keep the types as contorlled as possible): memo, press release, scientific report, calendar, browsing page (an annotated link page), home page, etc. Once these have been entered into the CI matrix I collapse by document type to see trends.

At this point the content objects get tied to the document type. The permeations and consistancy begin to show through. This allows us to build templates for the document types or genre quite easily. When I was building (hand-rolling) CMS (up to late 2001) this was insanely helpful as it made building the components needed as easy as checklists.

Had I paid attention to what you, Peter, were doing or known what librarians were doing it would have helped. It still can as we move forward.

I have used this approach 20 to 30 times in the past four to seven years and have been refining it since. Everybody I work with has tweaked the process and the documents (done in Excel consistantly now). I suppose it is time to write it up and share as talking about it seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Posted by: vanderwal at March 11, 2005 08:05 AM

Ha! If they have known it for years, why the hell isn't anyone really leveraging it, and where is the good academic research telling us about what works and what doesn't.

Posted by: donna maurer at March 13, 2005 03:04 PM

I'm still not sure I see Genre as an advancement of our processes or solution set. To me, it would appear that the term Genre simply replaces Content Type as it's been used (I think fairly broadly) by IAs developing content inventories.

Admittedly, the shift is advantageous as it mitigates confusion that might've occurred because of Content Type's connotations. Thomas describes using "Document Types." I've been in situations where the client wanted to use "Object Types." I think neither term is particularly ideal... So, Genre probably does the best job of conveying intent.

Don't get me wrong.. I very much like the term Genre and I especially like the marriage of Genre with shape research - this could be extraordinarily useful when walking clients through the CI exercise. I'm still looking for the "new" thing though.

Posted by: Chris Ricci at March 15, 2005 09:40 AM

Genres are a form of classification and so strongly depend on context. You will also have exceptions, exceptions, exceptions. I do not doubt that genres can be used nor that they are very useful (!), but the deeper you look into details the more complicated it get's and you need a lot of rules and discipline.

Posted by: Jakob at March 16, 2005 09:44 AM

Vanderwal mentions - what I consider - one of the most important aspects of handling content in digital form. The multidimensional matrix consisting of content objects (analysed to some level og granularity), the document types, the styling etc.
All of which for instance the e-learning world have been working on at least since 1998. I myself designed a production methodology as early as 1999 in Oracle Denmark - in the vain hope that the e-learning server application in development at Oracle at that time - would be ready on time.
The goal of my work was to develop at theory/practice to handle e-learning AND other communication tasks (Presentation, Marketing etc) - reusing the SAME content objects in a number of document types and serving different communication purposes.
I don't work on that anymore. It is not unproblematic. For instance there are a number of problems with consistency in linguistic form - rhetoric, and illustrations style. These are not plain to overcome.

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