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These terms get thrown around interchangeably but they really have different meanings. Yet we refer to information architecture (IA), content management, and documentation management, often in the same context. Let’s start with information.

Information is Data About Something

Information is not limited to written information. It can be revenue data, text, video, IP, analytics results (which are data), marketing materials, etc. It is really an umbrella term for the collective knowledge of an organization. Information architecture, in the context of the documentation world, is a schema for organizing information and adding metadata to it to make it findable and usable. For an IA to work optimally, it must follow accepted standards (like DITA), just as construction architecture must follow building codes. However, because of the umbrella nature of the term ‘information’, there can be different information architectures for different kinds of information. In the world of structured information these architectures may be designed to organize pieces of information collected in a database. That information can be mined with analytics software that sets rules for what to look at and how to interpret it. Those rules follow another kind of architecture.

Content is Information Understandable by Humans

Content, on the other hand, is a kind of information; specifically, information designed to be understandable by humans (and, increasingly, by artificial intelligence). This can include text, images, video, audio, etc. This is an important distinction because it can only be organized by an IA if the author and/or the authoring environment, captures and add information about each piece of content, in the form of metadata. Metadata is content that tells us things about any given piece of content: who created it, what  it’s about, its content type (like a task or reference material), its form (image, video, text, etc.), etc. This metadata or ‘data about data’, makes content management possible by allowing the manager to utilize content in a very granular and useful way. It enables fast search across large quantities of content and when that content is organized into topics (more metadata attributes) it can be used in multiple docs and for multiple purposes.

Documentation is Content With a Specific Purpose

Which gets us to documentation. Documentation is a category of usage for content, specifically designed to inform a user how to engage with a product, system or process: how to install, operate, understand, safely interact, etc. Documentation can be thought of as an information user-interface between a product or service and its user. Documentation uses the metadata associated with content to create documents which are logical assemblages of different pieces of content. That organized content can be published for use by end-users.

All Three Inform Structure, Which Makes the Information Useful

In this scenario, understanding the differences in the meaning of these terms gives us structure. Information architecture designed for content makes it manageable and useful. Content management gives us the ability to organize for an end-use, like documentation, that makes content relevant, accessible, and deliverable in a variety of ways.

We will always see these terms used interchangeably, however, in the world of documentation it is useful to make these distinctions and to clarify the roles of each.

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