Lonergan’s Iron Triangle of Content

I’ll drop the punchline up front: when designing content management systems, you cannot optimize for all constituents, and those disfavoured will find every interaction laborious and frustrating. Choose your priorities – you cannot favour all three parties at once (at least not at tolerable costs).

I have this conversation at least a couple of times a year at work, and every time I do I end up pulling out this simple diagram and give people the pitch. I am convinced of the truth of this for me in all my years of managing, contributing to and designing content management systems and experiences, but I have no illusions: I’m sure the smarter ones reading this will find faults, flaws and a general lack of intellectual rigour in my thesis.  There are probably better ways of framing the problem space, but as I’m not aware of them, and because everyone I’ve shared this with seems to come away enlightened, it’s here to please and to challenge you.

Mike’s Key Takeaway

Lonergan's Iron Triangle of Content

  • If you make the system easiest for consumers to use, that generally means that contributors and curators have to do additional work to make that information easy to find and consume
  • If you make the system easiest for contributors to use, that generally means just dumping unstructured, free-form content into a single-folder repository with little or no metadata (categorization, hierarchy, filter/sort criteria) and an unstandardized title.  This places a significant burden on the consumers to have to paw through many non-relevant records, and/or on the curators to analyse and categorize and rename each piece of content as it comes in (or worse, clawing through a massive backlog when they periodically try to attack the latest influx)
  • If you make the system easiest for the curators to use, that can out a huge burden of learning on both the contributors (who have to attach tons of structured and often unfamiliar metadata to the content) and to a lesser degree on the consumers (who also have to try to learn the lingo of the metadata information architecture)

Here’s the thing: I have yet to observe a “knowledge management” system that doesn’t cost significant ongoing effort for at least one of these actors. (Assuming of course that we want a large body of generally higher-quality content to be used relatively successfully by consumers who have domain-specific information needs).

I call this Lonergan’s Iron Triangle of Content.  (The careful reader will notice the diagram does NOT illustrate a triangle.  Gold star for you!)

Someone smarter than me might finally crack the nut of this problem, but until then I see strong similarities with the “iron triangles” of systems. Everyone’s got their favourite triad, and I cycle through different combinations depending on which argument I’m trying to win.

[One classic Iron Triangle is the “time, resources and features” triangle: if you fix on a specific release date, then you either need to increase the number of resources (money and heads) spent to deliver or reduce the number of features. TL;DR you can pick any two of the three.]

(For no good reason, it even reminds me of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but don’t judge me for sloppy analogies.)

The only way to try to minimize the pain for all three is to spend lots and lots of resources, but the mythical man-month tells us you’ll never bring the time/pain ratio to zero, and you’ll blow exponential investment trying to get there.

So: which of these constituents do you want to maximize?

Are You Still Wondering Who I’m Talking About?

In any system where people are meant to find useful information in a semi-structured arrangement, there are generally three actors:

  • Contributors
  • Curators
  • Consumers

Contributors have expert information that they are putting into the system.

Curators periodically or continually review contributed information to add or change categories and other metadata, sometimes add or change the content itself, and even flush stale content out of the system.

Consumers are those for whom the system is primarily built – seekers of knowledge, coming to search through available information or to grab a specific piece of content they already know about.

Side Note: when I’m talking to folks at work about content management systems, I’m usually talking to those I consider Curators. They start out with one audience or another in mind, and have a part of the information flow worked out. Most of the time they’re secretly trying to optimize for the Curators (themselves), but would also like to magically “make it easy” for one or both of the other constituents.  See Perpetual Motion Machines for your homework plan.


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