Department of the Interior Bison fenced in angle bracketsOpen data design at the U.S. Department of the Interior

Content architecture: how we built support for multiple blog post authors

March 27, 2019

I’ve been thinking about how our options as content designers can be expanded or limited based on our site architecture (and our understanding of it). And while content strategists often depend on other team members (developers) to scope the desired features and build the supporting architecture, understanding how your architecture is built (or can be built) can spark your content design process.

Your understanding of the architecture is the foundation for thinking creatively about how your content can be arranged, rearranged, combined, or supplemented to support your content strategy. In other words, it informs how your content can be designed.

Although they’re often regarded as separate disciplines, information architecture and content design are inseparably linked. Most content strategists understand how information architecture can expand or limit options for designing and delivering relevant, structured content to users. And while many content strategists think of information architecture in terms of metadata and taxonomy, this post examines the architecture of the content itself (along with its metadata). We might think of this as content architecture.

So what do we mean when we talk about content architecture? What variables impact our options for how content is designed and published?

In this post, we’ll look at an example of content architecture and how it limits or expands our options as content designers. Doing so will require examining the underlying technology of the site, with the understanding that content designers and content strategists should be involved in scoping technology frameworks and software products. Because software tools impact our content design options, evaluating those tools is unavoidable in any discussion of the intersection of content and architecture.

GatsbyJS data mapping

We built this blog with GatsbyJS. As we transition our open data site to Gatsby, I wanted to introduce myself to both Gatsby and React by building a blog.

While building the blog, I noticed the starter only supported one author for each post. I knew we’d have multiple authors for some posts, so I tracked down a configuration feature (mapping) to structure our content to promote flexibility and decrease repetition.

Aside: DRY content

DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) is a principle of software development to promote clarity and maintainability of a codebase. The DRY principle is a friend of content strategists as well: we’ve all seen repetitive content that makes it more difficult to parse and understand, for example:

  • The DRY principle is good for clarity.
  • The DRY principle is good for maintainability.
  • The DRY principle is good for efficiency.

Let’s make this DRY:

The DRY principle is good for:

  • clarity
  • maintainability
  • efficiency

The DRY principle is useful for our architecture, which impacts our workflow.

Our blog posts are authored in markdown as static files. We then use Gatsby to compile the files and build a static website.

I started by forking gatsby-starter-blog. As I mentioned, the starter assumed only one author, the professional details for whom were hard-coded in a React component (Bio.js). I started exploring how to modify the starter to include two or more authors.

Modifying the blog template

Each blog post’s front matter contains its metadata, including the author(s) of the post.

Here’s an example:

title: Why we're moving to GatsbyJS
authors:
- Ryan Johnson
- Jeff Keene
excerpt: We're moving from Jekyll to GatsbyJS as the static-site generator for our open-data site. Here's why.
tags:
- default
- boilerplate
- gatsbyjs
- react
date: "2019-03-24"
draft: yes

Instead of having a hard-coded component with one author, we can include the author(s) in the front matter of the post.

Then, we can modify the blog post template to loop over the author(s) and include information about each author at the end of the post (that’s what the .map method does):

      {
        (post.frontmatter.authors).map((author, index) => (
          <div key={index}
            style={{
              display: 'flex',
            }}
          >
            <img
                    src={author.pic}
                    alt={`Author profile image`}
                    style={{
                      marginRight: rhythm(1 / 2),
                      marginBottom: 0,
                      width: rhythm(2),
                      height: rhythm(2),
                    }}
            />
            <p
              style={{
                marginRight: rhythm(1 / 2),
              }}
            ><strong>{author.id}</strong> is a {author.bio}
            </p>
          </div>
        ))
}

We’re not going to cover it in this post, but you also need to add the front matter variables to your post template’s GraphQL query.

Hang with me here! 🙂

So far, we’ve changed the blog post template to look at each author listed in the front matter and publish details about them at the end of each post:

  • author.pic (photo)
  • author.id (name)
  • author.bio (job title and organization)

Here’s what it should look like when provided the front matter from above:

author section of blog post template with Ryan Johnson and Jeff Keene listed

Mapping to data files

You may have noticed we’re only listing the name of each author in the front matter, but the template is pulling in a pic and bio. This is where the DRY principle comes in.

When I initially modified this blog template, it required the post author(s) to reference their image file path and bio in every blog post’s front matter; it required repeating the exact same content every time an author wrote a post. It was annoying, error-prone, and time consuming.

Thankfully, Gatsby has a powerful configuration setting that lets us map an id to a separate file, allowing us to draw the contents of a separate data file into our blog post based on a shared id.

So to do this, we need a data file (in this case, authors.yml) with all possible authors, along with their profile image paths and bios:

- id: Ryan Johnson
  bio: content strategist at the Office of Natural Resources Revenue
  pic: /img/ryan-pic.jpg

- id: Jennifer Malcolm
  bio: product manager at the Office of Natural Resources Revenue
  pic: /img/jennifer-pic.jpg

- id: Chris Mentasti
  bio: program analyst at the Office of Natural Resources Revenue
  pic: /img/chris-pic.jpg

- id: Shannon McHarg
  bio: user experience designer at the Office of Natural Resources Revenue
  pic: /img/shannon-pic.jpg

- id: Jeff Keene
  bio: front end developer at the Office of Natural Resources Revenue
pic: /img/jeff-pic.jpg

Nice! 😎

Now we need to create the link. Presumably because these fields are mapped from different files across the codebase, the centrality of the gatsby-config.js file lends itself to creating the linkage. So we add the following to the config file:

  mapping: {
    "MarkdownRemark.frontmatter.authors": `AuthorYaml`,
},

This links up the ids in each file and associates the extra fields in authors.yml with the author(s) in the front matter. Once again, you’ll need to query the data in your GraphQL query in the blog post template.

We did it!

Phew! We made it happen!

We could make this even DRYer by creating a variable for the part of the bio that is common to each author (“…at the Office of Natural Resources Revenue”) and concatenating job title with that variable. That way, if we want to change “Office of Natural Resources” to “Department of the Interior,” we only have to change the variable, not each instance in the data file.

It’s not perfect

I’ve hard-coded “..is a…” in the template as a part of the job title, which is fine for most job titles, but what if the title is “editor”? It would then read “a editor” instead of the appropriate “an editor.” We could write some code that replaces the indefinite article “a” with “an”, if the first character of the job title meets one of an array of vowels. Unfortunately, our language is absurdly complex: “an user experience designer” just doesn’t sound right (think of examples like “a hour” versus “an hour,” which exemplifies the problem of coding something like this on a vowel versus consonant basis).

I realize many of us work with developers to do this kind of thing, but it’s always useful to know the options and limitations of the tools you’re working with. For instance, we can now create a page for each author that contains a list of all posts they wrote. We can query all posts that two individual authors worked on. Or we can add a twitter field to the data file and include it with each author’s bio. Most importantly, we can keep our authoring and content management workflow simple by mapping one field (such as author name) to its supporting content, automatically.

Of course, Gatsby isn’t alone in having a mapping feature like this, but it’s important to know the features and capabilities you have at your disposal to build your architecture and design your content.

👍


Ryan Johnson profile image

Ryan Johnson is a content strategist at the Office of Natural Resources Revenue.