4 key principles for the modern intranet Information Architecture

Information architecture is an incredibly complex but ultimately rewarding exercise. So often, a large organisation will find itself swamped with clutter and content that has long gone past its sell-by date. Full to the brim intranet sites with stuff no longer being read or found.

One of the biggest causes of this is a simple one. Any business is continually evolving how it operates; combining new knowledge processes, introducing new technology, changing how knowledge is stored, creating new policies or acquiring other businesses.

Each of these scenarios can have a dramatic effect on how content is maintained. From a design and content point of view, this can be overwhelming. Not least if there is no clear strategy. This is where your intranet information architecture comes in.

Put succinctly, information architecture is how you go about structuring all of your content, information and knowledge in the most efficient and accessible way possible. Without such a plan and site map, things can quickly become misplaced and put into the wrong buckets.

Challenges with managing modern intranet information architecture

Evaluation is essential

A common mistake when designing your digital workplace is to think that once you have an information architecture in place, you can forget about it. This is far from the truth. Your information architecture needs to be continually maintained and tweaked by individuals or teams who understand the end goal.

Not all users have equal needs

The other problem is that staff are likely to have expectations that how they work will be different to others who have different job titles, areas of responsibility or are located in a different country.

As such, a modern intranet needs to flex differently to meet the needs of many kinds of internal business areas. Often a one-size-fits-all approach can be — paradoxically as it sounds — too cumbersome. Instead, decisions need to be made in order to target content to specific roles, locations, functions, in order to make it more useful and valuable. In effect, helping staff by cutting out the noise of other unwanted or irrelevant information.

Information siloes

The next challenge to overcome when re-thinking how to organise your content is to think first and foremost about how it will be used, instead of being concerned about who produced or published it. This can involve awkward conversations with business owners, leaders or authors, who quite rightly have become precious about their knowledge or what they are responsible for.

Staff, in order to access tools, knowledge or content in the most efficient manner possible, will often just need things close at hand or organised around how they work. This staff-centred mind-set when it comes to designing your information architecture, can be at first difficult to grasp. Not least because it means moving your content out of your organisational ‘siloes’ into different spaces, that can be shared across roles, departments and localities.

Breaking down organisational siloes, freeing up knowledge in this way is one challenge that is often the starting point of re-thinking your information architecture. If you can start that conversation, you will have already made great headway in making your content infinitely more accessible and valuable.

How does a product make this easier?

Working with a product like Unily, where information architecture is dealt with by configuring menus, navigation, and workspaces makes the task considerably easier. Gone are the days when creating a new navigation takes many hours of design and technical development, which itself has to be tested and re-tested before being released to staff.

Instead, with a product such as Unily, decisions can be made much more quickly. The upside of which is that a business can test out if a change works with a much lower overhead. If it doesn’t work, it can be re-configured quickly and easily allowing for much more flexibility when trying out different approaches.

Four key principles to always bear in mind

Simplicity is key

If you end up with navigation that is overly complex, uses difficult terminology, or replicates too closely with what you have now, it’s probably worth trying to make it simpler. Once staff get used to the new concept, this can grow further. Starting with a big structured information architecture will overwhelm and deter. Pick out the most eagerly needed areas to design out first. If you can, leave other areas for later.

Breadth not depth

One of the difficulties anyone has in finding something is knowing where to look for it. Navigations have to assume everyone understands their terminology. If you create tiered levels of navigation, putting child sites, sub-sites etc. beneath parent categories, the chances are you will make it even harder for staff to find what they are looking for. Instead, think more about breadth and fewer levels or hierarchies that staff have to traverse through. Instead, create more top-level categories, that by their nature, are open and hopefully easier to understand and make sense of.

Not everyone agrees

This is inevitable, especially among a large organisation with varied business groups who have differing priorities. To combat this, it’s important to involve myriad staff in your design process in order to first expose these difficulties, and secondly, to reach an agreement of what can be put in place initially that suits all needs. It’s often the case that people get used to new ideas by simply using or trying them out. Unless something is very jarring, this can be your best bet. But equally true is to never set things in stone. If something is evidently not working, a good information architecture design will change with time and feedback. So, be prepared to change things to make them work better.

Organise content by use

This is probably the most challenging aspect of designing an information architecture. It’s more important to organise everything by how staff use content, rather than by who owns it. Often, the starting point is to replicate the top-down structure of an organisation in an intranet’s navigation or taxonomy. While this might feel right, it often ends up pigeonholing your content into existing silos — creating barriers around knowledge — instead of creating more collaboration between staff. Rather than doing things top-down, ask how (through personas, use-cases, scenarios) and why staff want to use knowledge, information, tools, and try to organise everything into meaningful ‘buckets’ that they can more easily relate to. The additional trick here is to make sure that those who are driving your design process appeal to staff. This will enable them to capture common or universal motivations of how they want to collaborate, use information or tools with one another. That way your information architecture should reflect these common scenarios, making your information architecture as accessible to as many staff as possible.

To conclude: be creative

In a nutshell, information architecture is a creative process. Post-launch, it should always be on your mind to evaluate what is or isn’t working. Staff, through feedback, or by analysing your analytics will quickly reveal what could work better. By continually analysing your intranet’s performance in this way, you will ensure that you get the most out of your information architecture, guaranteeing your content’s value is self-evident.

Download our 10 essentials for creating an intranet employees love.

Martyn Perks Head of Customer Insight

Martyn is a business consultant with wide ranging experience in both public and private sectors. His expertise is in helping world-wide and small organisations improve how they communicate, share knowledge and innovate internally — aiding their growth and competitiveness. He works with senior leadership to front-line staff advising and mentoring them with compelling insights, recommendations, prototypes and business cases. Because his background is in design, he uses these skills whenever possible to help make complex ideas simple, in tandem with tangible and insightful analysis.

In addition to his consultancy work, Martyn regularly speaks, produces debates, and writes about a wide variety of topics including about privacy, big data, social media, innovation, design, 3D printing, behaviour change, usability, architecture, and artificial intelligence. Publications he has written for include The Independent, International Business Times, Telegraph business, the Guardian, Big Issue, Core77, Design Week, Netimperative, spiked, Web Designer Depot and CMS Wire. He co-authored Winners and Losers in a Troubled Economy: How to Engage Customers Online to Gain Competitive Advantage (2008), contributed a chapter on online communities to The Future of Community: reports of a death greatly exaggerated (2008); founded the Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation; and conveyed the Big Potatoes: Manifesto for Design group.

He has spoken at debates across Europe and in America including at the Cheltenham Science Festival, Battle of Ideas festival, Design Exchange at the London Design Festival, Anglo Israeli Association in Jerusalem, Zurich Salon, Dublin Salon, Hellenic American Union in Athens, London College of Fashion, and at the private members club Home House. He has appeared on R4’s PM radio news programme debating whether blue-skies thinking is a management fad with FT’s Lucy Kellaway, and more recently debated whether artificially intelligent machines will take over humanity on SkyNews’ lunchtime #SkyDebate. Thankfully, he said they are still lightyear’s away from being as smart as us!

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