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A New Year’s Resolution for your Intranet: Do an IA Health Check!

Your intranet can probably use a few health-related resolutions: start with a goal to revisit your information architecture with these six checks

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I spent a lot of time in 2016 working on more information architecture (IA) projects than usual – from designing comprehensive information architectures as part of intranet migrations or upgrades to small IA usability engagements and everything in between. Here are six key lessons that I learned that can form the basis of your new year’s resolution to give your intranet IA a health check.

The Information Architecture for your intranet provides the strategy and plan for information access. It informs how users will navigate through the solution and how information managed by the solution will be organized. A good intranet information architecture is 100% focused on the people who need to process, find, and interact with the content. We mostly think of IA as supporting the “browse” experience. But, given the fact that search depends on metadata, which is part of your IA, a good IA is also supports search. If you get it right, your information architecture will help users find content in three critical content-finding scenarios:

• I know it exists and I know where it is
• I know it exists but I don’t know where it is
• I don’t even know if it exists

In my experience doing usability studies in multiple organizations, only the second of these three scenarios begins with search. The others typically start with users browsing or attempting to browse, often because search has been so awful in the past! One might wonder if given how awesome search is in SharePoint/Office 365 and how Delve presents contextual information to users without even having to search, does IA still matter in 2017? Yes, it does! According to digital experience guru Gerry McGovern, “we find that when people arrive at a particular site they start by navigating about 70% of the time. When people get stuck navigating they may resort to using site search.” My intranet usability data suggests that users typically start with browsing 80% of the time. Given this, I think it’s a good idea to start 2017 with an intranet IA health check!

Check 1: Do you have a content management plan? A good intranet IA will help improve user adoption, improve user satisfaction and productivity, reduce information overload, and reduce compliance and bad information risk. A bad IA makes people frustrated and distrustful of the intranet and its content. No matter how effective your IA is, if the content isn’t current, accurate, and reliable, your intranet will not deliver value. This first aspect of your IA health check isn’t about IA at all – it’s about governance. If your content sucks, it doesn’t matter how well it is organized. It’s better to find no content than to find inaccurate or irrelevant content. I worked with a client this year that had an effective intranet information architecture – for browsing. Unfortunately, users complained bitterly about search because way too often, search returned old versions of content, with current versions buried on the second or third page of search results. If you don’t have a plan to remove outdated content – or better yet, a plan to replace rather than add new content versions – it doesn’t matter if your content is well organized.

Check 2: Is the most important information easy to find on every page? I could have called this check “Is the most important information above the fold?” The term “above the fold” is a newspaper term that refers to the upper half of the front page where an important news story or photograph is often located. In page layout design, this term has come to refer to what is visible on a page without having to scroll. There is controversy in the IA community about whether scrolling matters anymore since on mobile devices, swiping is basically second nature. (I recently saw an 18-month old baby swiping on her mother’s iPhone!) Given the world of responsive designs and a variety of screen sizes, it’s impossible to explicitly layout a page for a specific “fold.” That said, I have done enough usability tests to know that the concept of the fold still matters. And, I’m not alone in this opinion. As you review your intranet pages, is the most important and frequently changing information front and center? Can it be found without a lot of scrolling – no matter which device a person uses? Do users need to scroll through “blah-blah” text to find important content? Here’s a challenge for you – if you have “who we are and what we do” information that never changes on department home pages, move it off to an About page and link to it from the home page. I promise you, no kittens will die. “About” information is very useful for first time users and new employees. Once users know about the department, they don’t need to see your mission statement every time they land on your page.

Check 3: Does your content have a meaningful organizational strategy? This is not just about your top navigational links. It’s about all your content. Take a look at this “UX Picnic” video with IA guru Donna Spencer. She has some great advice about organizing your content with her collection of “why can’t we organize by …” FAQs. Even if you don’t agree with everything she says, there is a lot to learn from and enjoy by watching Donna talk about IA. Here is an important take away about organizational strategy: when people look at a list of things, they assume that there is some type of order. Donna doesn’t love alphabetical order but she acknowledges that she might be wrong in some contexts. I think one of the contexts where she might be wrong is your intranet! If there is no other meaningful order, then at least don’t make it random – order your links and content alphabetically. (Be sure to watch all the way to the end, by the way, because although Donna speaks in very black and white terms in the talk, at the end she acknowledges what we know about most definitive advice when it comes to IA – “it depends.”)

Check 4: Have you taught your content publishers how to create content for their users? And, have you given them any guidance about how to choose the right approach to communicate different types of content and create it for the web? Most intranet content publishers are focused on providing content that they think is critically important. Unfortunately, they don’t always think about for whom the content is critical! For example, imagine a “fictional” HR department. HR knows that it’s important that everyone in the organization is aware of the sexual harassment policy. So, they place a featured link to that policy on their home page. When a user comes to the HR page, I can promise you that they are not looking for the sexual harassment policy – at least not as featured content! They want to find out how to when the next paid holiday is or how much vacation leave they have accrued or how much was their last direct deposit or how to add their new baby to their benefits or find out if the course they want to take will be reimbursed. The story we want to tell on the HR home page is what users need, not just what HR wants to tell. If often ask content producers to think about what they get called about the most – and to make sure that the information people ask for most frequently is very easy to find.

We also need to give content producers guidance about writing for the web. For example, using bullets and bold to make content easier to scan, summarizing the most important content in the first two sentences, using section headers, writing in an active voice, etc. People don’t read on the web, they scan. We need to make sure that content is "scannable" – even if we must have a lot of text to explain the point. Here are some tips I like. In addition, create page layout patterns so that your content producers don’t have to think too hard about writing for the web – let the page layout help guide content producers to create the most effective content.

Check 5: Are you gathering usage data so that you can improve your IA? The biggest mistake you can make is letting organizational politics drive your IA. I know, sometimes it’s just better to cave than to argue about whether Vice President A’s request is more important than Vice President B. However, the only chance you have about proving your IA recommendation is to understand what users are accessing and what they are searching for. If you want to know for sure which links are adding value, you need to be collecting and reviewing usage data! I’m excited about the Office 365 adoption content pack in PowerBI, which includes a lot of really useful information. However, the content pack will not get the detailed information you need to have really good insights into your IA without looking in to third-party metrics tools. I’ve been keeping a list of metrics that I like for knowledge management that you may find helpful in looking for analytics tools to support ongoing analysis of your IA.

Check 6: Have you tested your IA? Even if you don’t do any of the other health checks, you can learn a lot from a quick usability test of your IA. You can use a simple “common task” analysis to learn something valuable. First, review this “oldie but goodie” article about why you only need to test with 5 users. Second, take a look at this post by IA guru Donna Spencer, How to Test an Information Architecture. I often use the approach Donna recommends for existing intranets in a simple and short face-to-face test. I provide the testers with a list of no more than 20 tasks and then ask them to “think out loud” as they work through the tasks. I look at the paths they take, how long it takes to find the answer, the number of false starts, and whether they start with browse or search. A thoughtfully planned but inexpensive usability test is a great way to kick off your new year’s resolution for improving your intranet’s information architecture.

Want to learn more about IA? It’s going to be a theme of my 2017 conference talks – especially after we learn more about the new publishing scenarios in Office 365! Here are two events where I will be giving IA workshops in April: SPTechCon Austin (April 2-5, 2017) and SharePoint Fest DC (April 17-20, 2017).

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