Building a Phenomenal [Information Architecture] for your Intranet

Even with a great intranet search, clear and intuitive information architecture is very much relevant for improved information searchability.

Intranet Information Architecture versus Navigation

Many confuse intranet information architecture (IA) with the navigation because there is a tight link between the two, but they are not one and the same.

Information architecture describes the relationship between the information on the intranet, so that we don't forget about key content we need.

For example: Let's take [Policies].
Policies can be broken down to [Expense Policies], [HR Policies] etc. [HR Policies] can be further broken down to [Recruiting] and [Benefits].

It's important to know what IA you will have on the intranet but navigation may not necessarily use the same labels. Some deeper parts of the IA can be used for thing like content types or libraries represented in a view.

For example instead of using this navigation: [Company Operations] -> [Policies] ->[HR Policies] -> [Recruiting], we may have a top navigation link titled [How We Work] and have a single search tool allowing you to search resources based on a tag. Those tags can include policies and related documentation. In this case, the end user doesn't necessarily see the intranet IA, but the author who tags the content is aware of the IA so that the right content is tagged correctly.

Intranet Search versus Intranet IA

Searchable doesn't always mean it's findable.

Why is that? Even if you name the content with descriptive keywords, people still need to know those keywords. Let's take the term [WebPart] from SharePoint. Someone who's unfamiliar with SharePoint framework could call it: [Widget], [App], [Component], [Tool] ... now try searching Google for something you'd normally find if used the right term versus the wrong term - the result may vary significantly. Same applies in context of your intranet search.

Having the right intranet IA and contextual search like in the example above is more more efficient than a global search which searches everything and find nothing.

Additionally, have you ever found something with the right name but the content is completely not what you'd expect? My favorite one is when you search for a logo or marketing collateral and find variations of "unapproved" logos or out of date PowerPoint slide decks. Figuring out the reliability of the search is not always easy.

In this case, with intranet IA you can build structure which will help users find the content from reliable sources as opposed to rogue versions or out of date information.

How to Build Great Intranet IA

Building an intranet IA can sound like a daunting task because there is so much to consider. However, provided you have the right process it's quite easy to get the outputs you're looking for. We always use a structured workshop format to help build an intranet IA and it works really well keeping everyone engaged. After all, an intranet IA design workshops can be 1.5 hour in length and sometimes may have more than 15 participants.

Here is the high level flow of a typical Intranet IA workshop:


  1. Set a workshop team. Having the right people in the room is important but it's not always the easiest things to accomplish.

  2. Ask participants to come prepared with ideas about the content they would like to have on the intranet. If the company has an intranet already, this is always easier since they have some ideas of what they had previously.

  3. Bring plenty of sticky notes, permanent markers, and a white board marker. Ideally you'll have a room with at least one whiteboard large enough to hold all of the sticky notes. One person typically generates about 15 to 30 sticky notes, so plan large enough space if you have 15 or so people come into the workshop.

Intranet IA Workshop

  1. Explain the purpose and the process to participants.

  2. Ask participants to take 5 minutes to write one content idea per sticky without interacting with other participants.

    Some participants will be very detailed and will generate 20 or more stickies, others may write down just 5 or so. If anyone has questions, they can ask those for clarity. At this point no one needs to structure the content in parent-child relationship, this will be done later.

  3. When the time's up, ask each participant to come to the whiteboard and take 3 min to read out their stickies and put them up on the board.

    If others have questions about a piece of content, they can clarify now but if some content areas raise more of a discussion, take that idea down on a separate sticky and place it in the separate part of the whiteboard titled "Parking Lot" - those can be discussed later.

    We usually ask first two volunteers for this part since some people less confident catch up on the flow of the exercise.

  4. Now that everyone has shared their content ideas, we need to eliminate duplicates and group them into content categories. This is a group exercise. Allocate 5-10 minutes for this round.

    For smaller groups of < 5 people, everyone can work as a group. For larger groups of 6 people break them up into teams focusing on a particular area. For example: HR team working together, etc.

    If you have several groups, allocate another couple of minutes so that each group explains their content grouping to others.

    As a result you'll have clusters of content ideas.

  5. Now, you're ready to build a draft hierarchy. Allocate another 5-10 minutes where participants will build relationships between groups and label each group of content with a label that can be used to reference this particular content group.

  6. Final 5-10 minutes participants solidify labels for all the content groups which will produce a structure similar to this:

Sample Intranet Information Architecture

Sample Intranet Information Architecture

After the Intranet IA Workshop

You will end up with a lot of stickies; take photos of clusters. For larger groups we take photos as things are grouped after each exercise since stickies sometime fall off and you lose bits of information. Once you've got photos, you can use any mind map tool such as MindMap or Mind Manager to enter the data into the tool.

Share the diagram with others so they see the product of their hard work. This can evolve further but should serve as a great basis for your Intranet IA.

Test Your Intranet Information Architecture

When we work on the intranet IA in a group of 6 or 8 workshop participants and then test the structure with a larger group, say 30 or so test participants, we see at least 2 or more flaws in the hierarchy tree. In other words, 2 or more branches are not intuitive to navigate.How do we know that?

We test our tree to measure directness, accuracy, and how long it took to navigate.

It’s not uncommon for your intranet IA to have flaws, since design team of 8 people locked in a room for 2 hours develops a bias. Some people have preferences and chose to go a particular route which may not be the most intuitive to others.

Testing your intranet IA tree allows to iron out key issues before you deploy the site saving your users hundreds of hours in the future.

Intranet Information Architecture: In summary

Building good IA for an intranet is as important for the success of the project as having the content. After all if people can't find the content, it's as if it doesn't exist in a first place. Knowing how to get the right inputs to your IA comes down to interactive IA workshops, which help getting input while keeping people engaged.

Leave your comments on what are some of the things you're curious about and we'll try to get an expert insight on the topic.

Intranet information architecture expert

Yaroslav Pentsarskyy is the Director of Product at Origami. He's also 8 time Microsoft MVP, speaker at many local and worldwide tech events, and a published author of several SharePoint related books.