Business Case for Building a Phenomenal [Information Architecture] for your Intranet

intranet information architecture

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

Information Architecture Versus Navigation

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

Intranet 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 information architecture can be used for things 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 information architecture, but the author who tags the content is aware of the IA so that the right content is tagged correctly.

Intranet IA

Intranet IA

Search versus 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 using the right term versus the wrong term - the result may vary significantly. Same applies in the context of your intranet search.

Having the right IA and contextual search like in the example above is more efficient than a global search which searches everything and finds 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 My favorite one is when you search for a logo or marketing collateral and find variations of "unapproved" logos or out of date PowerPoint slide decks.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 of 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 IA

Building an IA can sound like a daunting task because there is so much to consider. However, provided you have a right process it's quite easy to get outputs you're looking for. We always use structured workshop format to help build an IA for intranets and it works really well keeping everyone engaged. After all, 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 our typical 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.


  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 minutes 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 for two volunteers for this part since some people who are 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:

Intranet IA

After the 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 outcome of their hard work. This can evolve further but should serve as a great basis for your IA.

Test Your Information Architecture

When we work on the 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 too to navigate it.

It’s not uncommon for your IA to have flaws, since a 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 IA tree allows to iron out key issues before you deploy the site saving your users hundreds of hours in the future.

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 founder of OrigamiConnect, a rapidly growing service and product offering which enables organizations to get an intranet designed for them without starting from a blank page. He's also 8 time Microsoft MVP, speaker at many local and worldwide tech events, and a published author of several SharePoint related books.