Reinventing intranet information architecture

“I can’t find anything!” At the risk of sounding repetitive, this is still the number one complaint of most employees at most organizations, regardless of size, industry and geographic location. Notwithstanding the effectiveness of the search engine which, more often than not, is rated as being somewhere between 'awful' and 'piss-poor,' information architecture is often the top priority of most intranet managers when undertaking a redesign.

Information architecture (IA) is mostly science with a dash of art. As it relates to the intranet, the IA is best represented by a site map or organization chart of the major information or content categories (parents) and the sub-categories (children) and how they all relate to each other.

IA is defined by the Information Architecture Institute as:

    • The structural design of shared information environments.
    • The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support findability and usability.
    • An emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

    The ultimate goal of the intranet manager, architect and consultant is to create an ‘intuitive’ IA  with information categories and navigation paths that are intuitive or easily understood at a glance. Of course the principal challenge of any information architect is that what is intuitive to one person is not always intuitive to another.

    Download Information Architecture for Intranets Whitepaper (2012)

    When redesigning an intranet or portal, there is a natural inclination by some architects and consultants to reinvent the IA to best reflect ‘best practices’ and/or the IA or labels used by other clients with successful and intuitive IAs. This of course is a dangerous trap, as no outside consultant or architect could truly appreciate and know intimately the culture and the formal and informal corporate nomenclature as those who have worked for an organization for years. Furthermore, legacy labels and nomenclature considered awkward or poorly named by the architect redesigning the IA are in fact reinforced and validated by years of employee use. For example, the content category “HR” is not a very cool label and design firms and architects have come to use cute, new millennia labels like:

      • People Place
      • My Services
      • Employee Central

      None of these labels are wrong per se, but if employees have spent years finding benefits and compensation information and tools under the “HR” section, why would anyone change the label? Frankly, unless there is a solid, demonstrated reason for doing so, you risk further confusing employees who demand simplicity.

      Firstly, no two organizations are the same. Notwithstanding different industries and services, each organization (even closely related competitors) may in fact differ in very significant ways:

        • Corporate priorities
        • Corporate values
        • Target audience & customer base
        • Management
        • Culture
        • Geographic locations
        • Personal life experiences and preferences
        • Career path & development

        All of the above factors, and many others (including dozens and perhaps hundreds of sub-factors), influence an individual employee’s definition of 'intuitive.' Therefore applying labels and schema from one company to another makes absolutely no sense and is reckless in principal.

        So while reinventing an intranet’s information architecture from scratch, and removing common and generally accepted labels and information paths is counter-productive, there are some general lessons to be learned (though not always universally applicable):

        1.    The vast majority of practical content should be no more than 3 clicks from the home page (this is impossible with millions of pages of content, but note the emphasis on majority)

        2.    Major parent categories (major sections or channels that represent virtually all the content on a corporate intranet) should be limited to 6 to 8, including sections for:

          • About Us (Corporate profile, business structure, bios, directory, etc.)
          • News (news stories, announcements, events, etc.)
          • HR (human resource related information and tools)
          • Products & Services (and/or customer related information)
          • Forms & Tools (an aggregate section of links or originals)
          • Manuals & Policies (an aggregate section of links or originals)
                • Other common parent categories (relevant to some organizations but not others include:
                      • Customer service
                      • Career / Learning
                      • Executive Corner
                      • Roles / Dashboards (sales, operations, administrative, etc.)
                      • Library / Reference

        3.    Beware of catch-all sections such as Resources or Information that become dumping grounds for everything that doesn’t fit in other sections rather than finding it a true home

        4.    Navigational / usability elements such as Search, Site Map, Help, Contact Us, Feedback, etc. need not be in a parent category per se, but should be available in the main navigation banner and/or footer

        5.    Card sorting exercises that allow users to determine content groupings and labels are extremely valuable for fixing navigation and usability problems

        6.    Do not bury or overlook highly desirable but not necessarily mission-critical items that are usually very highly sought by employees including:

          • Cafeteria menus
          • Buy-and-sell / Classifieds
          • Job postings
          • Weather forecast
          • Office locations & maps

          Most corporate intranets feature weak information architectures that require careful thought and some work to enhance. But completely scraping and reinventing the IA at the expense of years of common, learned behavior may well further confuse and irritate your employees who are already complaining that they “can’t find anything!”

          Download Information Architecture for Intranets Whitepaper (2012)

          For help with your intranet information architecture please see our Intranet Blueprint service or contact us directly.


          Toby Ward, a former journalist and prominent writer and speaker on intranets and intranet planning, is the President of Prescient Digital Media. To learn how to undertake effective intranet planning, or to get our free intranet white paper, Finding ROI, please contact us directly.


          Learn more and specific tips for crafting your intranet information architecture: