Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Intranet Information Architecture (IA)

Jakob Nielsen evaluates intranet IA ...

"In analyzing 56 intranets, we found many common top-level categories, labels, and navigation designs, but ultimately, the diversity was too great to recommend a single IA.

Information architecture (IA) poses a tremendous challenge in designing any navigational system. Historically, intranets have had little in terms of systematic IA efforts; designers typically "structured" intranets according to the organic growth of pages and features provided by different departments. Employees suffered the consequences, repeatedly getting lost in confusing structures with inconsistent navigation options.

Luckily, many companies have begun taking intranet IA seriously, launching systematic efforts to maintain consistent navigation systems using a deliberately designed structure, rather than one that evolved haphazardly.

We initiated an effort to document intranet IA processes and the resulting designs, both in terms of the visible user interfaces and the underlying structures.

We analyzed the IAs for 56 intranets. Our analysis encompassed a wide range of organizations in 12 countries:

* 33 companies from a variety of industries, including financial services, utilities, and technology
* 11 government agencies
* 5 healthcare providers
* 4 educational institutions
* 3 non-profits

Of the organizations, 11 were small (500 employees or less), 30 were mid-sized (501-20,000 employees), and 15 were large (more than 20,000 employees).
Architecture without Architects
Ideally, an intranet team would include a professional IA specialist to handle the IA component of the user experience. But that's like saying an intranet team should include professional interaction designers, graphic designers, writers and editors, software engineers and system architects, as well as dedicated usability specialists to do the user research — plus, of course, a brilliant manager with full executive support. That's indeed the dream team. Most companies, however, can't afford full-time specialists for each of the many roles needed to design and build an optimal intranet user experience.

Among the organizations in our study, only 25% had a full-time person dedicated to the intranet's IA. We can assume that companies participating in a project about intranet IAs have an above-average interest and commitment to the topic, so the percentage across all intranets is no doubt much lower.

All is not lost, however. While it's better to have a large, multi-disciplinary intranet team, a smaller team can do good work if some members take on multiple roles. People in other jobs can learn the basics of IA, just as they can learn the basics of usability. Just as all design teams should do user testing — even if they don't have a specialized usability professional at their disposal — all intranet teams should take IA seriously and take systematic steps to improve it, even if they lack an official "information architect."

On such teams, a designer, usability specialist, or writer typically takes on the information architect's role. Given a little training in the most important IA principles — and the resources to base their design decisions on user data — teams can certainly achieve great IA results without full-time, dedicated information architects.

One of the most important goals on an IA project is to institute a consistent user experience for two key elements: the visible navigation user interface, and the underlying — invisible — structure (where things are found on the intranet). To successfully achieve this, teams must:

* Decide to proactively design the IA instead of letting it evolve.
* Ensure that management supports the central IA designer's authority to provide guidance and structure to other departments' intranet work.
* Ensure that management won't second-guess the design team and impose the awkward structures or navigational terms that individual executives happen to like."    (Continued via Alertbox)    [Usability Resources]

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