SharePoint Information Architecture Best Practices
Picture your dream house. Now imagine it without a roof, with crooked walls that all differ in size, with windows where the ceiling should be. You want to get out, but however hard you try to find an exit, you cannot. This is not just the stuff of nightmares; it is what a SharePoint environment lacking proper information architecture looks like.
Plan for Internal Newsletters in SharePoint
1. Why You Should be Sending Newsletters to Your Employees
2. How to Write an Internal Newsletter Your Employees Will Want to Read
3. 10 Topic Ideas to Help You Jumpstart your Internal Newsletter Campaign
4. Why Your Internal Newsletter Communications Should Be About Security, Too
5. How You Can Use Insights Into Your Internal Newsletter Campaign to Boost Results
6. How to Turn Your SharePoint into the Ultimate Engagement Platform
7. How Information Architecture Will Help You Automate Content Delivery
8. Responsive Email Templates, Why Do We Use Them?
9. Newsletter Metrics, Link Clicks and Opens, How They Work
Just as in the previous post, I will do a bit of sidetracking. In this new post, I will address how information architecture and automated content delivery can help you build a better SharePoint intranet. Of course, this will also help you send better internal newsletters.
Let’s start simple. To create and sustain an intranet that both engages people and saves them time, you will need some proper information architecture (IA). A well thought out IA will not only help you boost overall production, it will also give you a system in which automated content delivery functions at its best.
Before we get into how you can use Information Architecting to automate your content delivery, I want to talk briefly about what IA is, and why it is essential that you use it right.
What is Information Architecture?
Information Architecture – often simply called IA – is the term used to describe how content is ordered, given structure, and shown on a SharePoint website or intranet. In more precise terms this refers to how and where content and documents are laid out across an Intranet system. If your SharePoint intranet was a building, your Information Architecture would be its blueprint.
Why Is It Important?
Continuing with the above metaphor, would you build a house without a blueprint? I hope not. So, before you start building, you should know what you want your end result to look like and how you want it to function. This is not something you do after people start working with the intranet (in theory you could, it is just a lot more work). For a good overview of how to start and accelerate this process of change, check our 8-step action plan in the previous post in this series.
To illustrate the importance of good IA, let’s see what a bad functioning intranet – one that failed to implement a good IA – looks like by imagining the following:
You’ve just started this new job when your boss calls with your first task. He wants you to create a new project site and pull together a list of documents as well as create several new ones. A piece of cake, you think. After all, you’ve done this many times before. It should be simple: create a site, a document library, some folders and you are done.
Tough luck, you find out that there is no common structure whatsoever for the intranet you are now losing yourself in. Every site you have access to looks and is built completely different. Aside from that, all your searches come up empty. It is impossible for you to know how to build a proper project site in this wasteland.
What are The Best Practices for Information Architecture?
To avoid Kafkaesque situations like the one above, you should implement a clear-cut, well planned Information Architecture for your SharePoint intranet.
Let’s start with what the authors of the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld, have to say. This impressive book is often referred to as the Information Architecting bible.
Morville and Rosenfeld state that there are 3 major points you should be taking into account when you are defining an IA. These are: an understanding of the business/context, the content, and users.
For your intranet to work at its best, you will need to understand your business’s overall objectives. Keep in mind that neither time nor business activity will stop when you are busy creating your Information Architecture. Always consider the time you are taking, and the budget you have for your tasks.
It is imperative that you know what content will be stored in your SharePoint. To get a clear understanding of this you should find out where all information is stored now, who has access to what (and more importantly: who needs access to what). You should check the uses cases, the information lifecycle, retention policies, approval workflows, categories, and so on. A good way to do this is to make a content inventory. Because, if you understand your content, you will be able to implement a structure that will allow for the best searches.
This aspect might not be immediately visible at the outset of your Information Architecting. Nevertheless, it is necessary to consider it to get things to work as smoothly as possible. Ask yourself the following questions: In what ways do the users of your SharePoint use the intranet, what are their tasks, and what are their expectations?
The Information Architecture Building Blocks
You should see SharePoint as a box of Lego. You can build anything imaginable with those blocks at your disposal – and you can be proud when you see the end result of your ceaseless efforts. Now, what are the building blocks you use in SharePoint for creating a solid IA?
Logically ordered containers in which you store a collection of subsites.
Sites (and subsites)
These are at the heart of your SharePoint and are very visible to users. Sites are the containers in which you store libraries and lists. Remember: sites are the main navigating points for users.
These you will find on your sites. You will find your files in your libraries. To be more specific, in your libraries you will find: Site Pages, Images, Videos, and Documents.
These are very similar to libraries. The main difference is that instead of storing files they store items. An item, in its turn, you could define as structured information that forms part of a table or database.
You will find these in libraries and lists. They are no different than the folders on your computer.
This is a definition created when a new type of item is uploaded to the intranet. You might use a content type to define how a certain type of item is treated in the future. In every company, there are different types of documents (contracts, proposals, user manuals, research documents, reports, etc.) and each one of them has different characteristics which are important for the usage and searchability. For the best structuring of information, I would recommend using content types. Read more about how to plan the content type structure, hierarchy, and metadata and why it is important.
These are the properties that are applied to items inside libraries or lists directly from content types. They are essential for a smooth running IA.
This is the centralized version of metadata. You will use this to build search queries, rules, and refinements. Managed metadata is especially handy for big organizations.
Once you made yourself familiar with these building blocks, you can decide in what way you can use them best for your own and your business’s needs. It is good practice to sketch a physical blueprint of your IA to ensure the best end results.
What to Do with Your Building Blocks?
Now, before you get started on building that perfect, new and shiny IA, there are 4 extremely useful commandments you should follow.
1. Don’t Follow the Organization’s Structure
Think outside of your organizational structure, because you want to promote cross-department collaborations. Keep in mind: functions and processes, clients, content types, etc.
2. Focus on Metadata
Just using folders to create structure is far from ideal. It is much better to build an IA on strong metadata principles. So for each item, you should know things like: What is this about? What region does it cover? What product is it about? What year is it for? Knowing these it will be very easy to find, filter and navigate.
3. Centrally Organize Naming
Proper naming of all new items is essential for your IA. Not just in building it, but moreover to sustain it. We wrote a blog post about the best practices for automated document naming before, take a look!
4. Make Search Work at its Best
Search should be easy and straightforward. When a user is looking for certain items, he should be able to find it by typing in the information he needs. To quicken and enhance this process: use query rules; promote a result; supplement a query with additional property and KW filters. Make sure to customize the refinement panel; have only the most relevant filter options show for a clean and easily manageable look. Use content search web part to aggregate content from anywhere based on a search query and style it however you want. You can find a lot of useful search experience guides on Bella Engen’s blog.
Use IA to Automate Content Delivery
There are many advantages to having a well thought out IA. Aside from your intranet running faster and having all your documents stored in logical places, it will enable you to easily start the automation of content delivery. Automated content delivery means you don’t have to fill in documents like contracts, invoices or even email newsletters anymore. You can let SharePoint recognize these different items, and have it know what to do with each one of them.
Now let’s look at an example of how you would use automated content delivery.
When your IA is built and ready for use, you will need to have one publishing site in which all of your news pages are stored. These news items could range from company policy changes to birthdays to an office day-out-to-the-waterpark.
Add additional metadata properties to define the relevant department, language, news type and so on. Now you will be able to filter your news based on these different criteria. It will also allow you to easily show personalized news on the different team or project sites, your home page (using a content search or search query web part that refers to content on the primary news site) or even in your internal newsletters.
Now that you have all that information in one place you can use a third-party app (we would recommend JungleMail, but are obviously quite biased) to collect the data and create a personalized newsletter. Here you do not simply use mail merge, but also make use of a feature we call dynamic blocks. These dynamic blocks can show virtually any item that is relevant to the users of your intranet, by simply gathering it automatically from the right SharePoint list or library.
I hope this post made it clear why it is imperative to not think about the creation of your IA as something that will just sort itself out. If you want to get the most out of your intranet, SharePoint’s many functions, and above all, to save time and effort: designing a robust IA is the way to go. After all, it will last you years to come.
Next up in our Best Practices for Internal Newsletters series:
Why You Should Be Using Responsive Email Templates.