man holding finger to mouth in "shhhhh" position

Don’t Talk Information Architecture When it Comes to SharePoint Online

October 31, 2022 Digital Workplace
James Robertson
By James Robertson

Best practices for the design of websites and intranets are near universally understood: design pages so they make sense to users and structure navigation so that information can be quickly and confidently found. The techniques used to achieve this are equally well-known, drawing on the fields of user experience (UX) and information architecture (IA). I should know, I wrote a whole book on the topic: "Designing Intranets."

Yet for all of this, I no longer talk about information architecture when it comes to SharePoint Online intranets. The term is too confusing in this context, and SharePoint Online genuinely works differently than traditional intranets. Instead, shape the navigation experience and SharePoint site architecture to get great results.

How We Used to Design Intranets

The starting point for most intranets is to consider them as employee-facing websites. This brings with it a number of considerations that are generally taken for granted:

  • A hierarchical structure, with clear parent-child relationships between pages.
  • An often-deep structure, going down six, eight, 10 or more levels.
  • Navigation provided to users in the form of a drop-down menu (or mega menu).
  • A one-to-one match between the navigation and the underlying structure of the site.
  • Global navigation that is the same throughout the site.

Creating user-centric sites of this sort is a well-understood process, with information architecture techniques shaping the structure, navigation and search, while user experience techniques determine the page layout and functionality.

Card sorting is a practical starting point for designing these sites, as it provides insight into how people think about the information and how it should be structured. Once a draft structure has been created, tree testing (often using a tool such as TreeJack) provides a task-based testing approach to refining and finalizing the structure.

The result is often a spreadsheet that articulates the structure and navigation. Again, it's worth noting that in traditional intranets these two things are the same.

In terms of page layouts, wireframes are used to shape what’s on key pages, with usability testing again providing a task-based technique for refining the designs.

So far, so good. But what does this mean in the world of SharePoint Online?

Related Article: Why Did We Stop Trying to Deliver Usable Intranets?

SharePoint Online Intranets: We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

The shift from SharePoint Classic to Modern brought a sea-change in how intranets are delivered (generally for the better, but sometimes for the worse).

Out is the rigid hierarchical structure of Classic, and in is a more fluid way of managing and delivering sites.

The key differences from traditional intranets include:

  • The intranet consists of a sea of separate sites rather than sections of a traditional site.
  • There’s a fundamentally flat structure of sites, with all of them sitting at the same level.
  • Sites can be grouped together using hubs, but this provides very limited functionality.
  • Support for subsites still exists — but these are evil so don’t use them!
  • Traditional drop-down menus or mega menus can be created, but these aren’t universally available across the intranet.
  • There is a true global menu (as part of the app bar), but this is a new experience for users.
  • Local navigation can be created within a given site, but this needs to be manually managed.
  • There’s no direct connection between the navigation and structure of SharePoint Online intranets.

Why do these changes matter, surely it’s still just an intranet? Based on my work with a wide range of clients, it’s clear that great outcomes are only achieved when teams go with the grain of how SharePoint Online Modern works. This means re-thinking some of the ways in which we design intranets.

Related Article: Your Intranet Should Be a Little Bit Messy

Navigation and Architecture: Two Halves Coming Together

The practical reality for intranet teams is that a top-to-bottom information architecture simply isn’t expressed in SharePoint Online. Traditional menus aren’t global across the whole site, content isn’t structured hierarchically, and local menus aren’t a simple continuation of the top-down menus.

Instead, teams should be thinking about two halves coming together in SharePoint Online:

  • A top-down navigation experience, that utilizes SharePoint Online features to provide employees with a usable and findable way of getting to required information.
  • A bottom-up site architecture, that shapes how sites and hubs are used to structure information, with a primary focus on management and governance.

The key insight is that navigation experience and site architecture are two entirely separate considerations, no longer joined together as they would be in a traditional hierarchical intranet. While this presents some challenges, it also allows intranet teams to optimize each element separately, with considerable flexibility in how this is done.

Related Article: Why Asking Employees What They Want From an Intranet Might Not Be the Best Idea

Creating a Great Navigation Experience

With the navigation experience separated from the underlying site architecture, we’re now free to take a truly user-centric approach to its creation.

Card sorting still works well here, and tree testing remains hugely effective at ensuring that information is easily findable.

What’s different is that the navigation experience focuses just on what’s expressed in the platform (what the employee actually sees), instead of creating a single information architecture that goes from the top to the bottom of the intranet.

The team can them make decisions in terms of which navigation aids to use:

  • App bar global menu.
  • Drop-down or mega menus on the SharePoint home site.
  • Hub menus.
  • Local navigation.

This will involve taking a pragmatic approach to what can be done, acknowledging that traditional approaches to global navigation and useful features such as breadcrumbs may not be practical.

Related Article: 5 Ways an Intranet Can Help With Talent Retention

Getting the Rest Right

The underlying site architecture is just as important as the navigation experience. It needs to be structured in a way to ensure the intranet is sustainable and manageable. In general this means aligning sites to content ownership — and therefore the structure of the business itself — with more sites rather than less. (I’ll dive into this further in a future article.)

In terms of the user experience of the intranet – what goes on pages and how they’re designed — SharePoint Online also provides opportunities for new approaches. As I’ve discussed earlier, the best path now is to go straight to prototypes rather than wireframes, harnessing the point-and-click nature of the platform.

Overall, teams can work with the strengths of SharePoint Online, as well as working arounds its weaknesses, to deliver a modern site that meets both business and employee needs. The key is just to go with the grain of the platform, and to avoid confusing the picture with discussions of information architecture.

About the Author

James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces. He’s the author of the books “Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value” and “Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work.”


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