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How to build your intranet sitemap

How to build your intranet sitemap https://www.thoughtfarmer.com/files/2018/08/TF_ILL_Owls_small.png

You've defined your intranet goals, you’ve identified your intranet content, and you've even determined how it should be organized. This guide will help you with the next step, which is building your intranet's Information Architecture.

There is no exact science to building your Information Architecture (IA). You can build it from both the bottom up and/or the top down. We usually use a combination of both approaches.

Building from the bottom up

Using the results from the card sorting exercise and looking at the content inventory, you can begin building your lowest level groups. From the card sorting exercise, you should have an understanding of:

  • Content users consistently group in one specific category
  • Content users never group together
  • Content grouped in one category by some users, and another category by other users

You’ll also know some of the common category names used to describe the groupings. From the content inventory, you’ll know:

  • What content is a high priority and frequently used
  • How the content is organized (this will help you understand how people have historically grouped content)
  • The breadth of the content needed to accommodate in your structure

Other sources can be helpful when deciding how to group content. For example, your public facing website may not have the same content, but it is a great way to understand how products or services are organized. How-to guides or manuals are also a good source to see how content can be organized by task—take a look at the table of contents and see if those groupings can be applied to the intranet.

Once you have some lower level groups, begin combining them into higher level groupings and keep working upwards.

From the top down

As you work on creating lower level groupings, you can also think about your top-level categories and then build downwards to meet in the middle. Top-level categories are the categories under which all content is organized. They will be visible in the navigation bar at the top of your intranet site.

Using best practices and looking at patterns used in other intranets can help you craft your top-level categories (as well as using the results of your card sorting exercise).

Also, don’t forget to reference the goals set for your intranet as you want to make sure your new structure reflects those goals. For example, if a goal is to increase the efficiency of your front-line staff, then you need to make sure that the content used by that group is prominent.

Best practices

Some common best practices include:

  • Limit the top navigation to fewer than ten categories. You don’t want too many categories as that will overwhelm your users.
  • Keep category names as short as possible without losing meaning. Ideally, they are grammatically consistent.
  • Avoid generic names such as “Other” or Misc.” as these will become dumping grounds for content difficult to categorize.
  • Don’t base your IA solely on your organizational structure as it forces people to know who owns the content.
  • You may find that one group in your organization has chosen to group content into one category, while another group uses a different category. In these situations, choose one primary category for the content, but be sure to link to the content from the other categories back to the content in the primary category. This ensures anyone navigating secondary content will still find what they are looking for in the primary category.

Remember these are guidelines are not rules, so there are always exceptions.

Patterns

Organizations don’t usually share their intranet structure so it can be difficult to find examples of other intranets. Yet, it’s useful to see what other organizations have done; especially organizations similar to yours. If you have contacts at other organizations, see if you can get screenshots, or a tour and learn what’s working and what isn’t.

An excellent survey and summary of intranet IA were produced by the Nielsen Norman Group. They’ve made available to purchase a detailed 1000+ page report on intranet information design best practices.

Tools

While there are no IA specific modelling tools out there, there are a lot of different methods you could follow. Here are a few options:

  • Use Post-it notes on a wall to easily rearrange and experiment with different IA approaches. This works well with an individual or a small team that can get in one room together and design the new intranet
  • Mind-mapping tools like XMind, MindMapper or OmniOutliner. These are great and building a visual “org chart” like structure to work with. Drawing tools like Visio or Draw.io can also create a visual IA structure.
  • Spreadsheets (Excel, Google Sheets) also work well, using columns to show the nested levels of IA. Some task testing tools (like Optimal Workshop) support importing spreadsheets which makes this a good option.

Once you’ve got all of your content grouped into categories, you are ready to test your IA.

Validate & test

Before applying your IA to your intranet, you need to test the IA with users. You want to make sure it makes sense to them and is usable.

There are a number of approaches you can use to test your IA (usability testing, prototype testing) but the method we use is called task testing. In this method, users indicate where they’d expect to find information using your new IA.

When analyzing the results of the task testing, you are trying to determine if the new IA meets users’ expectations and whether they can easily find information. Overall some things you want to look for include:

  • Does the overall approach you used for the IA make sense to users?
  • Did users successfully identify where the information would be located?
  • Did users need to “hunt around” to try and find the correct location?

Once you understand what worked and what didn’t, update the IA.

There is no exact science to building a sitemap, and sometimes the best approach is to make the best estimate with the information available, gather feedback and improve. So, keep testing it until you are happy with the results, and hopefully, you end up with a clean and logical sitemap that makes sense to every one of your users.

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September 27, 2018

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