People as Navigation

Chris sent me a link to this post on the FastForward blog a few weeks back, pointing out the “me-first” design principle at the bottom. While I loved the article title, “Why can’t we build this on Sharepoint?” — a question that we’ve been asked and answered quite a few times when talking to people about effective social-software driven intranets — I thought the ideas around the importance of the individual as a design principle for a great intranet were bang-on.

“This design philosophy of building around the individual rather than the group profoundly changes the user experience. In the new web the individual contributor is at the center and everything emanates out from there. In an application like Sharepoint, the individual exists to serve the group and is empowered simply to publish and read inside a shared private space.”

I’m not quite sure there’s such a thing as the “centre” of your intranet — we’re all just a bunch of interconnected nodes on the network, after all, some with stronger ties to more nodes than others — but it got me thinking about one of the assumptions we made in creating ThoughtFarmer: people are important mechanisms to help you wayfind information.

If you’ve spoken with me about this, you’ve probably heard me say something like “people are the information architecture” or “people are how people make sense of information.” John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s book The Social Life of Information always captured that thought in a lovely succinct way.

Within ThoughtFarmer, the person becomes a fundamental unit of navigation, given as much importance as a top-level content category or keyword. And this is powerful because people know how to navigate networks of people by default – we’re born with that skill. Or if they don’t intrinsically know how to do it (you were raised by wolves, for example), it’s pretty easy to learn. Arguably much easier than a controlled vocabulary or specialized taxonomy. Social networks aren’t anything new, they’re our default mode of existence. Cliques, organizations, clubs, companies, friends, enemies, sports fans: as human beings, we’re pretty excellent at organizing people into structures (formal or imagined), creating spaces to encourage or discourage participation and contribution. And with all of this social software flying around, we’re getting better at recognizing the signifiers of social groupings.

Content is interesting and may become valuable, but the meta-communication of the content (ie: Who wrote this?), especially within larger corporate environments where you simply might not know the author even if they work in your same building, is very interesting. And who that person reports to, and who they manage, and what division they work within, and what other stuff have they been writing about… That’s really, really interesting.

Content is a bi-product of social processes, an artifact of our working lives. How do we navigate social processes and provide users with an intuitive wayfinding system?

Easy: it’s you.

Much of our work on the information architecture of websites, both intranets and public websites, is focused around creating hierarchical keyword structures, creating yet another system that the user has to learn to find something, our own private Dewey Decimal System. And even the good ones, like those created using card sort methods and actually testing the users, can have the users looking for the quickest escape route: the search box. Search is in some ways a rejection of browse, from having to learn yet another series of semantic structures that help me make sense of the content, my job, my company, and the world around me.

Sure, once you understand how it’s all laid out, you can be effective in finding what you need, but more often in a workplace setting, it’s a matter of finding who you need and then having them present or direct you to the content that is going to help you complete your work — or better yet, have them help you find the person you really need, the person with the answers.

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