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Information Architecture Best Practices for Intranets & Digital Workplaces

Sarah Wilson July 24, 2020


Information Architecture is critical to the adoption and success of your intranet or digital workplace. Orchestry provides a truly digital workplace experience with its intranet information architecture best practices, where your employees can easily find what they are looking, collaborate better for and stay engaged.

Intranet - Digital Workplace - Key Pillars of Information Architecture
The Key Information Architecture Pillars

Create an Efficient Intranet & Digital Workplace With These Information Architecture Best Practices

Let’s start by breaking down the main aspects of Information Architecture. What does it actually mean? Well, the  Nielsen Norman Group states that “A website’s (or intranet’s) information architecture has two main components:

  1. Identification and definition of site content and functionality.
  2. The underlying organization, structure and nomenclature that define the relationships between a site’s content/functionality.

 So, with that handy explanation let’s now deep-dive into the primary rules of optimal intranet information architecture. These are imperative to creating an effective intranet solution.

Key Pillars of Intranet Information Architecture

1. Site Structure

Site structure is crucial for intranet information architecture. Below are some important guidelines to consider when working on the site structure for your intranet or digital workplace:

  • Organize information by type, not ownership – organizational structures can change, the types of information businesses require do not. 
  • Use a short naming convention - People do not read, they scan.
  • Use an exclusive labeling system -  Try not to confuse users with using lots of similar labels.
  • Generate multiple pathways - Information can be sought after differently by different users and dependant on the task, so why not leverage SharePoint Online Web Parts to make sure they can get there.
  • Create navigation nodes sparingly - People won’t remember where things are located if you have too many items.
  • Avoid using company taglines – Much like organizational structures, these can change. So, save yourself having to make lots of updates.

We should note here that site structure does not equal intranet or digital workplace navigation. But, it’s worthwhile spending time and ensuring attention to detail when choosing the order of how groups and sub-groups appear in the navigation.

Cross-links can also be introduced, when appropriate, limiting the breadcrumb trail from bouncing around.

Lastly, on some landing pages, it’s good to use ‘show more’ links that navigate the user elsewhere. This means that you can get to the content that is not linked in the ‘Global Navigation’, e.g.  archived news.

Digital Workplace - Intranet Information Architecture - Site Structure

2. Metadata

Metadata is essentially data that provides information about other data, or in this case, is a predetermined list that can provide context to your content. Time and energy needs to be invested in planning the best possible approach to metadata for your digital workplace to be a success. 

Metadata allows users to filter content and to display it in various ways using tags and categories. Metadata is also used to narrow down search results. 

With most intranets, you can customize your metadata per item. Within MS SharePoint it’s very easy. Users can add a column in their documents library which is tied to the same list of terms, associating the content with the relevant locations. Your search functionality will then crawl this column and create properties, which can then be called on to specify the content. This is hugely beneficial as it allows you to retrieve items from anywhere with no restrictions to a particular site or intranet. Essentially, if the content exists in another system or on a file share that MS SharePoint can index it, it can be displayed.

3. Landing Pages

A landing page is a standalone page created intentionally for a visitor to “land” after having clicked on a link.

Eye-tracking studies have shown that people read website pages differently to traditional printed media. People tend to scan web pages in an F-shape pattern, so it’s important to keep this pearl of wisdom in mind when you are planning out where to place your most important information.

Furthermore, using dynamic content provides users with access to the content of high value. For example, you can create functionality that specifically displays Pages or Documents  based on:

  • Newest 
  • Most Viewed
  • Recently Modified
  • Most Liked

Once this functionality is defined and set-up, content is updated and displayed without manual intervention. This is significant as to achieve optimal intranet information architecture, consideration of how space is utilized on every page is important.

The primary goal is to enable users to view a group of related data one at a time, which in turn allows designers to group cohorts of information in a concise manner, saving valuable screen real estate.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Implementing a New Intranet or Digital Workplace

Who’s going to be consuming your content?

It’s important to have a good idea of the users that will be using your new intranet. You need to understand:

  • what information is important to them, 
  • where they are located, 
  • what devices are they using to access the platform, 
  • and finally, what tasks are they trying to accomplish?

What information do you want to be stored on your intranet?

In general, the best intranets:

  • only share publishing rights with a few authors
  • provide training on the type of content they want to publish
  • ensure information is suitable for a multitude of readers

Users should not be able to publish haphazardly. Instead, you should have an approval process in place with a final ‘go-ahead’ coming from an authoritative body.  

It’s worth noting that when people are looking for information they typically take a task-based cognitive approach. So, it’s best if you organize your content rather than separate information by department.

What points of focus need to be considered?

Sometimes there are aspects of your business that need to be highlighted, yet taking into consideration the preferable form of communication. Do you want the platform to be formal, informal or a mixed style of communication? Are there specific organizational structures that should be incorporated as part of the contextual intranet information architecture?

Learn what sorts of questions you need to ask, information architecture challenges and how to avoid poor information architecture in our Intranet Information Architecture Best Practices Webinar.

Intranet - Digital Workplace - Information Architecture Best Practices

Best Practices For Setting Up Your New Digital Workspace

1. Content Audit

Auditing your content helps you determine what needs to be kept, rewritten, or deleted, and ultimately itemize all of your existing content. This then highlights any new content that needs to be written for the new intranet and gives you the opportunity to assign ownership of content. The auditing process is fundamental in creating the structure of the new intranet

One of the ways to utilize your post-audit findings is card sorting…

2. Card Sorting

The purpose of card sorting is to help you to understand how users group related information. Using this approach you ensure that your design is user-centric. 

For the perfect card sort, select 50-60 important pieces of content, identified during your content audit, and request your users to organize this content into priority order/top-level categories. 

Once the card sorting exercise is complete, it can be used as the first iteration of your ‘Site Structure’.

For effective card sorting, follow these steps:

  1. Perform a Content Audit.
  2. Prepare 50 – 80 Cards based on your Content Audit. 
  3. Decide upon the main categories for use
  4. Prepare email communications to users you want to participate in Card Sorting.

3. Site Structure Draft

By using the results of your audit and your card sorting exercise, you have created a user-centric digital workplace site structure. This is your building block, and over time it will grow with your organization’s information requirements. You can also use this site structure draft as an input into tree testing to double-check that your site structure decisions are on the money.

4. Tree Testing

Tree testing assesses the find-ability of topics on an intranet and is a way to test and validate your new site structure. Essentially, tree testing asks task-based questions to provide insight into a user’s way of thinking about the intranet content. 

Testing proposed navigation against a set of common user tasks offers indispensable direct feedback to the intranet team. To get ready for tree testing we recommend:

  • Finalizing your site structure.
  • Reviewing and approving tree test questions.
  • Preparing email communications to participants.

When you have successfully completed these steps, you are well on your way to having a strong site structure for your business’s new and improved intranet.

Work Smarter With Orchestry

We hope this guide has given you some food for thought around your intranet information architecture and how you can make your intranet or digital workplace more engaging. By following these intranet information architecture guidelines, you’ll be enjoying a more user-friendly intranet in no time.

Orchestry, our mission is to make work simple in SharePoint Sites, as well as in Office 365 and Microsoft Teams, by empowering your IT Administrators and employees to define a winning Microsoft 365 adoption and change management strategy, with a roadmap of what to use when, for what purpose. Orchestry increases usage and adoption while empowering through governance and simplifies through intelligent provisioning in Microsoft 365, organization-wide at a fraction of the cost, on a subscription basis.

To see Orchestry in action, send us an email at or start your free access now!

About the Author

Sarah Wilson Image

Sarah Wilson

Orchestry CTO, Microsoft 365 Expert

Office 365 Solutions Architect, Sitecore CMS Developer and Microsoft SharePoint Applications Developer, this Chief Technology Officer and Solutions Architect has been building and simplifying Office 365 applications for more than a decade. Orchestry relies on Wilson’s vision and technical aptitude to enable clients to maximize their investment in Microsoft 365 while achieving ultimate efficiency.

Far beyond the confines of the office, Wilson unplugs and heads off the grid to enjoy the many beautiful provincial and federal parks in Ontario and Quebec with her wife, while also enjoying a good stay-cation conquering the latest levels on Terraria, Stardew Valley and Sky Force.


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Last Updated: July 28, 2020

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