Information Architecture. Part 1: What is it? Why you need it?

Image: Information Architecture Venn Diagram
By Neil Wells-West on

After many years of working on and delivering large-scale SharePoint and Office 365 engagements, one of the recurring themes is around usability and, specifically, some of the most frequent questions I hear are, “How do we ensure users know where to store and find the information they want quickly and easily?” or “Our organisational structure changes regularly so how do we cope with that?”. With the implementation of cloud services such as Office 365, information architecture is significant to both administrators and end users alike, and the approach adopted needs to take into account a range of different factors.

A poorly planned information architecture can result in disenfranchisement and can make everyone’s use of Office 365 and SharePoint a chore.

Before we can address these overarching questions, however, we must first understand what information architecture is, how it relates to previous versions of SharePoint, SharePoint Online and Office 365. Perhaps, even more importantly, determine the purpose of the concept particularly in view of modern era analytical and social capabilities such as Delve and Yammer etc.

In most organisations, information is generally created and managed in any number of different physical and logical locations via different applications or services (and typically accessed nowadays from a number of different devices).
The very nature of this disparate environment means that end users have multiple ways and locations to create and store information and, without the guiding principles provided by a robust yet flexible information architecture, can lead right back to some of the problems Office 365 and SharePoint were likely implemented to solve, only now the problem is bigger, more costly and more complicated.

Information architecture helps end users understand where they are, what they’ve found, what to expect, and what’s in the area. I like to think of this as going to a museum or art gallery, with signs to tell you what exhibit or painting you’re looking at, where you are and where to go.

Information Architecture. Directional signage in cafe

What is information architecture?

In its simplest terms information architecture is the logical expression of the physical data locations, applications and services that are mapped to and underpin common business processes within an organisation.

A well-planned and organised information architecture provides a cohesive and common way to leverage investment in technology, applications and services and takes into account such aspects as the following:

  • Information types
  • Use cases
  • Business processes
  • User roles and responsibilities
  • Organisational structures
  • Data sensitivity
  • Data security
  • Data governance

The definition of an information architecture should also take into consideration any overarching organisational change initiatives that may be driving the implementation of Office 365 and SharePoint and aim to address these in a logical, consistent way.

For example, if an organisation has elected to implement Office 365 as it’s primary information management platform, it will need to ensure that the information architecture encompasses the broadest possible range of use case scenarios, rather than only focusing on the migration of unstructured data into SharePoint (as is often the case).

What are the principles of Information Architecture?

There are a number of key principles we need to bring into play in order to build an effective information architecture for Office 365 and SharePoint.

I have found the following key principles to be useful as a guide:

  • Users – gaining an understanding of how the end users will actually use content and how the structure should function to support that is of paramount importance;
  • Content – focus on the types of information your organisation currently uses and any existing structures;
  • Context – determine the range of content and functionality for a given set of use cases and business processes and how that needs to be structured.

Image: Information Architecture Venn Diagram. Users, Content, Context

What should the goals of an information architecture be?

Typically, we want an information architecture to provide the following key goals:

  • Make the complex clear;
  • Enable end users to find relevant and useful content and information intuitively;
  • Provide your organisation with clarity, understanding and empowerment regarding the information it creates, manages and uses on a regular basis.

A well-defined information architecture should establish a particular meaning to information that identifies and separates it from the rest in order to accomplish specific goals and shows how the meaning and structure fit together and interact with each other.

Why is information architecture important?

Information architecture helps to make the complex clear. It provides a way for business decision makers to research and learn what information is important to the functions, business processes and operations that underpin an organisation.

It does this by addressing the needs of end users in providing them with timely access to only important information.

Where do we begin?

This will be covered in part 2 of this series: “How to define an information architecture for Office 35 and SharePoint”.

What’s next?

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