Virgil Carroll’s presentation was a perfect conclusion to a fun, informative day at Office 365 Saturday Redmond. Mr. Carroll introduced his talk with the declarative: SharePoint implementations fail more often than succeed because of poor information architecture. He stated, “Information architecture (IA) is a practice, not a strategy. But there is good news. In IA, there’s no such thing as a right answer. There’s only what fits for your organization.”

There are several types of implementations that fail:

  1. No plan. What starts out small, grows a little bit, then explodes.
  2. Business doesn’t work the way the design team thought.
  3. The design team believes the organization chart equals the site map.
  4. The design team believed Microsoft knew design (instead of learning from users)
  5. We thought it was about storing information, not using it.
  6. Site structure is not IA.
  7. The design team doesn’t plan for growth.

“Do you know the keys to IA success?” Mr. Carroll asked the audience. An iterative approach:

  • Test (if existing)
  • IA exercises
  • Wireframe
  • Test
  • Alpha
  • Test
  • Beta
  • Test
  • Release (Build)

A great IA strategy can transform a basic layout to a beautifully balanced page (he offered several impressive examples). After all, what is information architecture but:

  • The structural design of shared information environments.
  • The combination of organization, labeling, search, and navigation systems within web sites and intranets.
  • The art and science of shaping information products and experiences to support usability and findability.

How is Information Architecture Broken Down?

#1. Into context, or business goals, funding, politics, culture, and technology resources and constraints where:

  • All web sites and intranets exist within a particular business or organizational context;
  • Each organization has a mission, goals, strategy, staff, processes and procedures, physical and technology infrastructure, budget, and culture; and,
  • The key to success is understanding and alignment.

#2. Into content, or document/data types, content objects, volume, and existing structure, which:

  • Includes documents, applications, services, schema, and metadata that people need to use or find on your site. As architect, ask yourself
    • How much content do you have?
    • What are the formats your content is in?
    • Who owns your content?

#3. Into users or audience subdivided by tasks, needs, information seeking behaviors, and experience.

  • Every user has different experiences and abilities from which they draw.
  • Every user has different needs and wants.
  • Do you know how your users use your site now?

Information architecture starts with the user. Why would a colleague visit a site in the first place? They have an information need that varies. Each need can cause users to exhibit specific information-seeking behaviors.

A Good IA Increases the Chances of Finding the Right Stuff

A widely used model is the too easy information seeking one, in which a user asks a question, somehow magic happens and they receive an answer. This model doesn’t work, because most users don’t know what they’re looking for, most users don’t know how to search or most users don’t have the patience for complicated systems.

Instead, consider Findability models. Sometimes the user is looking for one answer. Sometimes the user wants to investigate. Sometimes they want to find everything but they don’t know what they need. Sometimes they need to find it again.

A Good IA Helps Us Move Effectively

Mr. Carroll said, “It should be the role of every audience member here to support their user experience.” He continued, “If people say your SharePoint ‘sucks’, do you know why and how to fix it? If not, test it through the five components of usability”:

  • Learnability: how easy can the user accomplish basic tasks?
  • Efficiency: how quickly can tasks be performed?
  • Memorability: after a period of non-use, how easily can a user reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: how many errors does the user / system make? How severe? Can the user recover?
  • Satisfaction: how pleasant is it to use the design?

We need usability testing when an interface doesn’t make sense. It’s very easy to determine when an interface doesn’t work: colleagues don’t use it. Plan for a good usability test. Identify the biggest problems first. Grade by severity. Consider frequency. Determine impact. Be persistent.

A Good IA Helps us See Information Differently

Taxonomy is not only the science of categorization of things based on a predetermined system, it’s a reference to web sites and portals. A site’s taxonomy is the way it organizes data into categories and subcategories. Several types of usability tests help us architects build the SharePoint environment.

Card Sorting is a technique that many information architects use as an input to the structure of a site or product. Mr. Carroll discussed two types of card sorting:

  • Open Card Sorting: participants are given cards showing site content with no pre-established groupings.
  • Closed Card Sorting: participants are given cards showing site content with an established initial set of primary groups.

The advantages of card sorting include:

  • Simple
  • Cheap
  • Quick to execute
  • Established
  • Involves users
  • Provides a good foundation

The disadvantages of card sorting include:

  • Does not consider users’ tasks
  • Results may vary
  • Analysis can be time consuming
  • May capture “surface” characteristics only

What is the Ultimate IA Structure? There isn’t One!

But, you do need to un-enterprise your architecture.

One IA doesn’t rule them all, said Mr. Carroll. What happens when it all gets out of control (and it will)? Don’t assume all processes are created equal. They are not. Global doesn’t necessarily mean better. However, some models do work.

#1. Enterprise Publishing

  • Many consumer, few contributors
  • Examples: company communications, employee relations, sales & marketing, human resources
    • Content tends to be highly controlled & published via established processes
    • Content is published via a ‘push’ method
    • Ability to interact is ‘locked down’
    • Information is well defined and frequently accessed
    • Access to SharePoint publishing support feature set

#2. Enterprise Collaboration

  • Many contributors, mature processes
  • Examples: help desk, job request, process tracking, document management system
    • Processes have been refined and well documented
    • User interaction is well defined and tested
    • Contributors are well trained
    • Access to the full SharePoint feature set

How can SharePoint help break you of your silos? SharePoint gives us ways to help manage IA beyond a hierarchal structure:

  • Lists and Libraries
  • Content Types
  • Search
  • Customizable Navigation
  • Lookup & Choice Fields, Site and Site collection columns
  • Content Query Web Part / Views / DataView Webpart (or, the ability to separate storage and presentation)
  • Audience Targeting

SharePoint 2010 gives us new ways to organize our information. SharePoint 2010 brings folders back in style and takes labeling seriously.

  • Managed Metadata, Tagging, Default Metadata
  • Content Organizer
  • Content type hub
  • Social collaboration
  • Much better search (including FAST)
  • Refiners

Most Users Don’t Know how to Perform Searches Well

So, how do we make search better? Make sure our content is easy to read. Index only the data necessary and ignore the rest. Make the most of the user’s input through refiners and query expansion, synonyms and suggestions. Build the results page around users’ needs. Show relevance, best bets and conditional content. SharePoint 2010 refiners can get users to content quickly. SharePoint 2010 can make training an interactive process.

Pay Attention to Your User Community!

Mr. Carroll concluded his presentation with an acknowledgment of debt and sincere thanks to his SharePoint colleagues.

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