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TechnologyApr 16, 2015

SharePoint 2013 Information Architecture Part 4: Publishing Portals

Credera Team

In the previous post in this blog series, we discussed the differences between publishing portals and collaboration sites at a high level. SharePoint handles publishing content very well; however, without a strong information architecture (IA) structure, users can easily get lost in all the information, rendering it useless. In this blog post, we will take a look at some of the most common problems with publishing portals and how a solid IA strategy can eliminate those issues.

Being a user of multiple publishing portals, I have found three distinct challenges that almost all portals have faced: confusion between categories, unclear terminology or labeling, and inconsistent design. If users have a difficult time finding the content they are looking for on the portal, then all that effort building a website and adding content is going to be wasted. Users will get bored or frustrated, leaving the site unused. On the other hand, if the site is easy to navigate and entices the user, you can get more value out of the portal than you ever thought possible. Let’s dig into these three improvement areas.

1)    navigation

The portal’s top-level navigation is going to be the most heavily used component of the site. It will be the first thing users go to when hitting the homepage to get to the content they are looking for. It can be very overwhelming if there are too many top-level links, but having too few can cause problems as well. A study was done by the Nielsen Norman Group that found the best performing intranets typically had seven or eight top-level categories. See the screenshot below of an intranet with seven top-level links:

It can be difficult narrowing the number of categories to seven or eight, which is why it is important to consider what the categories should represent. It may make sense for companies to break categories out by department or functional group within the organization. This can cause problems as they can change often, most companies have too many, and some categories will get very complex while others stay empty and unused. Another common approach is to split the categories by audience. This can work, but it silos certain information and some users can feel alienated. Geography can also be used as the top-level category. This typically works well for widely distributed companies and then usually gets broken out further by task or topic.

Organizing the intranet in a task-based structure has proven to be a successful tactic. This tends to make the portal more user focused as users think in a task oriented way.

2)    labeling

The next challenge most intranets face is the labeling for these categories. The terminology used here should be understood by employees as well as outsiders to ensure easy navigation. You may want to stick to a common grammatical structure, like starting with a verb, but that approach can cause problems when good headings don’t fit into the format. Task-based headings organize content according to how the employee is going to use it, which allows for more inconsistencies in the headings.

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Here is a good activity that will ensure the labels are going to improve your site’s structure. Note the following attributes that could be used to describe your navigation labels: specific, comprehensive, uniform, concise, transparent, familiar, and front loaded. Now make a spreadsheet with these attributes along the top and your labels along the side. Go through each label and check if the attribute fits. If your labels fit five of these seven attributes, you will be in good shape.

3)    design

The portal’s design is what entices users. Ideally the website should be fun to use and pleasing to the eye, without being overwhelming or complicated. This can be very difficult to get just right, but there are many common design elements out there to take advantage of.

One critical design element to consider is the use of a mega menu. These can pack more information into a small area. They are very contextual and allow for fewer mouse clicks to get to the content the user needs. You can reduce the number of headers by packing more content or sub-headings into these mega menus.

Another component to consider using is breadcrumbs. It keeps the context for the user and reduces the need for the back button. It is important to keep in mind that breadcrumbs purely reflect the location on the site, not the path to the content. In SharePoint 2013, breadcrumbs are turned off by default, but it is easy to turn them back on.

Using aggregates is another great way to surface relevant content. Aggregates are a dynamic collection of content that follow a common theme. They are self-maintaining and show pertinent information while staying user centric. SharePoint excels in this with many out-of-the-box web parts, such as the content query and content search web parts. You can easily configure these to show most viewed pages or most commented articles.

keep it simple

With all of these things in mind, creating your IA plan can be exhausting. Many companies are trying to incorporate mobile and responsive user interfaces. This is not always necessary and can be very expensive and difficult to implement. If you do not have many frequent mobile users, focus on a few key concepts. Since mega menus do not work well with touch interfaces, fall back on landing pages. You can add large push buttons to act as navigation components. This is a simple way to make a page more mobile friendly.

You can spice up your portal by adding personalized tabs to the navigation based on the user. Using the user profiles feature of SharePoint, you can show and hide content based on properties in their profile. The most important thing to keep in mind here is to stay simple! This can easily get very complex, so start small and always keep it modular.

Being aware of those major pitfalls we discussed is half of the battle and incorporating these techniques into your IA plan will give you a successful intranet portal that users will enjoy being a part of.

If you have questions or comments about this blog post, or other aspects of SharePoint development/information architecture, please leave a comment below, tweet us at @CrederaMSFT, or contact us online.