Tuesday, November 01, 2011

SharePoint Information Architecture from the Field

Over the years, I've written quite a few articles on how to technically structure your SharePoint solutions into web-apps, sites, subsites, lists and document libraries. All based on having a defined Information Architecture (IA) as a basis for the solution design, or at least being able to reason about your content management using my "chest of drawers" and "news paper" analogies. The latter is based on my experiences from the field as most companies don't have a well-defined IA in place.

Common questions from customers are "what is Information Architecture?" and "what is the value of having an IA for SharePoint, can't we just create sites and doc-libs on the fly as needed?". Not to forget "how do we go about creating an Information Architecture for SharePoint?". So here are some IA advice from Puzzlepart projects:

In short, Information Architecture defines how to classify and structure your content so that it is easy for content consumers to find and explore relevant content, while making it simple for workers to contribute and manage content in an efficient manner.

The business goal of having an Information Architecture for your SharePoint solution is enabling workers to contribute, store and mange content in a manner that is simple and efficient, enabling more content sharing; and at the same time making it easy for workers to browse and find content they need, while also making it easy for workers to discover and explore relevant content they didn't know of. The outcome is more knowledgeable workers that are better informed about what’s going on in the company and about the range of intellectual property possessed by other employees, while also saving time wasted on finding information, and time wasted on incorrect or outdated information.

An outcome is a metric that customers use to define the successful realization of the objectives and goals. Outcomes happens after the project has delivered on its objectives and goals, and the customers must themselves work against securing the outcomes to achieve the desired business value.

The business value of having a working IA is capturing company knowledge from employees with better quality of shared content, which combined with good findability drive more knowledgeable workers that make better decisions and better faster processes. In addition, more and better content sharing helps user not only discover and explore content, but also people such as subject matter experts, allowing employees to build and expand their network throughout the company, helping the company to retain talented employees through social ties and communities. Access to discover more and better content and people expertise is central to enabling innovation and process improvement, as new knowledge is a trigger for new ideas and for identifying new opportunities.

The process of defining your IA for your SharePoint solution should focus on these objectives and goals:
  • Analyze and define the content classification and structure for the solution 
    • goal: identify what content to manage and plan how to store it in SP, leading to sites, subsites and doc-lib structure organized into SP web-apps
  • Analyze and define how to browse and navigate the content
    • goal: make it simple and efficient for users to find and use known content that they need in their daily work to drive better faster processes
  • Analyze and define how to discover and explore the content
    • goal: make it easy for users to stumble upon novel shared knowledge based on "common focus" to trigger innovation and build social ties
  • Provide simple and efficient content contributor experience with liberal appliance of default metadata values, storing content close to the authors 
    • goal: make workers contributors, not knowledge management grunts, and help them store content correctly with better metadata and tagging, driving findability and "common focus" content discovery; drive better sharing and collaboration
  • Analyze and define the starter content types with metadata and term set taxonomy based on the defined site and doc-lib architecture, with a strong focus on needed search experience capabilities
    • goal: enable content management and support both search-driven and "common focus" content; drive findability, sharing and innovation
  • Analyze and define the policies for social tagging and rating in the solution, also in relation to user profile interests, skills and responsibility tagging
    • goal: drive "common focus" content discovery, drive findability, drive social communities, drive innovation
  • Analyze and define the search experience, focusing on both search-driven content and on search center scopes and refiners
    • goal: drive findability and provide both search-driven and "common focus" content
  • Enable disposition of redundant and irrelevant content 
    • goal: provide users with better, correct and up-to-date information, drive findability, save storage cost, save process cost
Including the search experience helps you avoid an initial version of your IA with a too narrow scope, which is easy to do for a starter IA when e.g. analyzing only project collaboration needs or just the document types of an attachment-based intranet. It makes you focus on what you get out, not only what you put in.

Note that navigation is not IA, its just one way to explore the content. Using navigation to structure your content is just reapplying the fileshare folder approach, which we all know doesn't work too good for findability and discovery. Navigation should not define the statical IA structure for the content, do a LATCH analysis to model the possible IA structures, and choose one of them to define the statical IA structure. The site map is closer to define statical IA structure than navigation, still it is only good for logical IA structure and cannot be expected to be used directly as the physical IA structure in SharePoint.

In an upcoming article I will give some practical advice from the field on how to define and realize the Information Architecture for your SharePoint solution in an agile fashion.

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