As a marketing consultant, I have worked with dozens of companies on their public-facing websites. The many factors that come to play to develop an aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly site, regardless of whether the site is a public website or an intranet site. A primary factor that requires detailed planning and consideration is the foundation of your site, the information architecture.
Working with clients here these past six months at IC Thrive, I’ve seen the same common information architecture problems with intranet sites as I have seen for years on public-facing websites. Therefore, I wanted to provide some parallel pitfalls to avoid when designing your information architecture for either your intranet or public website:
1) Misguided information architecture: too many parents
Too many parents confuse small children and website users. Frequently, you’ll stumble across websites that will make the crucial mistake of including too many parent pages on their main navigation.
A parent page is a broad category page that other pages commonly referred to as subpages, reside underneath in a site’s navigational structure. Parent pages tend to be the pages used on the main navigation, such as the example below with Country General Hospital which includes Home, Directory, Wards, and Quick Links. These parent (broad category) pages help users quickly navigate to a section of the site that they are most likely to find the information they seek.
Unfortunately, some site administrators feel the more parent page choices in the main navigation the better the chance the user will find his/her way. This is not the case. Too many options create confusion and indecision – check out this study from Columbia University on When Choice is Demotivating.
Best practice: A soft rule of thumb is to include only 4 to 7 parent pages in the main navigation, sorting all other pages under these broader buckets.
2) Navigational irresponsibility: creating orphans
Orphans can tug the heartstrings of each of us, but especially site administrators. A common pet peeve for site administrators has abandoned pages, ones left out in the wind without a link to or from their existence. These pages are known as orphan pages. Orphan pages are often created when an intranet is redesigned rendering some of the old pages useless on a new website. Other times, orphan pages are created unknowingly by multiple content managers and administrators.
Instead of tying these orphan pages into the new navigation, under a parent page, they are left out in the abyss only to be found again by users with the page bookmarked or found randomly through search. Orphan pages can be easily overlooked or forgotten with the excitement of building a new website but is critically important to correct this issue. The integrity of your information architecture and ensuring your users are able to navigate to the most current and relevant information on your site depends on it.
Best Practice: Ensure redirects are instituted for any soon-to-be abandoned page due to a site redesign/re-architecture. Second, put provisions in place to require mandatory parent page or hierarchical page nesting for creating new pages.
3) Information architecture OCD: deep sea fishing
Deep-sea fishing can be fun in the ocean, but burying your content in the depths of the sea is not recommended. Sub-sectioning larger topics into smaller pages make information more easily digestible; however, proceed with caution. I’ve worked with many clients that become lost in the weeds dividing topics from a Parent Page > to:
Subpage 1 (Level 1) >
Subpage 2 (Level 2) >
Subpage 8 (Level 8) >
Subpage 9 (Level 9) and before you know it your site has 10 different navigation levels.
You cannot expect users to find the information they require by navigating through 10 levels of navigation.
What does this mean? If a user starts on your website at the homepage and clicks through to a parent page (e.g. Human Resources) on the main navigation bar, it should only take the user a maximum of four other levels of navigation to arrive at the page/information they seek.
Here is a quick example of how this would work if I start with my parent page as Human Resources and am trying to reach a final destination of “Employee Standards Test”:
Click on > Human Resources (Level 1)
Click on > Training (Level 2)
Click on > Employee Onboarding (Level 3)
Click on > Employee Handbook, Documents & Test (Level 4)
Click on > Employee Standards Test (Level 5)
This example may seem like a bit of a stretch for reaching a standard employee test, but it becomes all too common as intranets age, and more and more pages are added to the existing information architecture that the navigation levels expand.
Best Practice: A common best practice for most public websites, which can also be applied to the intranet site, is to limit yourself to a maximum of 5 levels of navigation.
4) Navigation quandary: inconsistent page titles
Everybody likes a good puzzle, but they don’t want to solve the mystery of changing page titles on your intranet. Inconsistency in menu navigation title and the page title can keep your users wondering if they ever found the right page. In many cases, this can seem like a small oversight but it can create some significant usability issues when it comes to helping your users locate the right data.
For example, the main navigation title is ‘Documents & Policies’ but the page title is ‘Health Documents & Procedures’. If there is a discrepancy between the menu title and page title many users will assume they have not arrived at the page they intended.
Best Practice: Consistency is key – ensure all main menu and submenu navigation match page titles, which in many cases can be controlled through your content management system within your intranet.
5) Diluted information architecture: stale content
What is diluted content? Content that has been watered down over time, that has lost its value. We have often spoken about this content in the past as stale or dated content.
Best Practice: Go through routinely archiving stale and unused pages bi-annually or annually. Use the analytics and statistics software on your intranet to easily identify these stale, underutilized pages.
Information architecture best practices
Avoiding these common information architecture pitfalls and following the suggested best practices for public websites, you can provide a more consistent, user-friendly navigation for your users to find and access data more easily on your intranet.