A few weeks ago I was part of a small group of PB’ers lucky enough to attend a SharePoint Saturday event held in Lisle, IL. Although I was not able to make it by 8AM, I was just in time for free lunch and a great session by Virgil Carrol, a head of Monkey Consulting specializing in MS SharePoint technologies, on SharePoint Information Architecture (IA) Silos. The session was about 3 hours long and covered lots of different topics on IA and its importance in today’s business world.
Some of you may already know that IA is a field of IT that deals with the creation and distribution of content, knowledge, information, or any other kind of data experienced by a user through an interactive system. In the SharePoint world, that means the content hierarchy or classification, content priorities, labeling, and navigational pathways.
The most common mistake made in organizing content and designing sites is not thinking about their audiences. Does the site offer a unique service? Is it selling a product? Why would people come to it the very first time? Will they come back again? Answering these questions and gathering information on how people will use and view your site will help to reveal the true purpose of the site. This also happens to be one of the most important steps in IA and as such requires a very careful planning and execution.
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There are many ways to gather this kind of information, but IA advocates that one of the most efficient ones is through a technique called card sorting. The main advantage of this approach is that it’s very low-tech and only requires you to identify main concepts of the site and write them on simple index cards or post-it notes. These cards are then presented to a user group which sorts and arranges them in the way most familiar to them. The results are then analyzed to find any patterns and relationships in group classifications. Once the data is analyzed, it is then incorporated into the design of the system, either for navigation or for other purposes.
To most of us this process may seem very impractical in terms of time and skills needed in order to do it effectively. But this is slowly changing and proves time over time that in the long run well-executed IA can save a lot of time and money and substantially increase the value of an organization.
To demonstrate this, Virgil showed to us a very entertaining video of a student who was given a task to find a campus map on his school’s web site. After several unsuccessful attempts the student was finally able to find the map, but it took him a whopping 3.5 minutes to do that. And his result was much better compared to other people whose time on average was 5 minutes and more. It just goes to show how important content organization and navigation are, and the difference between making people want to return to your site or them never coming back again.
All in all, the IA session and the entire event were very educational and eye-opening and I’m definitely looking forward to attending the next one.