How to design intranet navigation that works for users

Don’t think through intranet navigation and you risk losing the confidence of your users. Here’s some advice for getting it right from the start.

Intranet navigation isn’t something you can guess at. It needs to reflect the way people actually think about moving through your intranet. If it’s not intuitive, they’ll quickly find shortcuts that don’t always fit your business needs. And if they can’t find an intuitive route through, people will start deserting your intranet, which is a disaster it’s difficult to come back from.

If you want people to actually use your intranet, it’s vital to get the ‘information architecture’ bang on. Your intranet is, at heart, a shared space for information and collaboration; the information architecture (IA) is how that space is organised and labelled to ensure it’s navigable. The only way to guarantee your IA is right is to let the users create it.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean starting from nothing and letting users create the site structure out of thin air (though that might yield interesting results). The development of an IA can be guided and still yield results that are close to ideal.

Information Architecture

For example, at CompanyNet, we have a team of solution designers, who work with a customer’s staff to go about creating an IA the right way. They employ a tried-and-tested workshop method which starts with user needs as its inputs, and creates as its output a fully-formed information architecture.

In what’s known as an open card sort exercise, the title of part of the site is written on a card. The cards are then given to the prospective users, who define a limited number of groups and sort all the cards into them in a way that feels right. This quickly creates a top-level navigation structure for the site. A closed card sort exercise is another option, although in that case the top-level groups are pre-defined and it’s simply the users’ job to sort the cards into each group.

Traditionally, card sort exercises were conducted with real cards and a group around a table, but today the exercise can also be carried out in software. Online card sort exercises prevent group dynamics from affecting the outcome, and allow a far greater number of people to take part in their own time. On the other hand, the facilitator doesn’t get feedback on why the cards were sorted in a particular way, but this is a reasonable trade-off for the increased participation and automated analysis that software provides.

Keep an eye on it

So that determines the structure of your intranet’s navigation, but how can you know whether you got it right? Running user testing sessions once the navigation is in place will help reveal any flaws, and a ‘soft launch’ – where the intranet is launched to a subset of users before the full roll-out – can help you check performance on a wider scale. Once the intranet is launched, you can also use analytics to spot broken user journeys and pages that aren’t being reached. You can then decide whether the issue is a problem with the navigation, a problem with the site itself, or whether there is a need for additional training.

At CompanyNet, we recognise that software is only part of any solution. We take the time to understand your business, its processes and people before thinking about which technologies can help. That doesn’t just apply to intranets, but everything we do. If you’d like to speak to us about any aspect of business technology, just drop us a line.

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