What is Information Architecture and Why Do You Need It?

WHAT IS INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE AND WHY DO YOU NEED IT?

Over many years of working on and delivering large-scale Microsoft 365 (M365) and SharePoint engagements, one of the recurring themes I see is around usability and, specifically, some of the most frequent questions I hear are, “How do we ensure users know where to store and find the information they want quickly and easily?” or, “Our organisational structure changes regularly so how do we cope with this?”.  In fact, since joining Insentra, I’ve rapidly discovered our clients who undertake Advisory engagements, complex migration projects and other transformational initiatives are saying the same thing.

With the implementation of cloud services such as M365, creating, managing and finding information is of paramount importance and the framework around which this needs to happen should consider a range of factors. A lack of planning can result in disenfranchisement and can make everyone’s use of M365 and its related workloads (especially SharePoint Online) a chore. So, what is information architecture and why do we need it?

BACKGROUND

To address the question this blog seeks to address, we must first understand what information architecture is, how it relates to M365 and SharePoint Online and – perhaps even more importantly – how we should determine the purpose of the concept particularly given modern era analytical, social engagement, collaboration and community workloads such as Teams and Yammer etc.

For most organisations the following is true:

  • Information is generally created and managed in several different physical and logical locations
  • It is accessed via different applications or services
  • It is accessed using several different devices
  • It often links to other sources creating a complex web of information

The reality is end-users have multiple ways and locations in which to create and store information and, without some guiding principles provided by a robust yet flexible information architecture, can lead right back to many of the problems M365 (and particularly SharePoint Online) were likely implemented to solve.

Well-considered information architecture helps end-users:

  • Understand where they are
  • Clarify what they’ve found
  • Know what to expect
  • Identify what’s in the area
  • Find what they’re looking for quickly

I liken this to going to a museum or art gallery, with the signs telling you what exhibit or painting you’re looking at, where you are and where to go.

WHAT IS INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE?

In its simplest terms, information architecture is the logical expression of the physical data locations, applications and services mapped to and underpinning common business processes within an organisation.

A well-planned and organised information architecture provides a cohesive and common way to leverage investment in technology, applications, and services, and considers aspects such as the following:

  • Information types
  • Use cases
  • Business processes
  • User roles and responsibilities
  • Organisational structures
  • Data sensitivity
  • Data security
  • Data governance (who has access and why)
  • Data location
  • Data lifecycle

The definition of an information architecture should also take into consideration any overarching organisational change initiatives which may be driving the adoption of M365 and SharePoint and should always aim to address these in a logical, consistent way.

For example, if an organisation has elected to implement M365 as its information management platform, it will need to ensure the information architecture encompasses the broadest possible range of use cases, rather than only focusing on the migration of unstructured data into SharePoint Online (as is often the case).

WHAT ARE THE PRINCIPLES OF INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE?

There are several key principles we need to bring into play to build an effective information architecture for M365 and SharePoint.

I have found the following key principles to be useful as a guide:

  • Users – helping end-users quickly gain an understanding of how they may need to create, classify, and use content, and how any supporting structures or containers should function to support their requirements is of paramount importance For more on this, check out a past blog series on the path to the successful deployment of Azure Information Protection.
  • Content – focusing on the types of information your organisation currently uses, why this content has value, and potential risk associated, to build out a more complete picture
  • Context – determining the range of different types of content and the associated business processes which are involved in a given set of use cases is a great starting point

WHAT SHOULD THE GOALS OF AN INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE BE?

Typically, the goals of information architecture are to:

  • Make the complex clear
  • Enable end-users to find relevant and useful content and information intuitively
  • Provide the organisation with clarity, understanding, and empowerment regarding the information which is created, managed and used regularly

Well-defined information architecture should establish a particular meaning and scope to information that is stored in M365 workloads to identify it and separate it from other containers or platforms. This is to ensure the information delivers specific goals and shows how the meaning and structure fit together and interact with each other.

WHY IS INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE IMPORTANT?

Information architecture helps in the following ways:

  • It provides a way for business decision-makers to conduct simple research
  • It enables users to learn what information is available to them
  • It supports the functions, business processes and operations which underpin an organisation.

It does this by addressing the needs of end-users in very specific ways, by providing them with timely access to information. The following use case outlines a scenario which may help to focus on what this means in reality:

A user needs to create a new document

  • Where should the user go and how should they start this process?
  • Is the document based on an existing template or is it completely new?
  • Will the document require some peer review or contribution from one or more colleagues?
  • What’s the audience for the document?
  • Should the document be labelled or classified for protection against unlawful sharing or access?
  • Does the document have a lifecycle which must be observed due to compliance or regulatory requirements?

A well-formed information architecture which is understood and has been validated against use cases will ensure the answers to all the above questions are seamlessly addressed, allowing the user to be maximally productive and for the document to achieve all its business value goals.

Before we move on to the next part of the series, gaining a clear understanding or visibility within your own business of what we have discussed here is paramount and I highly recommend exploring our Advisory Services to learn more. In part 2 of this series “How to define an information architecture for Microsoft 365 and SharePoint Online”, I’ll discuss where we begin as well as the steps you need to take to get started.

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