Information Architecture (IA) is the structural framework underpinning your document and content management system. And just like the scaffolding to your house, it’s imperative to get those bolts tightened and the cross-beams in place before you go slapping on the wall paint. It’s not as simple as drawing up a framework and assuming all will follow. It takes time, effort and consultation to make sure your building doesn’t lean like the Tower of Pisa.
Very rarely do you get to start in a green field, staking pegs and building your vision. Most organisations already have some document or content management solution in place. Whether it is a myriad of file shares, or an archaic or restrictive document management system; to an outdated or ungoverned intranet or even worse, local storage, your users are very likely already using some form of solution. So put on your hard hat, roll up your sleeves and really get to know your current foundations.
Survey your foundations
Identify a cross section of information workers in the existing environment. The key first step in defining an effective IA is to really understand how the users find and feel about information in their current solutions. This also gives you the opportunity to identify certain groups or roles of users that may not be affected, or are in fact very happily using their current solution. This is a key takeaway. An organisation-wide IA re-development does not always apply to everyone, no matter how strong or compelling the change could be overall.
From the chaos comes order. Analysis of the current state gives you an excellent understanding of all of the issues in the current solutions. It should be relatively clear what has worked and what hasn’t, you should even be able to identify the workarounds users are currently doing to try and shortcut ineffective architecture. This allows you to then define all of the positive attributes of your ideal information architecture. Draught up your castle and worry about product or budget constraints later, because if you don’t have a clear idea of where you are going, any road will get you there.
Now you have an understanding, think outside the box, get creative. Who said a building needs four walls? Ditch the organisation chart as an IA mechanism. Organisations are no longer tied down by traditional top down hierarchy approaches. Encourage users to share and collaborate across the departments or functions. Take the same approach for geographical boundaries and break down the silos!
Workshop with end users to define different ways to store and find information. By doing it in a group setting they can start to see how much double handling or duplication is occurring. Prior to the workshops even beginning, distribute and explain audit worksheets and questionnaires. This preparation material helps users think about the information and current pain points before even coming to the workshop.
Various tools and techniques can help get the most value out of this workshopping approach. Ask the users to perform some card sorting exercises of their information. After this, ask them to sort others’ information as well. It is very useful to digitally map out the IA and project it on a screen so people can discuss and/or suggest movement in real-time. Repeat the workshop process numerous times with different groups of users to ensure you have captured a common view point. All through these workshops concentrate on the behaviours of people, including their shortcuts and habits as well as the content. Above all else, keep it high level, try and make it fun and don’t get bogged down in detail.
By now, you should have the information architecture defined, documented and agreed upon. It’s time to think about adoption. Constantly educate and promote awareness with your users about what this change will mean to them. People are happy in their own little bubbles, and once you burst these, your new solution better be able to provide similar functionality and then some. Another important step in the renovation (or demolition) of an existing document and content management solution is to make the changes in phases. Even the most forward-thinking executives can get frightened by the prospect of a big bang organisational migration. Configure the base structure, move the well-defined information first and follow with prioritised consecutive phases of content.
Finally the governance. This is not set and forget. Just like a home, as time passes and things change, you may be required to upsize, downsize, add a room or build a tree house. All of these concepts apply to the architecture of your document and content management system; as the information evolves, so should the structures that store it.
So put on your hard hat, and remember the following when redeveloping and building an information architecture. Firstly understand the current state and where you want to be. When thinking about structures get creative and don’t feel bound by traditional hierarchical or siloed means of finding or storing information. Canvas the users, hold workshops and utilise the right tools to help you complete the job. Finally, once you have designed the perfect solution, remember it is only perfect at that point in time. As evolution occurs, the design you have in place will need to evolve as well.
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