Intranet Information Architecture (IA) Trends

by Nielsen Norman Group on February 23, 2014

Summary: Intranets are improving findability and discoverability by organizing content by task rather than department, using megamenus to present deep content, offering clear cues to help orient users, and providing shortcuts to important pages and tools.


Intranets contain a tremendous amount of information that needs to be easily accessible. Implementing the right information architecture (IA) and using appropriate navigation elements are essential to a successful intranet and a good user experience.

On top of that, intranet IA designers face a tremendous challenge: they have limited sources of inspiration. Because of the very nature of intranets, designers often have few opportunities to see how other intranets structure their information.

To provide intranet designers with a set of ideas and solutions, we analyzed 77 intranet information architectures and presented their detailed navigation structure, screenshots, and our analysis in the 2nd edition of our Intranet IA Design Methods and Case Studies report.

The first edition was published 7 years ago, so comparing the two sets of case studies allows us to identify new trends in intranet IA. The biggest change lies in the navigational design elements used, not in the topics presented in the main menu. We haven’t seen nearly the same amount of change at the IA level over this 7-year-long period, as we have seen at the page level. Page-level intranet design has been transformed, as documented in the Intranet Design Annual series.

Confusion Between Categories

Many intranets suffer from confusing menu labels. Such labels make it difficult for users to find what they’re looking for.

The most common reasons for confusion are:

  • Terms are too broad and end up acting as catch-all (e.g., For Employees).
  • Sections such as How do I… or Tools grow too big.
  • Different section names on the site lack distinction (e.g., Human Resources and Administration & Management may appear in the same menu).
  • Language is polluted with jargon or branded terms.

Unclear naming is one of the biggest and most important projects to tackle when it comes to the intranet IA. Each navigation category must be descriptive, specific, and mutually exclusive so that users can pick where to navigate without hesitation.

User-research methods such as card sorting, tree testing, and usability testing can help identify ambiguous labels and unclear information groupings.

Organizing the Intranet by Task or Topic

In our analysis, task-based structures often better withstood organizational change than intranets organized by department. In many cases, intranets are initially structured to mimic the organizational configuration of the company, because this type of IA makes maintenance of the intranet easy: each department or area gets a section of the intranet. However, the down side is that every time there’s a re-org in the institution, the navigation has to change too. We have also found, in our user testing of intranets, that task-based navigation tends to facilitate learning.

Luckily, most intranets in our analysis adopted at least a partial task-based organization scheme. By the time of the second edition of this report, 86% of the new intranet IAs were task based, or at least mostly organized by task or topic. This means that the content organization was looked at independently of who owned or created the content.

A common pitfall with task-based IAs is difficult-to-scan category names. Organizations think that category names need to start with verbs or follow an “I need to...” pattern in order to be task based. This isn’t necessary. Sometimes trying to fit link or menu labels to a specified format makes them long and more difficult to scan, because the most meaningful words don't appear until the end of the label. Task-based IA doesn't require any particular grammatical structure for labels; it just means grouping information according to how employees use it, rather than by who creates and maintains it.

Number of Main Navigation Items

Across the 77 intranet IAs in this report, there were an average number of 7.6 top-level categories, with a low of 3 and a high of 31 categories. The median number of categories was 7. These numbers did not change much between editions of this report, published 7 years apart.

  Edition 1 Edition 2 Overall
Average # nav categories 7.7 7.5 7.6
Median # nav categories 6 7 7
Number of IAs analyzed 56 21 77
Max # nav categories 31 12  

What did change between editions was the maximum number of navigation categories. In the first edition of the report we saw more organizations with very broad menus. Eleven percent of companies in our first edition had more than 12 categories, while none did in the second edition.

This shift towards fewer total categories is good. While a broad structure shows a wide range of the available content, too many categories can make it difficult for users to choose a site area, because of potential overlap in the meaning of the many menu items.

Topics and Labels in Top-Level Navigation

Many intranets followed general patterns for picking main-menu items. Three topics attained top-level navigation status on the majority of the intranets:

  • company information (66%)
  • human-resources information (64%)
  • news (56%)

Information about departments or divisions was a top-level category in 45% of intranets and support services (common needs across organization) appeared at the top in 40% of intranets. There was a very long tail of additional categories found in a smaller proportion of intranets.

Besides these most common topics, companies in the same industry tended to propagate the same categories at the top of their IA. For example, manufacturing companies often included a product-related category in their top-level navigation, whereas companies with a focus on intellectual property often presented a top-level knowledge-management (KM) category.

The labels used to represent each of these topics varied widely across intranets. The following table summarizes some of the specific terminology used:

About the Organization Human Resources Information News Information About Departments Support Services
About [Company Name] Human Resources News Departments Services
About Us Benefits & Pay News & Events Organizations Support Services
Our Company Employee Info Communications Businesses Corporate Services
[Company Name] Employee Resources Latest Staff News Divisions Work Day
Company Benefits What’s New Our Teams Workplace Support

Improved Wayfinding

One noticeable improvement in design between the two editions of this report was in how intranets helped users orient themselves within the site. Almost all the intranets in the 2nd edition provided a consistent navigation experience across site areas. The use of templates and design guidelines helped many organizations create a similar look and feel across different pages, even with many content contributors.

Additional wayfinding cues, such as highlighting the users’ current location in the site and presenting breadcrumbs, are now standard on many intranets. These are especially important when users are deep-linked into the intranet from, for example, a link in an email or a search result.

Clear and persistent navigation shows users how to find information and helps them understand which site areas they’ve already explored.

Two section overview pages on ICF intranet, each with a summary, I need to, and News & Announcement section

The ICF International intranet keeps the same look and feel across all pages, unifying the organization and making it easier for users to know where they are and see where they can go.

Accounting and Finance page on AOC intranet with horizontal main navigation and vertical local navigation

Architect of the Capitol does a good job providing cues to users on where they are in the site:

  1. The global navigation highlights the major site area the user is currently in.
  2. In the local navigation both the second- and third-level page are bolded.
  3. The breadcrumbs show where the page fits within the structure of the site.
  4. The page title enforces the selection in the third-level navigation.

Megamenus

Of the 21 organizations added for the 2nd edition of this report, 9 implemented megamenus from the main navigation. Megamenus are large drop-down menus usually divided into groups of navigation options. They frequently present both secondary and tertiary pages, thereby making lower-level content more visible to users. This can drastically improve discoverability of previously difficult-to-find information or applications (though it's not a solution for users on mobile devices).

What was presented in the megamenus varied by organization. Although most chose to list all links, some only highlighted the most important pages to avoid overwhelming users.

Sage and Architect of the Capitol didn’t just list links, but also included a featured area to promote specific content from that site area.

Sage 3 column megamenu

Sage divided their megamenus into two areas:

  1. The right side of the megamenu lists the most popular pages in that site area. This allows people to jump into that section without overwhelming them with all the possible pages.
  2. The left side of the megamenu is used to promote that site area. Moving forward, the intranet team is planning on using that space to promote or highlight content from within each site area.

Top image with 1 column dropdown menu, bottom image with 3 column dropdown menu

PCL Constructors, Inc. only implemented a megamenu on the navigation items that needed it. Projects has only four secondary links and can do with a simple dropdown, whereas the Districts area contains many more links. Presenting the Districts menu as a dropdown would require users to scroll to see the menu and would tax their fine-motor skills and short-term memory.

Customizable Quick Links and Social Filters

Many intranets offered Quick Links, or navigation shortcuts to popular destinations. This was true 7 years ago when the first edition of the report was published, and is still the case now. With so much information on intranets, shortcuts to content that belongs in lower levels of the hierarchy, but must be frequently accessed by employees, can be a big time saver. These shortcuts help employees discover new features, making the intranet more useful and interesting.

The best Quick Links lists have descriptive names, such as Most Popular Pages or Frequently Used Tools, are placed prominently on the homepage, and are based on site analytics.

One way of engaging users is by showing what others are doing. Social filters are popular on websites; this design trend has now caught on to intranets.

Intranets in this report used the following social filters:

  • Most Viewed
  • Trending #tags
  • Most popular docs
  • Top stories
  • Latest comments
  • Hot resources
  • Top FAQs
  • Commonly Used Forms

Some social filters encourage exploration, while others provide a shortcut to important information (like a Quick Links list).

In addition to presenting the most popular pages (or documents, or tools), some intranets offered customizable Quick Links list. This is a nice option, but users rarely engage with customization features. It’s time better spent to make the default presentation as useful as possible right out of the box.

Still, don’t forget the simplest, most “Web 1.0”-like navigation aid: cross-reference links. On many intranets, Related Links lists were immensely helpful, particularly when they were designed consistently so users always knew where to find them and what to expect.

LANL homepage with a top tools area in the middle of the page

Los Alamos National Laboratory presents the Top Tools on the homepage. The heading for this Quick Links list is good, indicating that it refers to common tools used by employees.

Participating Organizations

Our analysis encompassed a wide range of organizations in 13 countries:

  • 43 companies from a variety of industries, including financial services, utilities, and technology
  • 14 government agencies
  • 7 non-profits
  • 6 healthcare providers
  • 4 educational institutions

Of the organizations, 9 were small (less than 500), 48 were mid-sized (500-20,000 employees), and 17 were large (more than 20,000 employees).

Note that three organizations participated in both editions: Cisco Systems, Inc.; Department for Work and Pensions (DWP); and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Full report

The full 1,349-page Intranet IA report includes two volumes. The first volume, Intranet IA Design Methods and Case Studies, includes analysis and a summary of common design patterns used to present intranet content and tackle navigational issues faced by these organizations. The supplement, Design Gallery: Screenshots and Examples from 77 Intranet IAs, provides individual profiles of each of the organizations with their hierarchical organizational structures and a total of 1,106 unique screenshots.


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