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Intranet Content Organization

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (18-Sep-2003)

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We often take for granted the well-organized nature of content in our everyday lives. Printed publications are often divided into chapters or sections with a table of contents and indexes to help us find specific pieces of information without having to sift through every page; brick-and-mortar shops shelve their merchandise in aisles, placing related items in close proximity with one another; and office buildings are arranged in departments so you don't accidentally step into the Director of Communication's office with an IT question.

I didn't fully appreciate this organization until a recent trip to a local bookstore currently undergoing some major renovations. Rather than close up their operation for several weeks and sustain heavy financial losses, they remained open as customers fought their way through, paint cans, drop clothes, and sawdust.

Maneuvering my way around this maze, I was surprised to find books on low-fat cooking, the history of the Ottoman Empire, and the teachings of Marcus Aurelius mixed in among books on budget travelling in Tanzania. My question on the whereabouts of a reference book prompted a quizzical look from the salesperson as she pointed off into the distance and said with some hesitation, "Um, I think it's been moved over to that corner..."

The only thing I found over there was a surly construction worker who threw me a dirty look when I accidentally stepped on one of his power tools. My dilemma, at that point, was whether to continue searching for my book or risk getting sawn in half—suffice it to say, I'm here writing this article and I never did find my book.

This minor misadventure is testament to how the lack of organization and content classification can lead to confusion and, in my case, an almost grisly end. There's a direct relationship between content organization and the ease with which intranet owners and users are able to navigate, locate, and manage vast stores of information.

So, what's the best way to organize intranet content without the fear of being decapitated by a Black & Decker?


Driving Factors in Content Organization

Intranet content organization is highly dependent on the purpose of the intranet, industry type, content type (whether information is static or requires online applications and back-end database support), and the company's current business practices.

The variables are numerous and must be determined on an intranet-by-intranet (and company-by-company) basis, however, I'm going to focus on three core deciding factors that can be applied in a majority of intranet content organization situations:


Content Security

Security greatly influences the way you structure your intranet, so it's important for content owners to carefully coordinate their efforts with site architects. A solution needs to be agreed upon as to the best methods in which to blend secured and non-secured content while still maintaining some form of classification.

This is not really an issue for unrestricted sites or sites taking an all-or-nothing approach to security since the same access permissions are often granted across the board. But large, high-volume sites with granular security restrictions are always more difficult to maintain.

Any good site or network administrator knows that access permissions are rarely granted to a single person or file. Doing so will make administration a harrowing experience. And as a site grows larger, secured content will end up scattered throughout many different directories. Keeping track of all this will be a nightmare and may possibly compromise the security of certain resources.

To combat this, content needs to be structured in such a way as to allow administrators to maintain access permissions at the group and directory levels. Below is a simple, single-level example of two different methods of organizing secured content within an unsecured site:

Single-level examples of organizing secured content

Single-level examples of organizing secured content within an open site.

In order to maintain some semblance of order and sanity, secured and sensitive information should be grouped together in one or a series of related directories.

The first example forces site administrators to grant access permissions on a file-by-file basis, making management of larger sites extremely difficult. The second example groups secured content in one directory. This not only makes administration a lot easier, but it also provides you with an at-a-glance overview of what is and isn't restricted.


Navigation and Usability

One of the most common arguments is whether site navigation should shape the physical structure of content or whether content structure will eventually reveal the best navigational method. This debate can escalate in stature to rival the philosophical discussion of the chicken or the egg.

Navigation and usability are all part of the user experience and will dictate how users view and interpret the site (usability guru Jakob Nielsen deals with this at great length on his Web site useit.com). And while I believe that both need to be taken into consideration, the integrity of content should never be compromised simply to accommodate a fancier navigational system.

So what are your options in terms of navigational structures? The limits are only in the imagination of the site designer, but the most common navigational types are:

Intranet owners can take advantage of one or a combination of these navigational types to best suit their particular site and content.


Site Flexibility

Intranet content should never be structured under the false assumption that it will always remain the same. Things have a tendency to change in the blink of an eye, and this is doubly true in the business world as well as in IT so it's vital to leave yourself a little bit of wiggle room.

Intranet owners need to arm themselves with the knowledge that an intranet is an evolving entity. What seems like fine-tuned content taxonomy today may be a confining stranglehold a year down the road.

As an intranet grows, increased traffic may surpass network threshold and may warrant a split from one single, dedicated server to multiple servers. And changes in business requirements, priority shifts, or corporate restructuring may drastically change the make-up of an intranet. It's vital that the organization of intranet content be flexible enough to adapt to these changes with minimal effort.

Two of the most common ways to categorize content on an intranet are:

Here is a very simple view of the two categorization methods:

Simple example of content organization by function

Simple example of content organization by function and by context

There are advantages to grouping content of similar function into one location (such as manual updating of similar pages), but they don't measure up to the flexibility offered through contextual organization.

Referring to the example above, if you ever needed to extract and move the IT branch, function-based classification will require you to rebuild a whole new structure at the new location whereas context-based classification allows you to move the self-contained IT branch with relative ease—little restructuring is required.


Conclusion

Content organization is meant to set a relationship between data—it's meant to group and categorize content. But there's no single, black box solution for every intranet case. It will be up to intranet owners to decide the most effective way to organize content, allowing for maximum user experience while still maintaining a level of flexibility and ease of maintenance.


Copyright © 2003 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.