Information Architecture - How to Start a Smart Conversation

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By Hameer Khawaja, Senior Consultant

Hameer has been working in the field of IT since 2003. Over the years he has helped many clients yield successful business outcomes using technologies such as Microsoft SharePoint, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Microsoft.Net and Microsoft SQL Server.  He currently holds many industry certifications including AIIM - Certified Information Professional.

An organisation has finally chosen to step away from the nasty maze of network file shares and embrace a document management platform to organise company documents. You find yourself in a room surrounded by eager business people from various departments ready to start their digital journey.  And then the inevitable happens, they want you to start the conversation!

Start the conversation

To start the conversation you would have to know where to start. You can probably start by asking individuals in the room the following question:

"How do you organise your department's documents?"

Trust me, this is as vague as it can get because this is a highly open ended question which would give you vague answers, and critical details will often be missed as part of the conversation. We'll have to give it a narrower scope to avoid confusion and extract as much information as possible.

Well, we are dealing with an organisation who is using network file shares for document management. Why not open the network file share and start the conversation there? Absolutely.

We can pick up a high level folder for a specific department and start discussing the residents of that folder and then elaborate each branch as we go deeper into the folder hierarchy. In the midst of it all, we will have to document the findings and design the information architecture as we go. We need the right tools to facilitate this.

Make the conversation smarter with Mind Manager

I've found mind mapping tools to be of great use when discussing or designing information architecture of any sort. Mind mapping is a technique which helps you visually organise information and has been in use for brainstorming, discussing ideas and creating designs.

My friend and colleague John Harach introduced me to an awesome tool from Mindjet called Mind Manager. This has proved really useful for creating mind maps during an information architecture workshop.

Note: I must clarify here that I am by no shape or form being paid by MindJet for marketing their product nor my employer is a partner of theirs.

Coming back to the conversation starter part, I was looking for the most efficient and intuitive way to design a new information architecture based on existing folder structure during such brainstorming workshops. This is when I discovered a nifty little tool hidden between the pile of other functionality offered by MindJet's Mind Manager. This tool was called a "File Explorer" which in Mind Manager terminology is a smart map part. 

You can import a full folder hierarchy using the file explorer, drag it into the main design surface of Mind Manager and start playing around with it. While having a discussion about contents of each folder, tags and markers can be associated with the folders to form the basis of a new structure and taxonomy can dynamically emerge from the tagging.

Let's see an example to elaborate this:

Smart conversation leading to smart design

So, I am with an audience who claim they are the content owners for their respective departments.

Using Mind Manager 2017, I quickly create a new Tree Map. 

When I see the blank canvas, I click on the Map Parts option from the insert tab of the ribbon. 

I see a list of different Map Part components offered by Mind Manager, one of them being "File Explorer". This is the real deal which I want to use.

So, I click on it and it displays options for the type of files I want to explore. I choose the "Files and Folders" option because I want to work with both Files and Folders on the canvas.

This opens up a dialogue for choosing the top level folders. Here, what I will choose will depend on the target audience.

If I am working with one particular department from the organisation, I will choose the top level folder for that department in the organisation's network file share.

I am assuming an audience from all departments so I'll choose the top level folder from the file share called "ACME CORP".

File and folder structure is now being displayed on the canvas. Note that I had to right click and refresh the folders to display all relevant content on the canvas.

The "ACME CORP" folder has sub folders for various departments like Finance, Human Resources and IT. These department folders then have various sub folders and files. 

I now have a playground for activity and the necessary platform to start the conversation.

I confirm from the audience if the direct sub-folders of "ACME CORP" represent departments.

Equipped with that information, I right click the "Finance" folder, hover over "Tags" option and click "Add New Tag". 

The tag dialog asks me about the group and tag names. Group here can be used to organise tags so I'll use it to list all metadata fields that I'll identify.

So I specify the group name as "Metadata" and the tag name as "Department". You ask why?

Because by doing this, I am specifying that the "Finance" folder here represents a department metadata field. i.e. we can potentially use a department field to associate a file with relevant department instead of placing it in the department folder of some sort.

Now we start examining the sub-folders under finance.

I ask my lovely and patient audience, can we say "Accounts Payable" and "Accounts Receivable" folders under "Finance" represent document categories?

I get "Yes" as the answer. Great. I'll tag the "Accounts Payable" folder in the same way I tagged "Finance" folder. Only this time, I'll choose the previously created group called "Metadata" and specify the tag name as "Document Category". This is to signal that "Accounts Payable" is one of the document categories.

Underneath the "Accounts Payables" folder, I saw a folder named "ABC Corp", I ask the audience "Is that a supplier that you deal with?"

Once confirmed, I tag this folder with a metadata called "Supplier". 

"ABC Corp" folder had a document called Invoice - ABC Company.docx. This is obviously a content type of Invoice.

Why not tag this as well? But this time, I'll specify a tag group name of "Content Type" and the tag name of "Invoice".

As I move along the folder hierarchy, I find similar patterns of folder for e.g. a folder named "XYZ Corp" was also underneath the "Accounts Payables" folder.

Since, "Accounts Payables" folder has sub folders for each supplier, it is obvious that "ABC Corp" is also a supplier. I'll tag this with the Supplier tag as well but this time I don't have to enter the full name, I can just choose the previously created tag under Metadata tag group.

Similarly, I find more invoice documents which I can tag with existing "Invoice" tag under "Content Type" tag group.

Now it's time to see the magic.

While I was busy discussing and tagging the folders, Mind Manager was doing something intelligent in the background. It was dynamically building an index of tags we have used. In order to see that, I choose the "Markers" option under "Map Index" heading.

This displays the Map Index window. Note that under Metadata heading, it not only has outlined all tags that I created but has also neatly organised the associated folder names underneath. Similar arrangement can be found under the Content Type tag group. If you haven't realised it already, what Mind Manager has done for us is created an index of all the metadata fields with associated values and an index of all possible content types. This is invaluable for further analysing the information architecture and using the index for implementation.

Conclusion

When implementing SharePoint or other document management systems, merely configuring the basic structure is rarely enough. We need systems of taxonomy and information architecture that accurately align with the way an organisation works. Techniques like the one described in this article can help organisations start the analysis and design process effectively and deliver value from the get go. What's in it for you? You'll end up with a document management system that actually works, and in turn, increased business productivity.