In all of the posts and articles I’ve read about intranets I’ve never heard much mention of URL design yet this can be a key approach in designing your intranet and will also permanently help your users in finding the content they need. If you’re worried that this might sound a little complicated don’t be. The approach I’m proposing in this post is simple and low tech.
When discussing the system map in Part 2 I said that categories, genres and other aggregations should not be considered in order to keep the map as simple as possible. The principal points in adopting the URL design approach is to -
- Map and agree the top level navigation structures
- Agree the pages/resources that your intranet needs (and doesn’t need)
- Indicate which aggregations need sorting e.g. by categories, A-Z, by number etc.
- Involve everyone in the discussion
So what attributes should our URLs have?
There are many things that have to be thought of when designing URLs but for the purpose of keeping things simple I have gone for four main URL attributes that will be of benefit in intranets -
- One URL per resource or ‘thing’ (not page!)
Readability – A good URL should be a source of information to your users. It should read like a breadcrumb trail with a page for every section of the URL. As search becomes more ubiquitous, even in intranets, a good intranet URL can give instant information to your users on whether the content is what they are looking for.
For instance if I put a search query in for ‘form for booking holidays’ in many intranets (and web sites) you might get a URL looking something like this -
All I get out of this automatically generated URL is that it is a form and that’s it. A good intranet URL for the same form might look like this-
You can see that a readable URL presents the user with extra information which will give them confidence in making their selection. Also very importantly it is much more memorable. Once I’ve seen the readable URL above I stand a much better chance of being able to remember it and return to the content at a later date. There is virtually zero chance of remembering the automatically generated URL.
‘Hackability’ means being able to access higher levels of the intranet by deleting parts of the URL. If we use the instance above -
If, having booked my holidays, I wanted to see more information about holidays I should be able to snip the URL so it reads -
Which will be a page in the HR section containing all forms related to holidays. I can go further -
Which will be a page containing general links to all content about holidays. In order for users to be able to hack intranet URLs this way there must be a page for every section of the URL. In some informal research carried out a couple of years ago it was found that around a third of users will try hacking URLs to get at the content they are looking for so spending a little time ensuring that URLs are hackable could pay dividends for years to come.
This is probably of more importance for web URLs in terms of achieving better SEO however I think it is well worth considering when designing your URLs. Using terms with a limited life span will mean that your URLs will become nonsense in time. Giving some real consideration to making your URLs as long lasting as possible will help those users who use bookmarks or shortcuts and save you time in the future by not having to go back and fix obsolete URLs.
One URL per resource or ‘thing’
The days when all content was static are now disappearing and are being replaced by dynamic pages. A dynamic page will have its own URL but so will the content that appears on the page. By ensuring that everything has its own URL it then becomes possible to tailor content so it more closely fits your users’ needs. For instance it becomes possible for users to start creating their own ‘pages’ with links to individual procedures, policies and other content at a quite granular level. Perhaps more importantly it allows content to be accessed from more than one place, from multiple genres or categories that make sense to all your users. It also makes it easy to change your structure when change becomes necessary. Rather than having to change swathes of content it becomes more of an exercise in re-arranging your links.
Designing your URLs
All you will need for this is some different coloured post-its and a wall.
(Taken from Michael Smethurst’s Radio Labs blog post)
Using the systems map as reference start with the highest level sub-domains of your intranet as agreed in the sytems map. These might look like -
and so on. Write these on different coloured post-its and place them on the wall in a row. Then start building up the child resources for each sub-domain which should also be detailed in the sytems map -
and so on. Place these below the ‘intranet/hr’ post-it, stand back and have a think. Keep going, writing up URLs and moving post-its until it all makes sense, not just to you and your team but your stakeholders and even users. Iteration is the key to making this part of the process work. Once you’re happy with your URLs you will have structured your intranet and decided on your top level navigation.
A tip – keep photographing the wall of URLs every time something is changed just in case the cleaners take it down!
The next step is to define and re-define your URL structure and how you can consider ‘future proofing’ your intranet. I’ll show you how this can be done in the next post.
Further info on URL design
Silver Oliver’s and Deanna Marbeck’s presentation URL Design for Information Architects
TimBL’s Cool URIs don’t change
Rield.com Clean URL Design Guidelines
Manas Tungare’s URL Design Sins
(Thanks to RambergMedia for the Flickr CC image)