There’s a tectonic shift taking place in the world of SharePoint information architecture. The deep nested webs of SharePoint 2007 and 2010 site collections are a thing of the past, as is the exhausting task of combatting site urban sprawl. We’re now being told to rest easy and create a multitude of modern SharePoint sites. And these modern SharePoint sites don’t exist in a hierarchy with many sub-sites. Since each modern site is its own site collection, all modern sites exist in a flat architecture. Managing hordes of these modern SharePoint sites is easier than ever, with stronger built-in management capabilities (e.g. retention policies and labels), meatier reporting, and an advanced Office 365 modern admin center. But why is a flat information architecture better? And how do we help our users connect the dots between our multitude of modern SharePoint sites?
Before we examine why flatter is better, I want to ensure we have a common definition of information architecture. I define SharePoint information architecture as the art and science of organizing, storing, and labeling content (e.g. documents, list data, Office 365 groups, SharePoint sites, etc.) to support content findability and usability. Information architecture helps your users find what they need and ensures your content is stored once and not multiple times.
Now let’s review why a flat SharePoint site architecture is advantageous:
- Flat = modular. Flat SharePoint sites can be assembled in an endless array of logical families (as opposed to a physical hierarchical architecture of nested site collections). These logically-grouped SharePoint sites support quick navigation and contextual flow without requiring sites to move and data to be migrated anytime an information architecture change is required. Microsoft released SharePoint hub sites in March 2018 to help us manage families of SharePoint sites using these logical links. No physical relocation is required for hub sites–sites are linked together and links can be updated quickly and easily.
- Adapts to ever-changing organization structures. A flat information architecture eliminates the need to migrate sub-sites to new site collections based on departmental reorganization. Re-orgs may require updates to the navigation links between your site collections (or updates to your hub site’s navigation bar), but it will not require a physical migration of your SharePoint site or result in a site URL change.
- Supports new Office 365 capabilities. Functionality like Office 365 groups are heavily reliant on a modern information architecture. Office 365 groups serve as the security foundations for a wide array of functionality in Planner, Yammer, Exchange, and Microsoft Teams. New Office 365 groups cannot be nested–each exists at the same layer as all other groups. Quite simply, a hierarchical information architecture cannot be used easily alongside Office 365 group-enabled capabilities.
- Enables sites to operate independently. As I mentioned previously, every SharePoint site in a flat architecture is its own site collection. This enables each site to operate independently, with custom permissions and unique governance settings. There’s no longer a need for all sub-sites in a site collection to be ruled by the governance requirements of one site. Each modern site has independent settings.
- Shorter site URLs. When you create a nested series of sub-sites in SharePoint, you end up with long URL addresses for your sites. If you have an Information Technology site collection with a child Help Desk site, your URL would look something like this: https://splibrarian.sharepoint.com/sites/Information%20Technology/Help%20Desk/
If you create these same sites in a flat information architecture, you will have shorter, easier-to-use URLs:
Mind-mapping our SharePoint sites
This new flat architecture requires us to change the way we conceptualize and present our SharePoint sites. Instead of building pyramid-style site hierarchies, we need to build a logical links and connection points based on subject matter, user base, etc. Tying sites together by department or organizational division is no longer enough. We must account for how users will think about the content stored on our sites and the connections they’ll make as they access SharePoint Online.
A good model for this new conceptual model is mind-mapping. Mind-mapping is the visual representation of thoughts, discussions, and ideas. It connects thoughts and ideas together in a documented, visual map (almost like a cognitive diagram). While many strategists and information architecture practitioners have advocated using mind-maps for years to capture group conversations and decision-making processes, the new flat architecture model for SharePoint now requires us to apply this same mind-map thinking to the logical ties between our multitude of modern sites.
The example mind-map below shows how ideas and data points can be connected to a central ideal/theme in a visual way. If we apply this mind-map idea to connecting our SharePoint sites or hub site families together, we’ll be in a better position to build navigation links and “connect” our flat SharePoint sites together in a usable way.
Example mind-map. Illustration credit: Meagan Haase