Introduction to SharePoint Navigation

Creating a highly effective and compelling SharePoint navigation structure is a critical component to any Intranet. Intranets enable employees to complete common administrative tasks, support the deep and specialized expertise unique to an organization, and to provide an engaging space for news, announcements, and other updates.  If you imagine your intranet as a restaurant and information as the entrees and sides, the navigation is the menu your guests (employees) peruse when they sit down in your intranet.  Just like at a restaurant, there’s items guests can order off the menu, but we use navigation to help guide the employees to the most relevant news and information.

I put together these five tips based on my years in the field discovering and designing SharePoint intranets with organizations, combined with a lot of reading and synthesizing thought leadership on website navigation best practices and trends

1. Intranets are different than Public Websites

You will find a vast amount of information out there on designing and building navigation for public facing website.  Early on in my days as an intranet designer, I stumbled creating great intranet navigation until I realized that an internal-facing company intranet has key differences than a public-facing company website.

  1. Intranets have a narrower, but more specific audience than a public facing website.
  2. Intranets usually have 10x or more pages and content than a public facing website.

This means any thought leadership you might read about designing navigation for a public website requires interpretation into what works in your internet.  For example, public websites often only present 3-5 top navigation labels, but modern intranets average 8-12 top navigation labels.  Additionally, a public website usually only targets a couple of distinct audiences (customers, prospective customers, business partners), while an intranet generally targets all roles within an organization, both customer-facing employees AND employees in diverse administrative or operational roles.

Information Breakdown on SharePoint Intranet Navigation
Figure 1 – Public Website vs. SharePoint Intranet

2. Design or Refine SharePoint Navigation WITH the People

In my experience, the most common mistake with intranet design is grouping or labeling information based on who “owns” or creates the information.  If we only talk to managers or executives to create or refine our navigational design, there is a tendency for us to assume that people in other roles share their opinions and will behave similarly in the context of an intranet.  If we design navigation for the directors/executives of an organization, we’re leaving out a vast majority of the intranet audience, and risk creating navigation experiences that only work for 10% of the intended audience.

When designing or refining intranet navigation, we have to talk to a diverse representation of distinct roles, experience levels, and time with the organization.  If we never talk to newer employees, we will miss their input on what information is important to a new hire.  If we’re designing an intranet for a bank but we don’t talk to the bank tellers, we will miss an opportunity to learn what those customer-facing employees need quick access to better serve the public.

The more representation we get from an intranet audience in its design, the better the result tends to be.

3. Use Data to Inform and Decide

We should seek to leverage data to provide us additional insights into where users are going, assuming there’s an existing intranet in place.  Here’s couple of ways to use data in navigational design:

  • Examining SharePoint Search reports to look for frequent searches, keywords and abandoned searches can tell us a lot about what users aren’t finding in the current navigation, and HOW they think about the information when searching for it.
  • Page and Site Analytics data tell us where people are currently going. Gathering baseline data helps measure if changes to navigation labels or groupings is driving more traffic where we want it.
  • When you are unsure if a particular label or new way of grouping your navigation will “work”, do some simple A/B testing of those new ideas with a representative focus group, and use that testing to decide if you need more tweaks or should push out a new iteration of navigation.

4. The 4 S approach to Great Navigation Labels

The 4S guideline applies broadly to any link, but since intranet navigation is entirely links and headings, it is even more useful.  Often the link text in SharePoint navigation is an afterthought, but users will rely on the link text to get around the intranet, and bad labels will cause users to seek information elsewhere, hoard it away when they finally do find it, which will create negative feelings about the intranet as a whole.  Use the 4S framework to create or rethink your navigation labels, so you can deliver a much better experience by intentionally crafting this overlooked bit of navigation.

  • Specific – Link text matters, as it communicates to users what they will find on the other side of a click.  When confronted with vague or repetitive links, users cannot envision what is on the other side of the link and will avoid clicking them.  Each click that leads somewhere unexpected or takes a user to a dead end diminishes the experience.  A click that delivers the exact content a user wants encourages users to click around the navigation more often to find information.
  • Sincere – A link is a promise to the user.  If we set specific but inaccurate expectations with a link, the user will still be disappointed.  For example, if the link reads “Request Vacation Time”, and the user expects a form to request vacation time but is instead taken to a page explaining Vacation Time policies, they will be disappointed, and will typically just ask somebody “Where can I find the Vacation Request form?”
  • Substantial – Users scan rather than read User Interfaces word for word.  In navigation, this means the links must be able to stand alone.  If a user only read the link label, and none of the surrounding context, would they still fully understand what they will find at that link?  If we have five labels called “Policies” under different headings, users may feel they have to randomly choose between policies libraries or click the first “Policies” they see only to find it’s just HR policies.
  • Succinct – This last trait of a good link is lower priority and we should only try to cut the number of words in a link when we’ve met the other 3Ss.  Instead of cutting words to get a shorter link, consider how you could front load the first couple of words in the link with the most essential information.  As users scan instead of reading every word, those first few words can help to persuade the user to stop to consider the link and read all the words.

Overall, the 4Ss help us think like a user, and by doing so, create better link labels that deliver positive user experiences and help your users navigate your internet with confidence.

5. MEGA MENUS

We know that intranets need to present more information than an organizations public facing website.  When you perform navigation definition exercises, you will often end up with several hundred pieces of information that a diverse group of users have identified as content they need for their day-to-day work.  This is where the utility of a mega menu SharePoint navigation solution really pays off!

Traditional drop-down navigation menus only display a single column’s worth of links.  Users can scroll down the individual drop downs, but they do not enjoy it, and scrolling down hides the options at the top.  This forces users to rely on short-term memory to compare choices or remember context.

Joann Fabric Intranet Mega Menu
Figure 2 – Traditional Drop Down Menu – https://www.joann.com/

In contrast, mega menus provide a full screen width of space, so we can present more links with requiring scrolling.  The available space allows us to further group links beyond the top-level label and provides more opportunity to visually emphasize relationships between choices.  It enables us to use pictures or icons when appropriate, and even with just a text mega menu, we can use richer font options to differentiate link sizes according to their importance, as an example.

SharePoint Navigation Custom Top Megamenu
Figure 3 – SharePoint Compass Mega Menu

If you are going to implement mega menu navigation, remember users that access the intranet from small screens or mobile devices, so you may need to present an alternate navigation for that mobile experience.

Conclusion

Overall, SharePoint intranet navigation is most successful when we design alongside a diverse group of users from various roles within the business.  We can use data and analytics to help make design decisions when qualitative analysis does not reveal a clear path forward.  Most importantly, we should recognize it’s very difficult to get navigation “right” in just one attempt, so we want to release new navigation more than once, then collect data and feedback so we can refine navigation based on those insights.

Do you feel like your navigation has become stale, or you are stuck in how to implement your new navigation design? Sign up for a demo of Total Solutions Compass mega menu and Analytics offering OR schedule a call to talk through your navigation challenges with one of our intranet designers.