What is contextual integration?
Contextual integration is a technique for creating meaningful relationships between information types. This makes it much easier for people to find information by allowing them to use a range of entry points to access content, instead of the usual single hierarchical entry point that many intranets provide.
Why is it important?
The benefits of applying a contextual integration to an intranet are many. These include:
- Providing multiple acess paths for staff to locate content makes the content easier to find. Finding content is the biggest problem end users have with intranets today. This is partly caused by the fact that many intranets only provide a linear or hierarchical way to navigate to content – end uses need to know the single correct path to locate content.
- By contextually integrating content you help ensure that content authors provide additional relevant information necessary to staff. For example, authors can no longer simply add a link to web page and leave it at that. They need to provide additional information about how the website is relevant, to who it is relevant and when it should be used. This is context.
- By providing a context, you are ensuring that staff are not left wondering if they have missed something. For example, you can include tasks that need to be done before or after another task.
Example from the internet
The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) is an example of how information types have been identified and provided within a context. For example, a movie will usually comprise people (actors, directors, etc) and a soundtrack (and other information types as well but for the sake of this example we will stick to three). This can be represented by the following diagram.
What this means is that if you cannot remember the name of an actor but you can remember a movie they were in, you are able to locate the movie and then locate a link to the actor which provides additional information about the actor. And the same applies when searching for a movie or soundtrack. In other words, the three information types give each other a meaningful context that increase the chance that they will be found through one of the other paths.
So how does this apply to intranets?
Many intranets comprise documents, links to web sites, procedures and a range of other information types. Usually they are stored in different locations and there is little or no defined relationship between them - any cross links are unstructured. For example, staff may view a list of 'hot links', find the web site they need and then that is the end of the interaction. If there is a relevant document, procedure or policy, related to the web site, they are unlikely to discover this relationship because the web link hasn't been integrated with other content types.
By applying a ‘contextual integration’ to this scenario, we could establish a relationship between the three information types as follows - ie. a task may comprise templates and websites.
Let’s say I work for an organisation that offers various workshops to the public and I want to use the intranet to help me organise one of these workshops. There are a range of possible scenarios as follows:
- I have never organised a public workshop before and I don’t know where to start
- I want a standard template for inviting people to the workshop - I don't want to have to 'reinvent the wheel'
- I have organized a workshop before but I can’t remember the name of the website that we use to take workshop bookings
In the typical intranet, the chances are I would have to know the top level menu item to find the information I need. Possible headings that I could be confronted with include templates, hot links, policies, procedures, about you, about me, forms, department (and then I would need to know which department has the information).... Where do I start?
But by using a contextually integrated model, there are several starting points and it doesn’t really matter which one I choose because they are all related and I can easily and logically navigate through the different paths.
The following example looks at the 3 scenarios listed above.
From the top level menu, shown below on the left in the diagram below, staff can choose any of the following as the starting point to the search:
- Search by task name (I would like to...)
- Search for templates
- Search by web site
The results of choosing each of these different navigation paths is shown below.
1. Choosing ‘I would like to’
This brings up a list of tasks that the person can view in a variety of ways, depending on the metadata that has been set up. This could include viewing tasks by category, process, department, role, or when the task gets done.
From here they can click the task - Organise a Public Workshop - to display more detail.
The main body of the task provides the content needed to complete the task. But because we have also associated templates and web sites with tasks - ie. a structured context - these fields are also available in the right panel. From here, staff can also navigate to:
- Related tasks,
- Email templates, or
2. Choose Email Templates
This will also display a list of categorised templates in the same way the tasks were displayed in the ‘View topics by’ diagram above. Choosing the appropriate template brings up the following page:
Because we have integrated this template with the Task information type, we are able to click the related task to display more information about how this template is used (if required).
3. Choose Web Sites
Just as in the other two cases, selecting this option will bring up a list of categorised web sites. Unlike the standard intranet which generally provide a list of links, the web links listed are associated with one or more tasks. So it a staff member wants more information about what a web site is used for they can click on the Task link for more information.
In all of these examples, the primary information need of the end user is satisfied (ie. They have found instructions, the web site, or template that they were initially looking for) BUT they are also provided with additional context to ensure the right level of information is delivered at the right time to the right person.
The above example is a simplistic summary of how a contextually integrated intranet may appear. In reality, there would be many more information types to consider and metadata to be defined for each information type.
Detailed ‘contextual integration’ intranet diagram
The following diagram is an example of a complete intranet information architecture. It shows different information types and how they are related (it doesn’t show the detailed meta-data associated with each information type).
Want to know more?
If you are interested in learning more about contextual integration, how it works with card sorting, and how it can seriously improve the way your staff find information on the intranet, the Worldwide Intranet Challenge is running a one day workshop called ‘Delivering successful intranets’ that will cover this topic in more detail (along with a range of other topics).
This workshop is based on research from over 15,000 intranet end users from the 50 different organisations that have participated in the Worldwide Intranet Challenge. You can read more about the workshop or register on the ‘Delivering Successful Intranets’ registration page.