There’s a conference being held in a few days and one of its features is Do you have the best intranet homepage? This got me thinking and I had a look at some sample homepages from ‘award winning intranets’ and, to be honest, I felt vaguely depressed. It took me a while to figure out why, which I did with the help of one of Jakob Nielsen’s posts from a few years ago. It showed a composite image of ten intranet homepages which showed a strong commonality and the most recent ones don’t look much different.
It has been claimed that the homepage reflects the whole intranet, if that is so then all intranets are overly complicated and stuff content packages that have no relevance to each other into a big bag labelled ‘intranet’.
Lots of work is constantly going on to refine and improve the look and feel and usability of intranet homepages but it is an impossible task. Even intranet guru James Robertson ponders the homepage and wonders if long pages are the answer. If you can’t get all your content in the bag just making the bag bigger is not the answer. Employees with little time to find the content they need will take one look at homepages like these and run for the hills (or at least to a colleague who might know where the content is).
It has also been clearly shown, in research reported by the American Psychological Association, that making people make too many choices can reduce their productivity. So there is a chance that most intranet homepages, by offering too many choices, will cause their users mental fatigue, thus depleting their mental resources for the tasks they need to complete. Might this be one reason why intranets are avoided by so many potential users?
It seems that whatever you do you’ll end up with something that looks like the composite in Jakob’s post. So what is the answer?
Let’s be radical and adopt a lean approach. In the ‘Lean Intranet’ approach the emphasis is on reducing the amount of content thus reducing the number of choices a user has to make. So let’s think lean for a while imagine an intranet without a homepage and how we can dis/integrate it.
What do we mean by dis/ integration? There is a lot of disparate content in most intranets, bags of stuff that have little or no relevance to other bags of stuff so why force them together? It makes for a poor user experience and is a lot of work for an intranet team. Dis/integration means giving the user a much smaller set of choices at each step of their journey to find target content.
So let’s start with a simple example. Our very simple intranet is comprised of the following major content groups-
- My stuff - All my personal details such as my salary, holidays (vacation days), sick leave, my departmental organisation charts etc.
- Operational stuff – All the operational documentation such as performance information, procedures, forms and guidelines that help us to make quality things or provide a quality service
- News and events- Perhaps at several levels such as corporate, divisional,departmental etc
- HR – All the policies, procedures and forms needed to manage people such as sick leave, disciplinary issues, promotions etc
- Health and Safety and Environment – All the procedures,guidelines and forms related to H&S and Environmental issues
- Support services – Admin, IT etc
- Contact details - Internal phonebook and other contact indexes
So let’s cut the choices down for the user and imagine what might happen if we were to take away the homepage.
Using the desktop as the first step
The first step in this journey is to turn my computer on. The first thing I see is the desktop with all its familiar icons except in our journey there are some new ones, in fact one for each of the content groups above. Desktop icons are a safe, familiar way of accessing content for most users. I created my own desktop where the icon for the intranet is a triangle (click on the image to enlarge) -
So, if we assume there is roughly the same amount of content in each section, a user choosing an icon will have already reduced the amount of content, and therefore possible choices, by 85%.
Once we enter one of these content areas we know where we are because each has a different colour scheme. In this approach we want these areas to look different so users know where they are. If we want to keep things very simple we treat all these sections, except My Stuff, as virtual silos or mini-intranets only linking out to other sections when such links really add value.
Why is My Stuff different to the rest? It has the usual personal data such as salary details and holidays (vacation days) but it also has something else. A personalised view of content from all the other sections.
My Stuff should contain -
- All the operational content that is relevant to my role
- All the news that is relevant to my team or department
- All the HR policies that I need to refer to and the forms I need to use
- All the H&S and Environmental content relevant to my role and where I work
- All the details of the support services I’m likely to need
- All the contacts that are relevant to me and my role
My Stuff is where all the hard work should be focussed in providing each member of staff only with content that is likely to be relevant to them. If on occasion they need to trawl through another section, e.g. to find a H&S policy, it should then be made available from My Stuff with no further action required from the user. Using the 80/20 principle the aim should be that at least 80% of the content users regularly access will be available in My Stuff.
So how do we make My Stuff work? That’s the crucial question and it’s a circle I’ll be attempting to square in Part 2 of this post.
(Thanks to Stephan Uhlmann for the wonderful ‘explosion’ photo)