Dis/integrate your intranet for a better user experience (Part 1)

October 2, 2012

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)

11 Responses to “Dis/integrate your intranet for a better user experience (Part 1)”

  1. Liz Thomas Says:

    Great to see a new idea which is literally thinking outside the square of the homepage. Like most good ideas I wonder why someone hasn’t thought of it sooner. I’d be interested to know more of how you develop My Stuff.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Thanks Liz.
      I just feel with intranets that they appear to be stuck in a bit of a rut and in desperate need of a new paradigm. I’m not saying that my approach is the answer but we do need more new thinking and new ideas tend to generate more new ideas and I’m sure we, as the intranet community,will come up with the answer eventually.
      I too am looking forward to seeing what I come up with for My Stuff 😉

  2. I can see one problem here, based on my own experience. When the owner of the corporate intranet is the organization responsible for internal (and external) communications, they are only interested in pushing out news articles. All the other sections will be pretty much ignored, and very difficult to get any funding for. The idea of doing away with the start page (i.e., the News section) would make them go bonkers.

    Personally, I like your ideas, but I think many will have a hard time selling them to management.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      You are unfortunately absolutely right. I think there is a tremendous inertia with regard to change in many organizations possibly fueled by successive failures in intranet initiatives (see my post on Intranet Boom and Bust) and the problem with vanity publishing by some departments. It has always amazed me that organizations, when looking to improve their competitiveness, rarely, if ever, consider internal communications and information flows. Yet employees at all levels are forced to take decisions without good evidence because the evidence is locked away, lost in their intranet.
      Organizations who take internal communications seriously and adopt a holistic information management system (see my post on Enterprise-wide Information Systems) will see improvements across the board. It will only take a few such enlightened organizations to adopt and implement new ideas in this area, thus increasing their competitiveness, to make others take note. We just need to keep chipping away and I’m sure some day this will happen.

  3. Andrew Bishop Says:

    Hi Patrick
    You’ve taken an interesting approach here. A few Devil’s advocate thoughts:

    – replacing the home page with desktop icons seems to me to add more UX complexity. The average desktop is awash with icons and the intranet icons would be easily lost. I suppose you could put them in some kind of grouping, or perhaps have a single, intranet icon that opens a window showing the other icons – but that would not provide any advantage over simply starting from a trad home page.

    – A home page is more than just a jump off point for content. It can also include content, in particular, important or time-critical content. The icons approach will lose this.

    – The My Stuff concept has been attempted by intranets using personalisation, SharePoint MySites, and the like. These could be done better, but I see not reason to go outside the trad browser to achieve this.


    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Exactly the type of response I’m looking for.
      OK let’s take it point by point –
      1) I’ve been involved in intranets since before they had a name and I’m now working for a major media company.In all honesty in all the UX work I’ve done I’ve never heard of anyone complain about the desktop icon as a way of opening a programme or as a short cut to a file. It’s a paradigm that is fully accepted and understood by users. Icons are easy to move about and to group in a way that makes sense to the user. A suite of similar shaped or stylised components will always catch the eye as being a group even when adjacent to others icons. Compare this to the amount of possible links (I’ve counted up to 150 on some homepages!), many looking exactly the same, that some homepages contain. Look again at the example I gave in the blog and then quickly look at some of the homepages in James Robertson’s blog or those in Neilsen Norman’s reports. I honestly think you’re wrong in asserting that desktop icons do not provide any advantage.

      2) Homepage as a news portal and for time critical content. I will be covering this in part 2 but for now look at James Robertson’s blog post on mobile as a channel for intranet news http://www.steptwo.com.au/columntwo/is-mobile-the-natural-channel-for-intranet-news/.He beat me to it but thinking outside the box does not end with the homepage. We need to adopt an Enterprise-wide Information System approach and look at all channels and what they can do to improve communication within an organization. Also remember that in many organizations many (sometimes the majority) of users do not regularly use the intranet which makes it a poor candidate for important, time-constrained content anyway.

      3) I am not convinced that any technology, including Sharepoint, can make that much difference when it comes to improving intranets. Organizations ‘flee into the future’ adopting ever more complicated technology to avoid the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s like coming up with a better grade of asphalt and expecting this to help solve traffic congestion. Technology can help in providing a good infrastructure but in the main the spade work must be done by humans. It’s all about connecting people and content and current computer technology does not understand either. Only people understand the meaning of things and attempting to solve personalised content issues solely through technology is, at the moment, impossible in the intranet setting.

      Thanks for the comment it has really made me think!

      • Dave Says:

        Patrick, really enjoyed your article, thank you. Found myself agreeing in parts with both Andrew Bishop and you, so I’ll add to the discussion.

        i understand your intent with the icons, and have both seen it done for subsites that need easy access, and recently had it requested for an area that essentially wanted their own home page but without rocking the corporate boat too much. i steer folk away from it as i agree with Andrew though maybe for different reasons – the desktop is an aging paradigm, as James has pointed out in his talks on the mobile shift. Even on desktops, having shortcuts does not take advantage of browser bookmarks (around forever), browser bookmark toolbars (around a while), or ‘awesome’ bars that allow the location box to be a contextual search gate for bookmarks and history. This is a new behavior for many enterprise staff, who are always blown away by the simplicity and power when i show them. The next step is keyword bookmarks to enable access to intranet resources in a manner rather like the short lived Ubiquity firefox extension – typing “go hr” will take you straight there (at least 50% of my users are at ease with this), and the next step from that is voice command.

        I agree with you about enterprise-wide info, but can’t see homepages going away anytime soon. Ours is many years old but has remained lean at about 20 links and some dynamic user-contributed news that is well read and ages off quickly. Browsers need to show something when first loaded, though depending on your org’s IT policy the ability to reload closed tabs or load multiple pages on start-up are reducing the home page relevance, or perhaps James would suggest the ability of users to bypass a home page is the strongest case for creating a compelling page that they feel no need to bypass. At best i feel that your My Stuff concept might become the home page, as (facebook has shown us) it’s hard to be more compelling than a user’s desire to curate themselves!

        And so Andrew’s third point was that there are lots of My Stuff example solutions out there. I’m inclined to agree with you Patrick that those i have seen have fallen short, though I’m not sure if the failing is technical or human. Where a technology can really nail this is in knowing intimately who the user is, in order to tailor the experience at a level we’ve not yet seen. On the net this would be creepy, but inside an enterprise this knowledge is expected and so far, under utilised considering the efficiency it might deliver. My own stumbling block is that a lot of useful data for user insight is in the HR system, and for various reasons my chances of tapping that resource are so slim i might as well re-collect it via rich user profiles.

        I’m looking forward to reading part two!

        regards, Dave

      • patrick c walsh Says:

        Thanks for such a considered reply. I used the desktop because it was a simple and well known way of accessing discrete content sets and,I thought,a good way of getting the idea across about reducing the number of choices some homepages force on their users. At least this way we don’t have the territorial arguments over space on the homepage that plague some organizations. However, as I say at the beginning of Part 2, I’m hoping that this post will start a conversation with new, better ideas being suggested. It may well be that the interesting approaches you outline fall into that category.
        With regard to My Stuff the technology is out there that could make it work wonderfully but unfortunately an intranet would have to have the resources of an Amazon or the like to make it work as well as commercial internet organizations currently do. We need to understand that intranets do not have the resources to employ such cutting edge technologies and why should they? Such technology is a gamble and I think a more low tech approach for now would be the best alternative. In part 2 I suggest a more human approach until technology, such as linked data, is at a stage when it can be easily used in the intranet setting. I’d be really interested to see what you and Andrew make of it.

  4. […] was inspired by an award ceremony at a recent conference for the Best Intranet Homepage to writeDis/integrate your intranet for a better user experience. He found reviewing the award submissions a depressing experience because, when comparing the 2012 […]

  5. Dis/integrate your intranet for a better user experience (Part 1) – Patrick Walsh…

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  6. […] was inspired by an award ceremony at a recent conference for the Best Intranet Homepage to write Dis/integrate your intranet for a better user experience. He found reviewing the award submissions a depressing experience because, when comparing the 2012 […]

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