Ready to re-design your current intranet? Before you make any sudden moves, consider the benefits of doing user research up front. Over the past year alone, DEG’s Enterprise Collaboration practice has carried out more than ten separate discovery processes for our clients. Along the way, we discovered some common themes and helpful tips – and we’re happy to share what we’ve learned so far.
Tip #1: Understand mobile
Across all industries and sectors, the data tells us that your employees depend heavily on their mobile devices. Everyday technology sets this expectation – people already track their email, social networks, and daily tasks through mobile. Naturally, they expect to have at least some mobile access to their work environment. In fact, the quality of your intranet mobile access sends a message to your employees about just how well your company can adapt to technology – and if your company can’t even get the intranet to show up correctly on a smartphone, how well is your organization going to adapt to external pressures, like disruptive market forces? From this perspective, the quality of your intranet mobile access might well affect retention of high value, tech savvy employees.
With mobile, you need to be thinking about device management, security settings, developing applications, etc. However, above all you need to be thinking about responsive design. Consider designing for mobile first – identifying and developing key functions and features – and desktop second. Designing for desktop first and then trying to retrofit for mobile will cost you more money in the long run.
Tip #2: Know what you don’t know
You’re probably used to thinking of your employees in terms of their job descriptions, departments, etc.- what they do and when they do it. However, for intranet design, you also need to think about how and why they do their jobs – their behaviors and motivations. What are their levels of technical competence, what sort of tools do they require, and what are their attitudes toward and capacity for technology adoption? What technical barriers and pain points stand in the way of their productivity? Above all, what are their goals? Not just the main things they need to accomplish every day, every week, every month – but also, where are they in their overall career, as well as in their tenure with your company?
One constant we find: System power users tend to need a lot more tools and workflows in order to circulate organizational knowledge and help other employees streamline tasks and processes. Also, while we do sometimes find a few big demographic and generational differences between digital natives (Millennials) and digital immigrants (Generation X and Boomers), it’s worth noting that there are plenty of Millennials who are digitally clueless, as well as old people – call it what it is! – who are plenty tech savvy.
Tip #3: Get organized
Speaking of pain points, our user research tells us what is likely the biggest problem with your current intranet: No one can find anything. This usually has three main causes. First, your information architecture (IA) is not logically organized in terms of common user tasks and activities. (Instead, your intranet probably substitutes a department chart for an IA.) Second, your search function needs an overhaul – for example, is the content across your environment easily accessible? Is your content tagged with keywords, are the search results weighted appropriately, and does your search function offer filters and refiners? Last, you need a metadata strategy, probably one that includes both administrator-generated taxonomy and keywords, as well as user-generated tags.
Metadata, especially user tags, requires governance. That might sound like a headache. Still, if eighty people are searching for a document with one particular keyword and you are able to identify it and tag it to the document, imagine how much time you just saved your company. Out on the internet, Google search has spoiled us. Within the more constrained environments of corporate search (where many documents – especially regulatory and procedural manuals, handbooks, guidebooks, etc. – tend to look a lot alike), you need to take active responsibility for organizing and managing your information.
Tip #4: Break out of the org chart box
For most stakeholders, the organizational chart is their comfort zone. The hierarchies are so tidy, so clear, so familiar. Surely you can just use that structure to organize your intranet and call it good, right?
Well…wrong. An organization chart is just a theory, and your company reality is likely much different. Your employees probably work in a much more fluid and adaptive manner, with varying approaches to tasks and information sharing. Their informal social networks and partnerships are also likely to have a major impact on how the formal organizational hierarchy functions. In your user research, you need to consider how these individual behaviors and cultural patterns are going to affect your intranet design, and you need to be aware of how common processes might cross departments and siloes.
Remember – the whole point of user design is to create systems that work for the actual users. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to design a successful collaborative tool from the top down using only stakeholder perspectives.
Tip #5: Recognize internal leaders
In the old days – oh, say even a couple years ago – the subject matter experts (SMEs) were easy to pick out. They usually specialized in one area of factual and/or technical knowledge, and controlled its dissemination. While they often battled over internal pecking order, as a unit their group leveraged control over knowledge to gain power and status in the overall organization (and to win battles over the intranet IA, for example).
That type of SME still exists. However, another style of SME is also emerging. Often found in Marketing or IT departments, these SMEs specialize in opening up access to knowledge and information, rather than in controlling it. Their goal is to streamline processes and foster collaboration across boundaries. Their technical expertise in a CMS often makes them very valuable to groups all across your organization.
his affects portal design because the two factions have fundamental cultural differences that might well clash during the design phase. However, that is not invariably the outcome. Sometimes the two types of SMEs find an opportunity to integrate as well. Certainly, they can both help establish empathy for different aspects of user experience.
Tip #6: Everyone has something to say
More than ever, we are building intranets for businesses with multiple locations – not just across states and countries but across urban and rural areas, across production, distribution, and service delivery pipelines, across sales regions, you name it. Either way, there is usually the sense of a center and a periphery at work, along with all the accompanying power dynamics. (For example, the core thinks the periphery isn’t paying attention to their directions; the periphery thinks the core doesn’t care or understand their work, etc. etc.) This dimension is also present with acquisitions and portal mergers.
The implications for portal design – when you are designing your user sample, be sure that it is representative of everyone who might use the portal. Also be sure to incorporate enough qualitative interviews to get a good sense of the cultural issues your design might need to address.
Tip #7: Keep content fresh
People are a lot like search engines. If you provide new, valuable, findable content on a regular basis, then they will come. In this case, your employees will be more likely to adopt your intranet. Of course, whenever someone says the word “content,” you should think “content burden.” Still, a content burden is only a problem if you haven’t planned for how you’re going to manage the generation, distribution, curation, and expiration of content – not to mention, the personnel and resources you will need to do it. These superuser employees help give your intranet a voice, a presence, an identity. Whether generating new content or curating industry news, the superusers will help your company stay on message internally and help keep your other employees feeling connected.
It’s worth saying again – designing a good intranet depends on doing your user research up front. What are some of your experiences with your current company intranet, and what suggestions can you think of for reworking the design?