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Make your intranet easier to use in 2010

A common goal for most intranet managers in our communities of practice is to improve the usability of their intranets in 2010. Much has been written and said on the topic of intranet usability, but interestingly at a couple of recent intranet group meetings, several intranet managers pleaded guilty to expecting everyone else to just “get it”. Dare I suggest, that the problems with bad intranet user experiences could be linked to the mentality among intranet professionals?

To highlight a few of the typical issues, many members are still struggling with intranets that are flooded with PDF files, out-dated employee directories, cumbersome vacation request applications and which don't work on mobile devices.

It would seem that the intellectual challenge when it comes to intranet usability is not with identifying what to do. Attending intranet events, such as the upcoming J. Boye intranet conference, can inspire you with good ideas for how to improve intranet usability. There are also many freely available well-documented best practices as well as costly-but-well-written analyst reports.  Significant progress seems to be stalled because the people in charge of intranets, have made other priorities, such as strategy, new features, collaboration, SharePoint, throughout the years.

We can all agree that vendors have their fair share of the problem. Very few intranet applications, including extremely widespread SharePoint,  are intuitively easy to use and many require significant customisation to actually work. When I recently saw the intranet phonebook at the Guardian News and Media Group (UK), I was not the only one who was genuinely impressed. Powered by a small and relatively unknown Canadian-based vendor called ThoughtFarmer, and implemented in less than 1 month, this really was one of the exceptions that confirm the rule.

It seems to me that the solution is not to hope vendors will suddenly change and prioritize the user experience. Rather, if intranet managers became better at spending time away from their desk, so they could meet with their users and learn from their requirements. A few of our members have even video-taped the facial impressions of colleagues as they were using the intranet. Later they then showed the video to senior management resulting in a Sputnik crisis. Some organisations are obviously more complex than others, but I've still never met an intranet manager who said that he/she was spending too much time with his/her users.

Mark Morrell at BT has described his plan for making the BT intranet easier to use.

If you’d like to learn from other organisations where the intranet is truly user friendly, I’d encourage you to join our international intranet conference in Copenhagen on March 22 or consider signing up for one of our intranet groups.

What's your plan for making your intranet easier to use?

Janus Boye

Janus Boye
CEO and Head of Research

As founder and managing director at J. Boye, Janus has grown the business from an office at home in 2003 to an international operation today with members in Europe and North America.

Janus is a frequent speaker at industry events and chairs the renowned J. Boye Conferences held since 2005 in Denmark and since 2009 in Philadelphia, US. Among the organisations that have recently called upon Janus' expertise are  local government agencies, the UN in New York and companies such as Brother, Carlsberg and Red Bull.

jb@jboye.com

6 Responses to “Make your intranet easier to use in 2010”

  1. Hi Janus,

    You and your readers might be interested in a report I’m writing for the IBF (www.ibforum.com) on ‘New Directions in Usability’ for intranets.

    We’ve got some good case studies of real intranets that are delivering usability in key areas, and a lot of recommendations for keeping an intranet usable. And of course it looks at the major shifts in content, business goals and users themselves that are influencing how we define something as ‘usable’.

    I agree with your point that spending time with users is critical, particularly for intranets as, in addition to the more generic principles of usable design, there are highly specialised behaviours within organisations and also a large history of learned behaviours to consider before introducing any change. Internal teams are often best placed to identify these, given the right tools and methodologies, although it can be powerful for the senior managers to hear it from external consultants!

    Thanks for the post.

    Louise.

  2. Hi Janus,

    thanks for bringing the UX/UI issue into Intranet design!

    Having some experience in different areas than Intranets such as web applications I’m very often stuck by the lack of attention to the UI of Intranets.
    Last year, for the development of the Medicins Sans Frontieres intranet I decided to try the path of Agile Design in the development of this Intranet. We had successully experimented with a B2B community first, so what better test-bed than such a distributed organization with many different needs (publishing, collaboration, keeping a “distributed” employee directory updated, …) ?
    Agile design, which is in fact applying and extenting agile development principles and methods into design, gave us very good results so far.

    I’m very interested in hearing if others have experiences in applying Agile Design to Intranet projects.

    Thanks.
    Francesco

  3. Gordon Ross says:

    Thanks for the compliment Janus. We’re happy to have the Guardian UK as a client. We’ve always focused on usability as a key aspect of the intranet. Adoption, more than anything for us, is about ease of use. You can’t benefit from having an intranet if no-one wants to use it. Classic few-to-many broadcast model intranets are often powered by monolithic CMS tools that expect a highly skilled user to be trained and to understand how to publish content. Our many-to-many intranet platform doesn’t expect that same user. It expects the VP, the clerk, the mid-level manager, the IT specialist and the HR expert to all use the intranet together, contributing content and really not having to think about the technology. We hope this approach, which has meant adoption success for clients like IDEO, Oxfam, and Penn State, means that we won’t be relatively unknown for much longer. ;)

  4. [...] Usability; Many intranets still suffer from poor usability, even though several organisations have made significant advancements. As an example the UK Environment Agency have a rare published example of an intranet persona project. Read more about intranet usability in my recent posting on Make your intranet easier to use in 2010 [...]

  5. EphraimJF says:

    We picked ThoughtFarmer software for our intranet over a year ago because we set usability as the first and foremost principle for the new intranet we wanted to build. We chose ThoughtFarmer over other more feature-rich off-the-shelf intranet software options that simply didn’t have the same focus on usability. (They also provide great support.)

    This very brief slide show demonstrates the role of usability in an overall intranet adoption framework: http://www.slideshare.net/EphraimJF/achieving-high-enduser-adoption-on-your-intranet-presentation.

    While intranets theoretically have captive audiences that don’t need to be drawn in and satisfied, employees will find work-arounds whenever their intranets’ ease of use fails them. As long as employees can save files in shared folders and add direct web site shortcuts to their desktop screens, usability will be the first intranet adoption hurdle.

    ThoughtFarmer’s “love your intranet” slogan seems childlike to so many people who only know intranets as dumb lumbering beasts of the corporate gray-o-sphere.

    But ThoughtFarmer’s approach is somewhat similar to that of Apple computer: Make technology that isn’t just useful, but that people actual ENJOY using. Is it so wrong for employees to enjoy using their intranet? Of course it has to be useful, which is James Robertons’ intranet mantra. But can’t it be useful, easy to use and enjoyable?

  6. [...] Canadian ThoughtFarmer, focusing on the “social intranet” is one bidder claiming to have a great solution and previously featured on these pages with an impressive intranet phonebook at the Guardian [...]

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