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?