my world of work and user experiences

May 31, 2011

Sightseeing in intranet land

Filed under: Usability — frederique @ 23:00

When I was working on internet sites, I could just explore the web to see what others were doing. Now that I am in the world of intranets, it is more complicated to get inspired and sanity checked by others. Intranets are for insiders only and not accessible for tourists who want to take a look. Of course I have worked on different intranets, for different kinds of organizations, and I can share knowledge with my colleagues about our projects. But I also like to see what happens in other intranets, as a busman’s holiday.

Fortunately, there are ways of sightseeing other intranets.

Recently I attended part of IBF24: 24 hours of non-stop intranet tours and discussions, organized by the Intranet Benchmarking Forum. I caught about half of it, manoeuvring around the rest of my work, which also implied I had to catch some sleep at some point… Most of it consisted of guided tours where the presenters clicked through their intranets and explained what worked well and what didn’t. Very nice; I’ll definitely try and attend next year’s session too.

I’ve also been browsing the Intranet Annual 2011, The Year’s 10 Best Intranets by the Nielsen Norman Group. As every year, it is a huge report (433 pages) on the usability of the winning intranets, with plenty of screenshot and detailed explanations that allow us tourists to see what these intranets and intranet teams are all about.

What I saw on my sightseeing trips

Some textual snapshots of interesting landmarks I saw while sightseeing in the IBF24 tours and the report – unfortunately I cannot include screenshots, as they don’t belong to me:

  • “No longer is the intranet a place to simply receive information. Intranets are interactive, inviting employees to participate and share knowledge. […] These participatory sites let employees who might be physically located half a world away inspire, answer, challenge, and support one another.” [Intranet Annual 2011, Nielsen Norman Group].
    Quite so! Some of the intranets I saw in the IBF24 tours did seem a bit old school: communication departments publishing corporate news. But to others the intranet is a virtual workplace and that is how I use our intranet and treat my clients’ intranets as well.

  • Intranets are getting more mobile: 60% of the winning intranets in the Intranet Annual have a mobile version. The best of them don’t try and squeeze their entire intranet on a tiny mobile screen, but they focus on functionality that is really useful to employees on the move: such as the company directory, timetable of the shuttle bus, news, task management and gathering ideas.
    In our New World of Work, we want to do our job where and when it suits us best. That doesn’t mean that I want to read a huge document (say, a 443 page Nielsen report) on my Smartphone while waiting for the bus. But I do want to browse some news, check which tasks I need to do by tomorrow – and then find out why that bus hasn’t arrived yet….

  • Knowledge management may sound cheesy, but that just means that it has moved beyond the hype into real solutions in intranets. All that social networking stuff is particularly useful on intranets, where we don’t have the on-the-internet-nobody-knows-you’re-a-dog syndrome. “An organization’s greatest assets are its employees.” (Nielsen et al). These employees can share information, develop ideas, judge them via ratings for instance and comment on them.
    For me personally this is the main way of sharing knowledge, as I am hardly ever in the same office as the colleagues with whom I share it. The same goes for collaboration.

  • Search is still a hot topic. Users have to be able to find useful content and functionality quickly and easily. The search tool should help them, but is often is more of a pain than a gain. So I was very interested to see the IBF24 tour of Google’s own intranet, where search is the intranet. Their collection of different tools is accessible via one point of entry: a search page which looks very familiar…

  • Users do not always have to look manually for the content that is relevant for them, as it can be brought together from different parts of the intranet, in personalized dashboards, collections, communities of practices. Many intranets are portals that integrate other, existing systems.
    Even on a lower level, I like to create overview pages in multi-page team sites and site collections, that immediately show the users what’s new and what’s hot for them in particular: the latest documents that they have access to, the active tasks and issues assigned to them. Users should not have to dig for their content and tools, and they should certainly not have to keep checking every corner of the intranet if anything important has been added.

  • Video is used more and more: communication departments publish official videos and some companies allow their employees to share their own.
    Conveying content in video can be very engaging: reading the CEO’s explanation of our latest plans is not the same as seeing and hearing her explain. And some content just is moving pictures by nature: don’t try to describe the dancing robot you have built with your R&D team, just show it (I can’t remember who had that, but it was a real life example mentioned in IBF24)

  • You’ll need some serious change management and education to get the people to use the intranet in such a way that they benefit from it – or use it at all: “They say: that’s great, that’s what we want. And then they don’t use it” (Dianne Wentworth, AT&T at IBF24).
    I’ve seen the same problem: Don’t think you are getting anywhere if you just build what the clients or the users ask. Just tossing your system over the wall does not mean that it will land properly and that it will be used.

  • Change management is important, but that won’t help you if the intranet itself is no good. “The intranet just has to work. If I have to hand out candybars to get the people to use it, I failed” (Walton Smith, Booz Allen Hamilton at IBF24).
    You need to create an intranet that provides solutions to real problems, not just features that look cool. The concept has to be appropriate, the interface has to be usable and the technology has to be bug-free.

I like sightseeing in intranet land. I get to see inspiring new vistas, be reassured that I’m not the only one with particular problems, recognize familiar solutions in different surroundings, and bring home some ideas as souvenirs. It’s even better if I can meet the locals and talk with them: IBF24 is interactive. This interaction is not quite possible when I’m wandering through a Nielsen report. But this report is so big, that it will keep me involved for quite a while anyway.

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