Secrets of a successful intranet

I used to run an intranet for a large public sector organisation in the UK.

This experience provided a fantastic grounding in how much work goes into running a digital service that people rely on every day to do their jobs.

Through spending time with other intranet managers, reading everything I could find and running user research I learnt a lot about what differentiates a good intranet from a really great one.

Here are a few guiding principles I learnt that I hope will help you with your own intranet projects.

  1. Clearly articulate what your intranet is for

Intranets without some sort of clear purpose become dumping grounds for anything and everything (accelerated by devolved publishing via CMS).

Write a clear mission statement and use it to govern what gets published, what functionality you offer and what gets deleted!

2. Make sure it does something really useful, really well

Every Intranet has a killer app, often a canteen menu or jobs listings. Find your killer app and make sure it works like a dream. It doesn’t matter if people visit to use that thing then immediately leave.

Remember, they have more important stuff to be doing. This notion that we need to design ‘sticky’ services that entrap our users is nonsense.

3. Personalisation is a red herring

So we’ve all been sold the dream of personalisation but the reality you will find is that people won’t bother to personalise their intranets.

Save you cash and invest it in something really useful like an amazing search engine.

4. Involve senior stakeholders as early as possible

Navigating politics can be a hugely important when launching and growing intranet usage. Their early involvement will help to ensure that they endorse and promote what you are doing which won’t hurt when discussing budgets to maintain it.

5. Be careful when devolving publishing

The classic intranet dilemma. You centralise publishing to control quality but then quickly struggle to keep up with demand so invest in a CMS and devolve publishing. People then publish like crazy, quality plummets and usage drops as a result so publishing is centralised.

Repeat until senile.

6. Make sure it’s easier to use your intranet than for people to create their own

One of the most alarming days I spent whilst managing our intranet was when I discovered all of the other rogue intranets that people had set up themselves! They did it because it was easier than publishing via the ‘official’ tool.

I learn loads about what we should be doing from looking at them. A tough lesson but a valuable one.

7. Governance is everything

I see this issue regularly with pattern libraries these days. Design is documented and regulated to maintain consistency. People who design and make things don’t like the constraints so go off piste leaving the owners of the pattern libraries tearing their hair out.

The most effective way of governing publishing is to set clear boundaries but allow some creativity.

Think of it like a good playground with a tall perimeter fence.

8. Prepare yourself for unreasonable expectations

Why can’t our search engine work as well as Google? Well they can do it, why can’t you? This is rubbish, I refuse to use it! People will expect the commenting to work like on Facebook, the video controls to work like Youtube and blogs to work like they do on Wordpress sites.

Re-use familiar design patterns to your advantage so that it works in the way that people expect it to.

9. Get out of your office and sit with people as they work

Definitely one of the best thing you can do. The halo of post it notes on people’s monitors with reminders of how to access the things that people really need tells you what is important to them.

Don’t forget the role of a computer in a regional office may be far less important in a small technical regional office than in head office where the design decisions are often made.

Does it really make sense to make the intranet the only way to do a critical task for those people?

10. Reflecting your company org structure in your IA is generally a mistake

Just because HR happens to sit within IT due to a bizarre decision taken back in the distant past it doesn’t mean you have to reflect it in your IA.

Watch new staff use it and get bamboozled at what lives where and quickly depend upon the search tool to find anything.

Let your IA represent a veneer of sanity upon the madness of your actual organisational structure that allows your staff to find what they are looking for.

11. Thing about what people actually do all day at work

Think about the tasks that people do frequently at work, prioritise the most time consuming & tedious ones and make sure the intranet makes them easier in some way.

Can you address a problem that exists within your organisation such as email overload, lack of clarity on who does what, difficulty in booking meeting rooms or accessing documents when working remotely?

You might focus on helping on particular group that will always need help such as new starters. What did you wish you were told on day one?

You might fully automate something or simply provide links in one centralised place to all of those tools people need to do their jobs. The solution can often be quite simple and achievable with the tools you already have access to.

12. Focus on useful & usable and not efficiency & productivity

Your goal as an intranet manager will probably be to increase staff efficiency and productivity. Unfortunately for you most of your staff will not want to become more efficient or productive.

Focus on making it useful & usable and usage will take care of itself.

13. Celebrate and reward good publishing

Intranet publishing can be a thankless task. It often becomes someones ‘hobby’ job (in addition to their actual job) and is often the first time they’ve ever done any ‘web stuff’. Can you reasonably expect them to write well for the web without training?

If you rely on your publishers to deliver quality content then make sure you give them the skills they need to do the job properly.

14. Your homepage is actually quite important

On web projects more time is spent discussing the homepage design than people actually spend using it due to search engines deep sending them direct to where they want to go.

Intranets are often set to display by default when browsers are launched so arguably they’ll be seen more often and as such be used more often than their web counterparts.

Ok, so many of these guidelines are relevant to all kinds of digital products and services of course.

It’s critical to get intranet UX right because often it’s the only channel thats offered to staff to do particular task, so get it right and you’ll get the efficiency and productivity gains that your business case demanded.

You’ll know if you’ve got it wrong from the look you’ll get from colleagues when you tell them what you do and the awkward conversation that goes a bit like…

‘Oh you work on the intranet do you? I used to use it but……..’

Experience Director @cxpartners | UX | Product | Photography

Experience Director @cxpartners | UX | Product | Photography