As a consultant in the UX business, I see a lot of different intranets. Most of them have one thing in common: They’re super messed up. They lack strategic direction, the user experience is awful, and employees dread them. They’ve become a dumping ground for poor content and they’re wasting people’s time. Sigh. But let’s not give up. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Digital strategist and user experience consultant Paul Boag claims intranets are not considered as valuable as websites. He asks: “Are all your employees happy to deal with poorly designed, overly complex interfaces? Is their time not important?” Gerry McGovern, a world-renowned web management expert and author of Killer Web Content, has worked on intranet projects for a range of different businesses—such as the BBC, Cisco and Microsoft. He agrees: “Most intranets are an appalling mess, a time-wasting black hole. They are so far away from their potential.”
What makes this particularly frustrating is that intranets are intended to help organizations grow and reach their goals. They’re meant for internal team collaboration and corporate communications. Yet they are often unable to do either. And so often, because of legacy and difficult internal structures, the problems are deeply ingrained in the form of unclear organization, poor (or nonexistent) community management, and organizational politics.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that complicated or expensive to start mending a broken intranet and restore its reputation. In this article we’ll take a look at the first three steps for improving an intranet.
Set a strategic direction
In 2015, Netlife Research, the Norwegian UX agency I work for, conducted a survey to examine how intranets in Norway are managed. A total of 143 people who had a role in running an intranet at the time completed the survey. Here are a few key findings:
- 61% of the respondents didn’t know how many pages were on their intranet
- 40% had no defined goals for their intranet
- Only 14% had defined KPIs to measure success and progress
- Only 24% optimized content routinely based on search logs
- Only 12% said they tested the intranet on a regular basis with real users
No wonder intranets are a mess! In the survey, the respondents were asked to describe their intranet using only one word. The two words that were mentioned the most: outdated and cluttered. A Swedish study conducted in 2014 with 295 intranet managers shows similar findings. In Sweden, 49 percent of the respondents said their intranet had grown in the past year—and not in a good way.
It is clear that intranets need strategic direction—the same way websites need strategic direction. Establishing a core strategy for the intranet is a solid first step. An intranet strategy answers fundamental questions such as: Why do we have an intranet? What is the purpose of it? How does it help the organization reach its goals? Who uses the intranet and why should they use it? And last, but not least: Who is ultimately in charge? Answering these questions will help an organization define the role of the intranet and set a clear strategic direction going forward. It will also help intranet owners and managers in the daily administration and ongoing governance of the intranet.
In the intranet strategy, include the following:
- The main goals and subgoals of the intranet
- Defined KPIs to track progress and success
- A prioritized list of user tasks the intranet is intended to support
- Routines for creating, publishing, maintaining and deleting content
- A description of roles, internal organization and ownership
When putting together a strategy, avoid creating a 300-page document crammed with flowcharts and wordy descriptions. Chances are nobody will read it. Instead, keep it brief and practical. And make sure to communicate the strategy verbally.
Clean up the content
In the Norwegian survey mentioned before, 69 percent of the respondents said they didn’t have any routines for deleting outdated content on their intranet. In the Swedish study, only 19 percent said they were actively and continuously cleaning up the content and removing out-of-date copy from their intranet. Ouch!
This is the core problem with many of today’s intranets: Without a strategic plan, many organizations simply produce and publish new content—and leave it to rot. The effect of this “launch and leave” approach is that the amount of content, and the navigation, inevitably gets out of hand. Employees have to sift through an ever-increasing mass of words and links in order to find what they’re looking for. This is a tremendous waste of time for everyone involved—which often counts thousands of people in a large company. And as we all know, the cost of not finding information is huge.
So, where to start?
A good way to start fixing the content is to conduct a content audit, also known as a content analysis. Conducting a content audit has many advantages. As information architect Donna Spencer says: “Having a comprehensive list of content isn’t the only benefit of this process. Just by taking the audit you’ll get a much better understanding of the content.” James Robertson, author of Designing intranets, says: “Looking through the intranet can often identify thousands of pages that can be deleted immediately. That’s a lot of pages that don’t need to be restructured.”
After getting an overview of the situation, get to work! That means start culling the content:
- Improve. Content that is relevant and up-to-date, but lacking in quality should be rewritten and improved according to best practices in copywriting.
- Update. Out-of-date content is a major issue. What if an employee finds outdated content and thinks it’s current? The consequences could be detrimental. Make sure all relevant and important content is up-to-date.
- Merge. On many intranets, employees will find similar content in many different places. Why? Because of silos and uncoordinated publishing practices. Identify fragmented pieces of content and put them together.
- Restructure. Trying to cover many disparate topics on one page? That could quickly become confusing. If necessary, break the content into sections or even separate pages—it’ll be easier for staff to find what they’re looking for.
- Delete. Yes, get rid of it. Clean out the closet. Content that doesn’t serve a strategic purpose or doesn’t support real user tasks should be or removed completely. Hard to begin with, but it’ll feel great afterwards.
- Keep. Not all content needs an overhaul. Content that is already relevant and of good quality should be kept the way it is.
It’s a good idea to formalize these rules by creating a set of retirement guidelines. Content that doesn’t meet the criteria for staying on the intranet needs to be retired—or deleted. Needless to say, once the content is cleaned up, employees will more easily find what they’re looking for. That, in turn, will make them happier and more efficient.
Test with real users
Usability testing is a great method for gaining in-depth knowledge about real users. As Steve Krug, information architect and author of Don’t Make Me Think, says: “Usability testing produces fabulous actionable insights. It points out to you with very little effort things that are going to cause you serious trouble.” The drawback, in many cases, is that it might be difficult or time-consuming to recruit the right people at the right time. Traveling and coordination can often be a pain.
Testing intranets is way easier, and much more affordable! Think about it. Intranet owners are seated right next to many of their users—all day long. They talk during lunch break and by the coffee machine. The intranet owner can hear and see their users in real life as they become increasingly discouraged by the intranet. Having easy access to potential test users, with very little travel and recruitment involved, is a huge opportunity.
More good news: Small-scale tests are the most effective.
Long-time usability advocate and principal of Nielsen Norman Group, Jakob Nielsen, has found that running small tests with up to five people give the best results: “After the fifth user, you are wasting your time by observing the same findings repeatedly but not learning much new.” Steve Krug recommends conducting “fast, effective, low-cost” DIY (Do It Yourself) usability testing with only a handful of users.
Here’s Steve Krug’s approach:
- Recruit 3 to 5 colleagues
- Ask each of them to complete a set of tasks on the current intranet
- Observe and write down any issues they might have
- Each individual test should take about 30-45 minutes
- Fix the most pressing issues immediately
- Keep a backlog with problems to fix when there’s time
- Ideally, conduct usability testing once a month
As well as being affordable and effective, low-cost usability testing is a great way to involve the organization and get employees to feel like they’re contributing—which they are! In my experience, employees are eager, engaged and happy to help in the process of improving the intranet. So there it is, usability testing is a perfect match for an intranet.
In this article, we have examined three keys to improving an intranet: Set a strategic direction, clean up the content, and test with real users. Want to learn more?
- The fundamentals of intranets. James Robertson’s books Designing Intranets and Essential Intranets both contain screenshots and case studies from a range of businesses around the world.
- Content strategy. Read UX Booth’s Complete Beginner’s Guide to Content Strategy and Kristina Halvorson’s classic Content Strategy for the Web. They’re not intranet-specific, but the same principles apply.
- Conducting a content audit. Read Donna Spencer’s article How to conduct a content audit, on UX Mastery. The aforementioned books are also helpful when it comes to understanding and conducting content audits.
- Writing for the web. The same rules apply when writing for the intranet. For basic web writing tips, read Gerry McGovern’s Killer Web Content. Good online resources include Copyblogger’s Copywriting 101 or Writing for the Web on usability.gov.
- DIY usability testing. Read Jakob Nielsen’s article You Only Need to Test with 5 Users. Also, read Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think, which provides a practical step by step guide to DIY usability testing.