An important decision for any Intranet project is designing the home page – the default starting point for all activities. What content, navigation and processes should be included. And there won’t be enough room to include everything you’d like so it is just as important to decide what is deliberately not included.
This post is not about styling the Intranet home page. It’s about designing for interaction. From a styling perspective, I always recommend following current established Internet conventions and generally plagiarize from the likes of the BBC web sites for examples. If you want to create a unique visual, then engage a talented web designer. On the side, they can also tidy up any poor usability gotchas that your chosen technology platform contains. Do also budget for periodic styling updates. Those established web conventions continue to change as new trends emerge. There was a time when it made sense to have all links in blue and underlined at all times. Now you just tend to see an underline when you hover over a link – permanent underlines create too much noise on the page. And whilst it is still better to use a consistent colour for links, it doesn’t have to be blue. But that’s a whole other topic to debate.
Types of interaction
The challenge with designing an Intranet home page is that you are trying to target multiple different audiences. One screen will never suit all. But you can optimise elements of the page to satisfy the core different reasons for visiting the Intranet home page and how people will interact with it:
At a simple level, people visiting an Intranet home page will take one of four approaches:
|1||Known/Directed||I’m looking for something specific, take me there!||Navigation|
|2||Known/Undirected||I’m looking for something specific, I can find it myself||Search|
|3||Unknown/Directed||Having a browse, show me what I ought to know about||News / Promotions|
|4||Unknown/Undirected||Having a browse, I wonder what others have been doing||Activity Stream|
It’s not that dissimilar to shopping. Sometimes you’re in a hurry, sometimes not. Sometimes you have a specific list of items to buy, sometimes you’re just having a look and may not buy anything at all. Sometimes you may end up buying something you would never have anticipated or predicted until you saw it.
The ideal home page should be able to satisfy each of these starting points without over-cluttering the page in the process. Not as easy a feat as you’d think. It’s a balancing act to decide what navigation is going to be the most helpful without creating a crazy nested hierarchy of links. Departments will want to fill the page with their news and promotions – “People need to know about this”. Individuals may disagree and expect more personal updates based on interactions within peer groups or topics of interest/relevance.
The image above is a basic sample layout with areas for each of the four types of interaction using Internet conventions for placing key elements. The ‘Top Links’ is usually a fixed set of links that appears everywhere, constantly visible from the top right corner, a way of navigating between key sites, applications and services. Global navigation is for moving around the Intranet. On the home page, the left sidebar provides a way to ‘pin’ popular links such as the help desk, staff directory etc. The right sidebar provides the formal internal news and updates. Promotions to alert people about what’s happening or actions they may need to complete, such as the deadline for completing the annual employee survey. And the centre area is divided between an Internet-like search and beneath it, a personalised activity stream of updates.
Note: this is just one sample layout. For different variations and guidelines to what works and what doesn’t, read Intranet Home Page Variations.
De-bunking some myths
Belief: The home page just needs a search box like the Google or Bing home page
If you look at the statistics for an Intranet home page, particularly where people go next, a search results page will likely dominate. Often accounting for more than 80% of all departures from the home page. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is falling into Type 2 behaviour. Rather, search is the second option for all four types. If the page fails to inform you of what you need, you go to the search box. Making your home page look like Google may look clever, but is not necessarily wise1. We resort to searching when we can’t easily get straight to the final destination.
If you have a cluttered home page and your statistics show the large percentage of people next visit a search results page, it is telling you that the current content and navigation either are not important to the audience or are confusing. It doesn’t mean you eliminate everything but does suggest a rethink of the layout.
Belief: Everything should be no more than 3 clicks away
This is a legacy of the modem. Back in the days when to navigate to a different page allowed time to go brew a coffee, expecting people to keep clicking through pages led to people giving up. This was a far bigger deal for public facing web businesses but could also impact internal sites. These days, pages are usually much faster to load. Provided people feel they are navigating in the right direction, they will happily click more than three times to get to where they need to be. What matters is the level of confidence they have that they are travelling down the right path versus a time-wasting dead-end. Make sure pages have clear and accurate titles. If it’s a linear process, like a survey, it can help to provide a current progress indicator.
Belief: Nobody reads the internal newsletter
Actually… sometimes, in some organisations, very few people do. But that’s usually because it is also distributed via email (or even paper!) and most people read it there instead. Either redesign so that the email contains links to the online version or acknowledge that it doesn’t also need to also occupy a chunk of the home page and downgrade to a navigation link.
I do a lot of interviews with end-users because I often start client projects with an ‘organisational analysis’ phase to understand how information and technology is currently being used in everyday work. And an issue that is repeatedly raised is wanting to hear more news and updates about what is going on in the organisation – from senior management and across different business areas. People are often far more attached to their companies than they are given credit for. It’s not that nobody reads the newsletter because they’re not interested, it’s that the delivery format has not changed in the past decade or two. Time for a refresh!
The future Intranet home page
Digital, social and mobile trends are transforming the workplace and some people are beginning to wonder if intranets are a dying concept. It depends on the definition. If you think of an Intranet as just an internal corporate web site for publishing content, then yes, it’s in trouble. But for me, an Intranet is a web-based platform that leverages technologies originally designed for the open Internet and uses them for beneficial purposes internally within an organisation. Managing content, communications and processes. Often the bits and pieces that fall in the gaps between enterprise applications. But also as a unifying layer across those applications. In that respect, a web-based approach is likely to remain popular for quite some time yet. Whether you call it an Intranet, portal or something else is up to you.
What is likely to happen is the recognition that most intranets contain sections. And as people go increasingly mobile, those sections are likely to become ‘apps’. There may still be an intranet home page. But increasingly, the portal is going to be the home screen of the device. Some of the apps on display will be provided by the intranet platform. Some will be directly provided by business applications. The end user shouldn’t need to care about the difference. They tap, find what they need and get stuff done.
The image above shows a possible future portal – apps to launch from a mobile device. The blue icons are managed by the intranet platform. The red icons indicate business applications. In reality, you wouldn’t show the difference, the user shouldn’t care. And of course, no intranet home page would be complete without some external content sources, like the weather! 🙂 courtesy of the Met Office for in the UK.
You could probably even fix the background image to show the official company logo and current message. But try and resist the temptation. Let people smile when they switch on their devices…
I hope you enjoyed this post. Thanks for reading!
1 For a discussion of the difference between clever and wise, read: From data to knowledge and beyond…
Related blog posts
- Defining intranets, defining systems – What’s in a name
- We need a portal!… Now what do we do?
- Intranet Home Page Variations
Flickr image at the top of this post: Winners of the International 2008 Information Style Awards kindly shared by Wonderlane