Intranet Home Page Variations

Image: The four types of interaction on an Intranet home page

This is a follow up to a previous article: Intranet Home Page Design. The image above summarises the four types of interaction with an Intranet home page. This post looks at some different page layouts to consider to support those interactions and the outcomes they lead to. For each sample, there is a short summary of the pros and cons along with tips for when to use and when to avoid.

When deciding on an Intranet home page layout for your organisation, it’s important to consider what your organisation is, not what people say it is or would like it to be. Don’t put the weight of change onto your intranet project. Rather, change first and then design your intranet to match and help.

Sample 1: Activity Focused

Image: intranet home page layout for an activity stream

If it looks vaguely familiar, you’ve probably visited Facebook at some point during the past few years… The only difference is a Welcome note where the Update box would be.

[ba-column size=”one-half” last=”0″]

Pros

  • Covers all four styles of interaction
  • Minimal eye-movement required – go top/left for specifics, go middle/right for browsing

[/ba-column]

[ba-column size=”one-half” last=”1″]

Cons

  • High maintenance – you need frequently updated news, promotions and activities or a big chunk of the home page goes stale very quickly

[/ba-column]

This style works well for organisations that openly encourage knowledge sharing and collaborative work. Particularly for larger or mobile organisations where people are likely to be spread across different locations and don’t have the benefit of frequent face-to-face interactions. The intranet becomes the unifying hub to go to if you want to find out what’s going on, as well as look up or complete everyday activities. It often becomes the default starting point for accessing all systems, with news and promotions adopting a more portal layout than web publishing. Whilst the activity stream is essentially ‘user generated’ content, there are still significant benefits from having centralised internal communications roles. But instead of being focused on creating and broadcasting ‘one size fits all’ content, activities will shift to listening and surfacing useful content – increasing the signal : noise ratio.

Tip: Do not add an Activity Stream until you have successfully implemented the source(s) of the activity stream. Likely to be an enterprise social networking tool such as Yammer or Jive. And successful implementation means that updates are being regularly posted by a wide audience at least nine months after launch. Anything less and it is still a trial evaluation that means it is not yet ready for a place on your Intranet home page.

Sample 2: Navigation focus

image: Intranet home page layout for navigation

This is the minimalist layout. Minimal because it usually only changes when there’s a reorganisation and the list of departments changes. Or a new system is deployed (or old one retired) and the list of available actions changes.

[ba-column size=”one-half” last=”0″]

Pros

  • Quick to view, quick to move on
  • Very low maintenance

[/ba-column]

[ba-column size=”one-half” last=”1″]

Cons

  • Won’t win design awards
  • Doesn’t encourage content sharing

[/ba-column]

This style works well for organisations where knowledge-sharing primarily occurs within teams rather than across the business. Such organisations tend to perform highly specialised processes and the intranet is for quickly getting the essential or irregular basic tasks done. An organisation that adopts this style of home page does so because most people perform the majority of their work in other systems. The intranet is just a gap-filler and not a conversation hub. No central team is required for ongoing content updates or moderation.

Tip: Whilst this may look boring to many, it can be very effective. You can liven the page up with external sources such as an automatic news feed. But for many, it’s clean, quick and simple to navigate.  The two local navigation sections are divided by action (what do you need to do?) or by department (where do you need to go?).

Sample 3: News focus

image: intranet home page layout for news

This is one of the most common base styles, emphasising internal communications.

[ba-column size=”one-half” last=”0″]

Pros

  • Can be made very visual
  • A lot of recent updates can be directly accessed from home page

[/ba-column]

[ba-column size=”one-half” last=”1″]

Cons

  • High central maintenance overhead – only works if you have a team curating regular news updates
  • Monthly items can make a home page feel stale for 3 weeks of every month

[/ba-column]

This style works well for organisations that are very news-oriented, either for internal delivery of communications and/or by the nature of the business. For everyone else, it can be a costly overhead to have an internal news team producing sufficient media to keep the home page from going stale. But that doesn’t stop it from being a popular request. Many want to control communications and push content out across the business. How successful the theory converts to reality depends on the culture of the organisation and end-user priorities

Tip: Similar to the activity stream, make sure that the sources of content are well established before creating this style of home page. It can look very stylish in conceptual design but only works in practice with great, well produced content that people want to view. Are you ready to invest in the talent required to deliver? At a time when the trend is towards user-generated content that better suits an activity stream…

General tips and tricks

Those were just three sample layouts showing how different types of interaction benefit from very different home page styles. Here are some general tips and tricks to consider when designing your intranet home page

  • What sort of organisation are you? It’s important to match the style with your culture as it is, not as you would like it to be. Enterprise social networks (ESNs) and activity streams benefit organisations that are very ‘chatty’ with an open culture where information is easily shared and where people are frequently mobile and/or not closely located. ESNs struggle in closed environments where information is kept tightly managed and secured, and have limited value in small offices where everyone is onsite and closely located.
  • Does the content exist today? If not, prioritise getting it created and established before adding as a section to the intranet home page. Make sure the effort can be maintained beyond the initial flush of popularity/curiosity. This is one of the biggest causes of intranet project failures – designing a concept that looks fabulous but cannot be realistically maintained over the long term. It usually requires a centralised team of content producers and/or moderators to maintain momentum
  • Not sure where to start? Begin by understanding which types of interaction matter most to most people. Ask people which they would prefer – to catch-up on news or find the staff handbook. Observe how they navigate the current intranet (or other systems if you don’t yet have one – they morph out of all sorts of alternatives, including file shares…). In my experience, most intranet projects follow the 80:20 rule. 80% of visits are for a specific need and so use the navigation and search. However, 80% of design effort tends to end up focusing on browse-based activities, i.e. internal news and promotions. Align priorities!
  • Invest in good classification and enterprise search tweaks to make content as discoverable as possible. Don’t expect your search to be ‘just like Google’. On the Internet, content wants to be found. Content owners have a vested interest in getting on to the first results page of any Internet search engine. The same will never be as true for internal content – people have other priorities.
  • You can no longer assume a minimum screen size. Intranets are increasingly being accessed from mobile devices and screen sizes can range from 4 inches to 40+ inches. Follow internet conventions as much as possible to make it easy for your home page to have a responsive design that automatically rearranges menus and sidebars to optimise for access from a range of different devices.
  • And finally… don’t assume people will always begin from the Intranet home page. You may want it to be the default starting point for all web-based activities. But the reality is that people will often enter the intranet from a direct link sent via email or instant message. And as intranets become redesigned for more mobile interactions, there may be multiple start points. Each a separate ‘app’.  The intranet home page should be the fall-back option. The place people know to go if they don’t have a direct link or app to begin from.

To close, it’s back to the comment made at the start. When deciding on an Intranet home page layout for your organisation, it’s important to consider what your organisation is, not what people say it is or would like it to be. Don’t put the weight of change onto your intranet project. Rather, change first and then design your intranet to match and help support that change.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!

Related articles

 

 

Intranet Home Page Design

flickr-designawards

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:

Image: the four reasons for visiting an intranet home page
At a simple level, people visiting an Intranet home page will take one of four approaches:

Type Scenario Starting point
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.

Image: sample intranet home page layout

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.

Image - Intranet on a mobile device

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

Flickr image at the top of this post: Winners of the International 2008 Information Style Awards kindly shared by Wonderlane

Creating a problem by solving a problem

iStock_woodencube-XSmall

An interesting article was recently published by the Washington Post – If this was a pill, you’d do anything to get it – that shows how solving a problem so often throws up a new one

Medical research has taken amazing steps towards curing or immunising people against infectious diseases – acute illnesses responsible for high mortality rates. The results are shown in the image below:

Graph: death rate for infectious diseases

The outcome is people living longer. When we live longer, we are more likely to suffer from a chronic condition – an illness that develops slowly over time and often cannot be cured but can be managed through early detection and ongoing medication or lifestyle changes.

And so healthcare is being disrupted by its own success.

In the US (as reported in the article), one healthcare program adopted a new approach. They targeted individuals based on their medical history (had a chronic condition and had been hospitalised in the past year) and instead of waiting for potential patients to phone when they get sick, they arranged for a nurse to visit the patient’s home on a regular schedule (weekly or monthly depending on the severity of the condition).

The results: Reduced hospitalisations by 33% and reduced Medicare costs by 22%.

You should read the article for what happens next. Not quite a happy ending and the clue is in the title of the article. Perfoming house calls is assumed to be expensive and inefficient, despite the success of the program. If the same results had been achieved by giving the patients a pill…

It’s a great demonstration of the need to think differently when solving one problem creates another.

Reference

Intranet design for aesthetics vs function

Picture of a pocket watch on Flickr

Whilst presenting earlier this year, I caused a mini-storm amongst some members of an audience by saying that branding of intranets is a vanity project. Some read this to be against visual design. It wasn’t. Designing to improve usability can lead to significant business benefits and should be part of any Intranet project. Corporate branding is about making a visual statement. In my opinion, that makes it a vanity project.

Vanity projects are not bad, I just get concerned when they take priority. I’ve been in meetings where people have wanted to create a bespoke design for the Intranet just so that ‘it doesn’t look like <insert product name>’, regardless of the costs or benefits and showing little interest in the purpose or content of the Intranet. This most often occurs when someone in the room fancies themselves as an amateur Steve Jobs.

Today I stumbled across a post by the wonderful Kevin Kelly from April 2011. It wasn’t the post so much that reminded me of this debate, but a rather brilliant comment:

As someone solely responsible for maintaining a very large hotel, here are a few other other things I’ve noticed about the nature of maintenance — There are mostly two types of maintenance — interior systems (plumbing, HVAC, electrical, lockware, audiovisual, web access) and exterior surfaces (carpet, paint, wallpaper, tile, upholstery) Maintaining interior systems requires special technical knowledge while exterior surface repair emphasizes craftsmanship. Interior systems speak to convenience and comfort while exterior surfaces address aesthetic desirability. In terms of the individuals who carry out these repairs, it is a rare soul who is equally skilled in the interior and exterior, as most seem to specialize in one or the other, i.e. with regards to expertise, there is seldom overlap.

If you look at just about every device, virtual or physical, this observation rings true.

Great products have thought through both the interior and exterior design. Good products usually have a strong interior let down by a clunky exterior, or over-complicate the interior, but ‘good enough’ may be sufficient if the desired outcomes are achieved. The label ‘lipstick on a pig’ is reserved for those with great aesthetics masking empty promises. Desirability is only possible if convenience and comfort are satisfied.

Image used in this post via Flickr, courtesy of Michael Hanscom

The need to mix business and design

A great article on Fast Company highlights the need for both business and design skills when faced with tough business challenges: What Both MBAs And MFAs Get Wrong About Solving Business Problems, by Melissa Quinn.

Article outline: Numbers and bullet points aren’t the only things driving executive decision making. And pretty pictures won’t get you there either. Both designers and MBAs have a lot to learn.

Toronto University’s Rotman School of Management has run a design challenge geared at exposing MBA students to the value of design methods in business problem solving. For the past 2 years, the MBAs (Masters of Business Administration) have been trounced by the MFAs (Masters of Fine Arts). How?

With only 15 minutes to convince a skeptical panel of experienced professionals about a new idea that doesn’t exist in the world today, [MFAs] fared significantly better than their MBA counterparts. Why? Because they shared real user insights to engage us emotionally, used narrative and stories to compel us, drew sketches and visualizations to inspire us, and simplified the complex to focus us. It’s proof positive that numbers and bullet points, while important, aren’t necessarily what drive executive decision making

The key message – don’t assume you can teach MBAs to do this stuff well by chucking in a couple of modules as part of their course. Don’t dismiss the years of study that designers undertake to develop these skills.

That said, it wasn’t an entirely happy ending for the MFAs either.

While design students fared much better than their MBA counterparts that Saturday afternoon, I should point out that only the winning team from the Institute of Design at IIT actually charged a fee for the service they developed (a fact that was not overlooked by my final-round co-judge Ray Chun, the senior vice president of retail banking at TD). Some competitors were able to offer a vague notion that their ideas would generally create economic value, but crisp articulations of a profit model and underlying assumptions were hard to come by.

A great article, worth a read. Particularly if you tend to rely on bullet points more than visuals in PowerPoint to explain something you want people to remember. (Side note: but does depend on the type and purpose of presentation. If teaching a technical topic, screenshots and bullet points are usually quite helpful after the event.)

p.s. The image at the top? A book shelf in my home office, containing some of the books that continue to help develop presentations. Story boarding for films has been the latest new topic of study. 🙂 (Half of those books are in Kindle-only format… times change.)

As a good mentor Nicholas Bate likes to say – ‘Always be learning’.