Making something beautiful doesn’t necessarily make it enjoyable or even useful. Particularly if the format chosen is inappropriate for the interaction
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
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.
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- Covers all four styles of interaction
- Minimal eye-movement required – go top/left for specifics, go middle/right for browsing
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- High maintenance – you need frequently updated news, promotions and activities or a big chunk of the home page goes stale very quickly
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
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.
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- Quick to view, quick to move on
- Very low maintenance
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- Won’t win design awards
- Doesn’t encourage content sharing
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
This is one of the most common base styles, emphasising internal communications.
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- Can be made very visual
- A lot of recent updates can be directly accessed from home page
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- 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
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!
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
At the beginning of last week came news about updates to two competing intranet platforms – Microsoft’s preview of the next version of SharePoint and Office; and IBM’s latest incarnation of Lotus and related technologies, renamed the Intranet Experience Suite.
Despite sharing very similar feature sets, the two announcements were positioned very differently. Microsoft’s announcement seemed aimed at the individual user. IBM seems to be targeting the people holding the budgets for the software, the CIOs and CMOs.
One interesting soundbite by Turbotodd when talking about IBM:
By 2017, the CMO will have greater control of the IT budget than the CIO, according to Gartner. Marketing budgets will grow 7-8 percent over the next 12 months, which is 2-3 times that of IT budgets
Well Gartner are hardly the most accurate source for predictions and I doubt CMOs will have greater control of the entire IT budget given it serves more than just marketing purposes. But many organisations have yet to leverage the current big Internet trends of social media, mobile devices and big data, internally or externally. Marketing is one of the departments with the most to gain or lose (along with Customer Services and R&D). It makes sense that a chunk of any increase in their budget should be spent on using enabling technologies. And that means CMOs and CIOs are going to need to work more closely together over the next few years.
IBM does seem to be taking the more strategic approach to the next generation of Intranets that are beginning to emerge. Microsoft, for all the gains made in the enterprise space, still focuses on IT departments and end-users when articulating what their products are for. I shouldn’t complain because that’s what Joining Dots was set up to help with (out of frustration whilst at Microsoft). But it is interesting to compare the different approaches the two largest vendors take.
From experience, few organisations have well thought out plans for how to use Intranets to drive better decision and actions. The successful projects always start with a strategic slant or business case, even when it’s a new feature that seeds the idea…
- New IBM software transforms the digital experience – Turbotodd, 13th July 2012
- The new SharePoint – Microsoft SharePoint team blog, 17th July 2012
- SharePoint 2013 Preview – Microsoft
- IBM Intranet Experience Suite – IBM
- Why does the IT industry listen to Gartner – ZDNet, 23 July 2012
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