The Biggest Difference Between Good and Bad Intranets: A Focus on Users

Good intranets come in different shapes, sizes and colors, but they share one thing in common: a focus on users.

This single factor has a huge influence on planning exercises, on software selection, on the design of the intranet and on launch and training activities. But many companies seem to forget who the intranet is for.

A user-first mindset

A user-focused approach to building intranets begins with a user-first mindset:

  • The intranet’s primary purpose is to help users (employees) do their jobs better
  • Users possess a wealth of knowledge about their jobs
  • We can’t fully understand how users think or what they need without researching it
  • Time spent now involving users is an investment that will pay off later in a more successful intranet

The benefit of focusing on users

Focusing on users benefits your intranet in three main ways:

Activity Benefit
User-centered design activities, such as card sorting Site navigations and layout that are user-friendly
Observing user behavior, gathering user feedback Features that address actual user problems
Involving users in decisions, such as what to name the intranet A shared sense of ownership among users

As you can imagine, these benefits are heavily interrelated: an easy-to-use intranet must also address real user problems in order to be well-received by employees.

3 reasons some intranets don’t focus on users

False assumptions: “I know what they want.” Intranet designs are often based on untested assumptions about what users need and like. A central team thinks it knows what’s needed and implements an intranet that misses the mark.

Politics: “The VP said what they want.” In other cases intranet layouts and features are based more on stakeholder politics and executive egos than user needs. This often happens when intranet teams have inadequate decision-making authority over the project itself.

Lack of skills: “We don’t have a usability expert.” Sometimes an intranet isn’t focused on users simply because the intranet team doesn’t have the necessary skillset to design in that way. Many intranet managers come into their jobs from roles in HR, IT or Communications and don’t have experience with user-centered design techniques and change management strategies.

No matter the reason, a new or renewed focus on users can steer an intranet project back in the right direction.

The wrong way to focus on users

To quote the inimitable James Robertson“Don’t ask staff what they need” on the intranet. What my favorite intranet guru means is this:

  • It’s not a user’s job to design the intranet (it’s your job!)
  • What someone wants may not align with what she needs (“oooh, what about a daily puppy photo!”)
  • Users don’t know what intranets can and cannot do (again, your job)
  • Users know their problems, but not necessarily the solutions

It’s the intranet team’s job to involve users in the proper structured activities in order to uncover their needs and problems, and then come up with intranet-centric solutions to those needs and problems.

3 ways to focus on users

Involve users to make the intranet relevant

To build an intranet that solves actual business problems, you need to understand work from a user’s perspective. There are several research methods available:

  • Interviews
  • ​Focus groups
  • Observational research / shadowing

As we explain in Determining Your Business Objectives: Step 1 to a New Intranet, we find interviews are the most effective method for conducting this research. Many intranet teams default to conducting surveys to perform this research, but surveys are really only effective for researching preferences, not for gaining understanding.

Involve users to make the intranet easy to use

There is an entire field of “user-centered design” that employs specific, highly-structured techniques in order to make user interfaces easy to use. These techniques make design into as much of a science as an art and help provide data about what works on your site and what doesn’t. Using data to make decisions can reduce internal politics and result in good usability. Common activities in this category include:

  • Card sorting (to draft a navigation structure)
  • Tree testing (to confirm that the navigation structure is effective)
  • Usability testing (to identify problems users encounter when attempting to complete common tasks)

As with other activities listed here, these ones require a certain level of experience and expertise to conduct properly. See ThoughtFarmer’s Intranets 101 section for handy step-by-step guides.

Involve users to raise awareness and increase engagement

Some intranet decisions can be made by a mass of employees, such as what to name the intranet. These decisions are typically not about usability issues like navigation and layout, but more about intranet branding. Here are several common activities:

  • Selecting an intranet name
  • Voting on 2 or 3 different visual design options
  • Responding to user satisfaction surveys
  • Participating in intranet pilots

These types of broad-based involvement and collaboration activities raise awareness of your intranet project and increase user engagement.

The secret about involvement

Finally, I want to share this little secret: Simply involving people in building a new intranet increases their satisfaction, even if the new site is not that good. I hesitate to say this “out loud” since it sounds blasphemous. But the fact is that by simply giving people a voice, you increase their satisfaction with the end result.

An old boss of mine liked to say, “There’s a difference between having a voice and having a vote.” A company is not a democracy, but that doesn’t mean people should stay silent. Employee input is incredibly valuable for both the insights it provides and the satisfaction it creates. As long as people have had a voice, the intranet doesn’t need to be exactly what they wanted for them to be satisfied. But don’t tell anyone I said this…