Intranet Personalization that Works

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This article originally appeared on December 3, 2009 on the Dachis Group Collaboratory.


ThoughtFarmer is an alliance partner of ours, and provides intranet software that fosters collaboration and communication. After many deployments, they have seen many challenges to personalizing the intranets of organizations. We asked Gordon Ross, the Vice President of ThoughtFarmer, to share his thoughts and experiences with us.


One of the classic intranet design challenges that never seems to get any easier is the design of the homepage.  Employee Communications wants corporate messaging and CEO announcements. IT wants applications and personalization features. Employees want the cafeteria menu.

Juggling these varied interests is tough. As the intranet moves from a few-to-many internal communications tool to a hub of social activity, collaboration, and community, the homepage runs the risk of becoming even more crowded, complex, and simply irrelevant to the everyday lives of employees.

The libertarians in the organization know the answer to this dilemma and have yelled it loud and proud for years: “Personalize! Let the user choose what they want!” The paternalists know they have the answer too: “Centralize and publish! Decide for the user!” And so the tug of war continues.
 
We’ve been of the mind that you can have the best of both worlds. Through implicit personalization you can turn facts that you know about an employee into a powerful filtering tool to provide them with relevant information. But before we tackle how exactly we’ve gone about doing that, let’s dive a bit deeper into what it means to be relevant in the first place.

Signal to Noise

As good, responsible information designers, we take seriously the issue of trying to reduce the signal to noise ratio on the intranet.

We have our work cut out for us: the highest possible ratio of signal to noise is desirable. But what is relevant? What is not? Relevance is a thorny word, one that’s used and abused constantly. But what does it really mean? I’m fond of this functionally oriented definition:

Relevance: something (A) is relevant to a task (T) if it increases the 
likelihood of accomplishing the goal (G), which is implied by T.

So what’s the likelihood that you, as an intranet manager or interaction designer, are going to be able to reliably predict which pieces of information will be required for the task an employee is currently working on in their quest to achieve a particular goal?

Getting Things Done

When employees visit the intranet, they are engaged in productive inquiry – an activity where they are deliberately seeking what they need in order to do what they want to do. Said another way, it’s not inquiry in the form of general curiosity, but inquiry in the service of wanting to get things done.

Getting things done in the modern organization increasingly entails the creation of information. Productive inquiry (embodied through the act of searching the intranet, for example) begets collecting or communicating or creating information. Getting things done creates relationship between people and information. And when the action happens in the context of a social intranet, one which has the capability of storing the actions of any given user, we suddenly know a whole lot more about that person and what may be relevant to them.

We have a couple of ways on how we relate people to information in ThoughtFarmer. Our recent homepage redesign is a reflection of our thinking on this subject in action.

The Proxemics of the Intranet

To understand how we relate to information and each other on the intranet, we sought inspiration from the “real world” of material objects and physical space and the pioneering work of American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, to introduce a concept of proxemics to the intranet. Proxemics was Hall’s contribution to the study of how people relate to each other interpersonally and socially through their physical proximity to each other. Hall identified four expanding zones of relation: intimate distance, personal distance, social distance, and public distance. Each of these distances represented boundaries of physical space from centimeters (intimate) to tens of meters away (public) and represented the ability to engage in certain relationship-defining acts between people across those distances.

Hall’s expanding zones of relation represent a nice metaphor through which we can look at the relationships employees have with each other, with their company, and their content on the intranet. Intimate distance represents information all about you: your page edits, your comments, your status, etc. Personal distance represents stuff that’s been done to you or your content by others. Social distance is everything within your network, including your management relationships and group / division / regional relationships. Finally, public distance on the intranet is everyone and their activity in the organization.

We’ve adapted this approach to the homepage to create a useful filter through which we can enhance the relevance of information, all the while maintaining a middle ground between user need and organizational need.

News items can be published throughout ThoughtFarmer as a default content type within the system. Users have the ability to publish news on the homepage directly, within their departments and divisions, for their project groups or as “informal news” via a blog post. Our first step towards implicit personalization was to merge these news sources together, providing users with a mix of “global corporate” material and “local departmental” material.
 
Instead of just broadcasting them public news (the corporation, its initiatives, news from HQ) let’s throw in a mix of social, personal, and intimate content as well. City newspapers have known this model works for years to capture the attention of their audience. International, national, regional, and local current events all wind up sharing space on the front page of your typical daily city broadsheet.

The second design intervention was the redesign of Recent Activity or our “workstream” feature. The signal to noise ratio of this feature was previously way too noisy. On installs of significant size and activity, there was simply too much content to comprehend for the majority of users and the filtering wasn’t intuitive.
 
In version 3.6 of ThoughtFarmer, we’ve organized activity into Your Groups, Status Updates, and All Site Activity. Your Groups aggregates activity that is happening in the groups you belong to. That might be a formal project or an informal community on the intranet (i.e.: Digital Photographers). Users have further control (explicit personalization) by being able to filter which groups they want to show/hide on the homepage.

Status Updates are Twitter or Facebook like user updates, answering the question, “What are you doing?” This feature is now a familiar design pattern within Enterprise 2.0 software suites, enabling phatic communication throughout the organization.
 
And finally, should you want to drink from the proverbial information firehose, you can browse All Site Activity, an aggregation of high priority activities merged from every user across the site. We’ve recently spoken with a few intranet administrators and managers that find this feed quite useful and fascinating. They observe it flow by in real-time throughout the day, occasionally intervening or helping users out in different areas throughout the site where activity is occurring.

The Power of Defaults

The debate about personalization vs. segmentation on the intranet has been much discussed and researched by many pioneering intranet designers and consultants. As keen observers of user behaviour in the real world, we believe that well chosen default options are a sound design strategy. Adoption rates of personalization features are low, driven by a lack of understanding of the business benefit from the user and the inertia of human nature to simply be lazy and accept defaults. By placing the user at the centre of the information universe and using their relationships to information and each other as the default filter, we can provide them with an intuitive view of their world, making significant progress towards our goal of a more relevant and valuable intranet.

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  1. EphraimJF

    Can’t wait to install 3.6 on our servers and check it out.

    I’m worried though: We’ve created pretty high demand for our homepage news section that if we reduce the space available for it, folks may feel less inclined to produce good material for homepage news. I suppose that’s a lesser concern to making sure homepage content has greater relevance to each user…

  2. Gord

    Hi Ephraim,

    In 3.6 you can choose how many news items you want to display on the homepage. So no reduction in space if you don’t want it. We’re just hoping that some of the news from other areas of the site can bubble up onto the homepage and like you said, make sure the content has greater relevance to each user.

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