posted 17 Dec 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 4
Workshop: The user experience
Intranet users go to the intranet to obtain the information they need to achieve a desired outcome. The intranet is purely an enabler and use of the intranet is typically discretionary. Within most organisations, and although this will continue to change over time, using the intranet will be mandatory for a very small number of tasks or for a very limited number of content areas. For the majority of tasks an individual conducts as part of their role during a typical day, the intranet is unlikely to be the only source of the required information. Intranet managers must therefore focus on ensuring that where use of the intranet is mandatory, the user experience is as positive as possible so the sentiment towards the intranet is maximised. A healthy perception of the usefulness of the intranet by the users is an essential first step in removing any barriers that may exist to making the intranet the single source of organisational tools and information.
Inspiring user trust in the intranet
All intranet users formulate an opinion on the intranet, starting from the very first time they become users. The opinion formed by users concerning an intranet is based on the following factors.
Ability to find the right information
Intranet navigation must provide users with the ability to quickly find the information they need to achieve a desired outcome. There are really only two methods of finding information; browsing or searching, and users typically donít really care which they use to find the content they need. Users focus on outcomes and not on the process required to achieve that outcome. This explains why many users will continue to follow an inefficient method of achieving a desired outcome if that method ultimately fulfils their needs. The investment in time of identifying an improved method of achieving the desired outcome is not seen to be attractive enough to engender a change in behaviour, provided that desired outcome is achievable in what the user considers to be a reasonable amount of time.Research into the use of search and browsing on intranets hasnít provided any really compelling evidence that a preference is emerging for either approach to locating content. Typically search is used in the following scenarios:
When the user fails to find the required content by browsing;
Where the user isnít sure where the information resides;
When the user prefers to navigate to content by searching;
When browsing navigation is inconsistent across sub-sites;
When the user wants to find information related to a known area as part of an exploration of a subject.
Negative perceptions impact on the value the intranet can offer and must be avoided. If negative perceptions are allowed to persist, users are less likely to recommend use of the intranet to others and are more likely to look to other sources of information.
The perceptions of the intranet sponsors, content managers and users towards the intranet must be positive. All of the stakeholders in the intranet must trust it. They must trust the content they find on the intranet and the intranet must be the tool foremost in their minds when they are looking to communicate.
Trust is built upon credibility and credibility can be lost quickly if users encounter content that is clearly incorrect, out-of-date, irrelevant, badly structured, difficult to read and inconsistent in design or tone of voice to the rest of the intranet. Users must trust the content on the intranet if they are to continue using the intranet for research and decision-making.
Consistency of the intranet
Consistency is central to good usability. Consistent inputs equal consistent outputs. The challenge for the intranet manager is to ensure the inputs are consistently positive, because consistently poor input equals consistently poor output. Consistently positive inputs to the process of managing an intranet include:
Clear direction on requirements from sponsors and users;
Motivated content managers and content contributors;
Clear comprehensive guidelines for effective contribution;
A clear and responsive feedback channel so user-generated feedback is incorporated into subsequent design and content improvements.
Navigating the intranet
Good navigation is crucial to the usability of an intranet, because good navigation means the needs of the users are met in the most efficient way possible. Poor navigation increases the time taken to locate required content, reduces the satisfaction of intranet users and contributes to a lower sentiment towards the intranet.
Intranet navigation must provide users with the opportunity to:
Locate the desired content (whether by browsing, searching or a mixture of both);
Identify related content (particularly valuable for new staff or staff working on a project in an unfamiliar area);
Identify subject experts (the navigation should make clear which organisational areas, and even which individuals in those areas, have expertise or knowledge on a subject);
Understand where the content fits in the overall intranet structure and the organisation.
Intranet navigation should not be complex or difficult to use.
Simple, intuitive and scalable navigation is required to ensure that navigation meets the current and future needs of an organisation. As already discussed, users tend to resist large scale change so the navigation must be devised with not only with immediate usability fully considered, but also future flexibility and scalability in mind.
Provide the user with different (but consistent) methods to navigate to content to suit their personal preferences:
Intuitive task-based navigation;
Consistently implemented site maps;
Accurate and reliable search;
Related content presentation in content and search;
Peer recommendation and advocacy.
The intranet must become the single source of information if it is to elevate its position. A powerful cross repository search enables the intranet to become that single source.
User defined navigation
Top ten pages: these allow users to identify their own killer content. Tagging is an approach to navigation as used by social software websites such as Flickír and del-icio-us, which leaves the categorisation of the content in the hands of the user.
Collocating key content enhances the userís ability to complete tasks quickly and to their satisfaction. Collocating information and applications increases a userís confidence in the system and increases the likelihood of their using the system again, as well as encouraging others to use the system. Consider grouping related information and applications by their taxonomy grouping.
Locating the right information in a timely manner is a challenge in modern organisations awash with terabytes of information. The ability to efficiently share information used for decision-making costs an organisation money. Multiple repositories and sources of information create a multitude of problems Ė duplication and repetition, conflicting sources of data and a lack of clear ownership of content results in a lack of trust. Are employees confident they have found the definitive source of data and can it be trusted? If two or more sources of the same or similar information exist do users know which is the definitive source?
The intranet must play a part in rationalising the sources of information, and in search functionality, the intranet finds a powerful ally capable of throwing to one side political concerns and struggles. Search technology is increasingly comfortable searching across numerous sources of data in numerous formats, and returning accurate and usable results.
A recent Accenture study into workplace information revealed that 57% of respondents said that having to go to numerous sources to compile information is a difficult aspect of managing information for their jobs.
Personalisation should have the dual objective of improving access to the content that the organisation needs users to be using (organisational productivity content) and the information individual users benefit from quick access to (personal productivity content).
Ensure management information is made available for personalisation;
Personalisation is universally under-utilised;
How many employees are personalising content and applications?
What content is being personalised?
Personalisation is new to most intranets. Understanding how to provide most value through personalisation, in an appropriate way, is key. A common mistake made with personalisation is that its application is too ambitious, resulting in an overly-complex interface, meaning the technology is simply too complicated for the needs of the average user. In such a scenario the reward of personalised content simply isnít worth the expenditure of effort by the user.
Intranet users must be given the opportunity to provide feedback from any page on the intranet, about the content of that page or any other page in a consistent and seamless manner. That feedback must also receive a response as swiftly as possible, stating what will be done with the suggestion, comment, complaint or query received. Feedback that receives a response, and is acted upon, improves engagement and the positive sentiment felt towards the intranet.
Summary and conclusions
Failure to provide a good user experience is guaranteed to marginalise the role the intranet can play. Providing a positive user experience requires building an engaging intranet that fulfils the needs of the user in pursuing the needs of the organisation. Engagement is required to elevate its role but the democratisation of the intranet through the use of social Web 2.0 technologies means user contribution must be carefully managed to ensure no degradation in the overall user experience.
The intranet has a very positive role to play in reducing the number of sources of content. This need not be a complex process requiring a huge investment in personalisation technology, however. For example, simply collocating links to applications, together with training on how to use an application, improves the user experience and makes the intranet a more valuable tool.
Providing a positive user experience gives sponsors confidence in evangelising the intranet and will encourage the user to return and recommend. A good user experience is an essential component of creating the virtuous cycle.
ďManagers say the majority of information obtained for their work is useless, an Accenture survey findsĒ, 4 January 2007: http://accenture.tekgroup.com/article_display_cfm?article_id=4484
Stephen Musselwhite is intranet manager at Prudential and also author of Ark Group special report Intranet Strategy and Management. For more information about this report, please e-mail Adam Scrimshire,