posted 7 Sep 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 1
Intranet user requirements
Whether it is a new intranet or part of a programme of consolidation, it is important to align the resulting system with user requirements.
By Joanna Goodman
It is generally recognised that an effective corporate intranet needs to be aligned to the profile of the organisation, its strategic goals and the specific day-to-day requirements of everyone working within it.
Ideally, a company’s intranet will represent a virtual one-stop shop providing users with ready access to all the information and knowledge resources that they need to fulfil their roles effectively and efficiently, and to add value to the organisation.
Achieving this requires an intranet strategy tailored to the organisation’s core objectives and operational priorities, with the goal of maximising its performance, enhancing its competitive position (if it is a company competing in the marketplace) and improving the working lives of its employees.
Many of the organisations that have contributed intranet-related case studies to Enterprise Information in recent years have focused on consolidation: merging the multiple internal websites that emerged in the early years of the internet into a single corporate intranet or enterprise portal, which also gives users access to the external business environment via the internet.
Although consolidation involves many more factors than simply building a corporate intranet from scratch, the top priority remains the same: to create an information infrastructure that supports the business and its employee population in delivering its key strategic objectives.
Establishing user requirements
The starting point for creating a corporate intranet or enterprise portal that supports all parts of the business is to establish an accurate and comprehensive picture of user requirements. All too often intranet developers get carried away with the technology, rather than focusing on the needs of the many people who will be using it, and who will ultimately determine its success or failure as a corporate tool.
Many of the major companies featured in past EI case studies favour employee surveys to identify the various information needs across the organisation, and common user-related issues with the existing system. At Johnson & Johnson, for example, the information-related items revealed by the results of its ‘Voice of Employee’ survey were then ranked against business needs.
Ethnographic research and process mapping can also provide much useful background information, but these are desk-based and experts generally agree that the best way to find out what users really need is simple: just get up and talk to them.
Dr Richard Miller1 of consultancy Vigorat, for example, advocates face-to-face research methods to uncover the ‘hot topics’ that are critical to intranet design, development and implementation. Before embarking on any major intranet project, he gathers information from two key groups: senior executives, who are responsible for delivering the overall strategic objectives of the organisation and, of course, control the budget; and, front-line users, whose goals and targets are more likely to relate to operational and practical achievements.
Those front-line users can also tell you what they like or don’t like in the current set-up, as well as providing a wish-list of desirable features and attributes.
Like audit, accounting and business-services firm BDO Stoy Hayward, Miller conducts semi-structured interviews. However, whereas BDO Stoy Hayward interviewed a representative sample of staff, Miller follows one-to-one interviews with senior managers with group discussions involving a cross-section of key users, around questions that focus on people’s jobs, responsibilities, goals and needs, rather than the intranet itself.
“You need to keep people away from designing an answer,” he says. “Keep them focused on goals and problems, not solutions.” In Miller’s experience, if you ask people what type of intranet support they would like to have, they suggest tools and applications that are widely used in other organisations or industry sectors, that they have seen elsewhere or that are directed specifically at problems in their own specific areas of expertise and have little or no relevance elsewhere in the organisation. Furthermore, not everyone keeps up to date with advances in technology – often, people can be conservative and backward looking, rather than looking forward.
Miller uses two sets of interview questions – one for managers and another for users. These are carefully designed to identify all the knowledge needs within the organisation and to engage interviewees. The managers’ questions focus on strategic objectives including, such as ‘What are the key things you have to deliver?’ and ‘What are your most pressing issues?’
Front-line users are asked specifically about their roles and functions as well as more general questions, such as ‘What excites you about this job and what frustrates you?’
Miller underlines the importance of building rapport with interviewees. Interview techniques, including mirroring, active listening and balancing open and closed questions, help to build up a rich picture of the workplace. He uses mind maps to track the concepts covered and identify key topics, while giving his full attention to the interviewee. Miller recommends the well-known ‘SPIN’ selling technique to reveal the underlying issues that help to:
Determine user requirements;
Identify the parts of the organisation that will be most affected by intranet development;
Guide the implementation process.
SPIN is an acronym for Situation, Problem, Implications and Needs. Miller explains the sequence of questions as follows:
Situation questions – gathering the context, facts and background. Tell me about your business/department/project?
Problem questions – identifying difficulties and dissatisfactions. What is the most difficult issue in staff retention?
Implication questions – exploring the effects of the identified problems. If you can’t retain staff in sales, what will that mean for your
Needs-payoff questions – identifying the value of solving the problem. What would it be worth if we could halve staff turnover and, maybe in addition, reduce the training time required for new staff?
The findings of the one-to-one interviews are then used as the basis for group discussions involving a cross-section of employees at different levels in the organisation. This is used to develop an overview of user requirements across an organisation’s different functions and processes.
In order to provide optimum support throughout the organisation, the intranet needs to be closely integrated to business processes. Computer-services supplier Unisys2 took a knowledge-directed approach, whereby the knowledge used, learned and shared within each task was mapped, analysed and, if necessary, redesigned.
Miller advocates group discussions to support this research by revealing employees’ knowledge and information needs at grass-roots level. However, he emphasises that these meetings are not conventional focus groups. “We are trying to engage people’s expertise and creativity to uncover real needs,” he says.
Miller recommends four methods for generating useful information from group discussions:
Cover stories – getting the group to develop a shared model of future success by writing a magazine cover story, with headlines, subheadings and quotes to celebrate the success of their organisation;
Personas – getting the group to create an imaginary user to uncover practical requirements that, if met, would make a difference to all key user groups, while avoiding producing a long list of potentially contradictory solutions;
Open space events – a large meeting where unstructured self-assembled groups brainstorm around a specific topic that matters to the organisation and its people. Miller describes this technique as “bringing the excitement and energy of a good coffee break to a large group of people”;
Five magic buttons – getting the group to pretend that the ‘magic’ buttons drawn on a flipchart can do anything that they want to make their jobs easier. The resulting suggestions then form the basis for group discussion. In Miller’s experience, the real needs often emerge from the most frivolous remarks
Many organisations organise similar workshops using a variety of tools and tactics with the same purpose: to get under the surface of the organisation and find out what users really want and need to support their day-to-day work.
The next step is to develop a user specification – the content and application needs based on overall strategy, business-process analysis and user consultation and feedback – and align it with the appropriate technology to deliver knowledge resources that are tailored to the requirements of the business and its employees.
In his EI workshop series ‘The intranet post-mortem’, intranet consultant Paul Chin3 defines unclear project scope and a lack of development methodology as two of the main barriers to a successful intranet. He advises intranet developers to define the scope of the project clearly from the outset, ensuring that it is not over-ambitious, and to keep it on track by avoiding ‘feature creep’ – an all too common phenomenon that indicates a lack of robust control over a project.
Devising a detailed development methodology – or intranet roadmap – enables developers and content owners to move the project forward in structured steps. Chin recommends three key phases: planning, development and deployment.
A key factor is the relationship between content owners and intranet developers. “It’s ironic that an intranet – a tool that aims to foster an atmosphere of co-operation and knowledge sharing – should be borne from two groups who are so often at odds with one another,” observes Chin in ‘The human side of intranets’4. He offers five useful ways of bridging this divide. In order to foster mutual co-operation, IT professionals and senior managers need to:
Hold regular face-to-face meetings;
Keep lines of communication open;
Respect each other’s priorities;
Resist ‘feature creep’ by sticking to the original specification and insisting that non-essential additions must be saved for future updates;
Try to be flexible and compromise wherever possible, within reason.
Chin also makes specific recommendations for each group. He advises content owners to:
Present detailed specifications;
Avoid ad hoc changes;
Trust developers to carry out what needs to be done and avoid encroaching on their work;
Provide developers with a ‘big picture’, so that they can make the system flexible enough to accommodate future expansion;
Avoid dumping content-management tasks onto developers.
At the same time, developers need to:
Stick to project deadlines;
Offer alternative solutions if development problems occur;
Avoid bringing up overly technical issues with content owners;
Listen to content owners’ ideas and suggestions, and provide them with the content and applications they actually need, rather than introducing the latest technology for the sake of it;
Make a post-production commitment to providing ongoing training and support.
Sticking to these simple rules enables content owners and intranet developers to work together to formulate a system that gives users the information resources they need to maximise their performance and add value to the business.
Tips for successful implementation
Experts agree that successful intranet or enterprise portal implementation requires comprehensive planning that extends beyond choosing the right suppliers, tools and resources. In fact, according to web-usability guru Dr Jakob Nielsen, of the Nielsen Norman Group, “We’re far from a consolidated market in which one or two dominant providers offer everything you need. Instead, intranet teams must stitch together their own solutions with multiple parts from multiple vendors.”5
In addition to following an agreed project methodology with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, it is crucial that intranet professionals keep user-oriented issues top of mind throughout the implementation process. Other critical success factors include the following:
Active and consistent support from senior management
This, of course, is critical to the success of any project and needs to be obtained from the very started and demonstrated throughout in order to keep everyone onside;
Integrating technology with business processes
At Electrocomponents Group, for example, the navigational structure of the intranet mirrored the organisational structure of the business. British Land used the establishment of its enterprise portal as an opportunity to re-engineer some of its processes to improve their effectiveness. However, operational efficiency can be reduced significantly if, in the course of intranet consolidation or redesign, popular applications or resources are no longer available to users or are changed beyond recognition. This also has a negative effect on user acceptance, which is crucial to the success of any corporate intranet or enterprise portal;
Thorough pre-launch testing
Chin warns intranet developers against treating users as guinea pigs, as this places unwanted burdens on employees who simply want to get on with their work. He recommends thorough testing in a controlled environment. Pre-launch user-acceptance testing and pilot studies help to iron out any system glitches. Many organisations also use pilot studies to demonstrate early success and communicate the benefits of the new system more widely;
Providing tailored training
Easy-to-use systems that demand minimal training obviously speed up implementation. However it is also important to provide appropriate user training. Chin recommends an interactive approach and advocates hands-on training by business area, so that users can ask questions relevant to their roles and functions. Accounting and business-consulting firm PwC took an office-by-office approach and emphasised the importance of enabling people time to just ‘explore and play’;
Staggering non-essential system upgrades over time
This enables users to familiarise themselves with the system as it develops rather than overwhelming them with constant change. Chin recommends allowing an adjustment period and supporting the introduction of new applications by ongoing training in the form of refresher courses and online tutorials.
Finally, it’s important to consider intranet design, development and implementation as a process with separate, discrete stages, rather than a set of products.
The corporate intranet or enterprise portal has become an integral part of most organisations’ evolving operational environments – a virtual landscape for tangible actions and outcomes. Today more than ever, it provides an important component of corporate success.
Joanna Goodman is author of the Ark Group report, Intranet Strategy. To contact the author, please e-mail email@example.com.
1. Miller, Dr. R., ‘Understanding real user needs’, EI Workshop Series (Ark Group 2006).
2. Taylor, R., ‘The knowledge-enabled intranet’ in Intranets and Portals: A Good Practice Guide (Ark Group 2004).
3. Chin, P., ‘The intranet post-mortem’ EI Workshop Series (Ark Group 2006).
4. Chin, P., ‘The human side of intranets’ EI Workshop Series (Ark Group 2006).
5. ‘The Ten Best Intranets of 2006’, from Dr Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox column, January 23, 2006 from his website http://www.useit.com.