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Intranet design best practices start by tearing down department walls

Even in a Web 2.0 world, the bricks and mortar still count. Ignoring intranet design and navigation best practices can spell death for even the most application-rich portals.

Social networking, wikis and other Web 2.0 tools on intranets are snagging all the attention as enterprises try to breathe new life into their corporate portals. But the bricks and mortar still count. Ignoring intranet design best practices can spell death for even the most application-rich portals.

"The myth is that it's OK if you just reflect the way the company is put together," said Tim Walters, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, who recently authored the research note Five Myths That Hobble Your Intranet. "That [stance]… is almost bound to deliver a site structure that's a lost cause."

The cardinal sin for any intranet design? Treating intranet users like Internet users and segmenting the navigation according to corporate structure -- human resources, sales, marketing, finance -- according to Walters.

"An employee ought to know how the corporate hierarchy works and what department is related to what other department," he said. "That's abstract knowledge that doesn't have anything to do with putting together an intranet that supports employees in the accomplishment of work tasks."

Intranet design best practices also require the intranet team to resist territorial battles over intranet real estate, Walters said. These territorial battles have nothing to do with simplifying intranet navigation. Color schemes shouldn't be determined by the department manager's favorite color, nor should executives pull rank to get prime homepage placement, he added.

"We have clients that tell us, 'We're ready to [improve our intranet design] but HR won't give up the main tab they have on the primary navigation,'" Walters said. "You can really get political investments of real estate battles over this stuff."

Intranet design best practices are more user-centric

Swapping out his first, hierarchy-based intranet design for a usage-centric design has simplified intranet navigation for users, according to Peter Richards, intranet manager at Tabcorp Holdings, a gambling and entertainment company based in Melbourne, Australia.

Although the 2004 pilot version never made it to all 11,000 employees, Richards said, beta tests with 500 users showed that he needed to rethink his intranet design.

We stopped organizing content around our organizational chart and started organizing it around common work projects.


Beth Gleba
Corporate Information ManagerIKEA North America

"[The old intranet design] relied heavily on a layered, tab-type navigation and was received very badly. User acceptance testing of the pilot discovered that users found the tabbed navigation confusing and not intuitive," he said. "We have, however, moved away from a strict business-structure hierarchy to accommodate user requirements…. Content and applications that are used by more users across the group have found more prominence, rather than being hidden away amongst [department pages]."

Richards follows monthly usage stats for Tabcorp's intranet, noting that the top 10 pages for January were all accessible directly from the homepage. He has found that intranet navigation is intuitive, not hierarchical. People searches consistently rank as the most-used application, he said, while other top picks include internal job postings, policies and forms, and the managing director's blog.

"The information architecture and navigation are crucial considerations when developing a successful intranet," Richards said. "Making navigation intuitive is vital to a good user experience."

IKEA employees have been using their intranet more often and lingering longer on its pages since Beth Gleba, corporate information manager for IKEA North America, rebuilt it a few years ago using intranet design best practices to reflect user needs rather than corporate structure.

"We stopped organizing content around our organizational chart and started organizing it around common work projects, key processes and roles," Gleba said. "Making this move lets an intranet be much more flexible. After all, organizations change, but what the company is doing and the type of [people] who come together to do it -- that tends to stay the same. That tends to be the heart of the business."

 When testing intranet design, make users into guinea pigs

Simply asking users what they want from -- or think of -- your intranet will seldom be fruitful, Walters said. That's why beta testing with pilot groups can be a good way to get a sense of how intranet navigation will work within a given company, he said. Inexpensive cursor and screen recording tools, such as Snagit, can speak louder than words.

"A survey or questionnaire is good, but you should absolutely not stop there," Walters said. "When you ask people how they work, they may tell you what they think you want to know, or they may tell you how they would like to work, rather than how they do work."

About every six months, Richards plucks a portion of his intranet and reviews the section of the site and works with the related stakeholders to find ways to improve it. He has also done a few large-scale focus groups in-house as a valuable way to keep his finger on the intranet pulse.

"All users are different, and we may never come up with a design that is perfect for everyone," Richards said. "[But] making assumptions about user needs and habits is a big mistake. Creating a site design based purely on rules of thumb and assumptions equals failure."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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