Evaluating or benchmarking an existing intranet involves conducting usability tests, field studies and other user-centred activities to provide the intranet redesign team with:
An understanding of the current intranet’s strengths and weaknesses
A set of data that the future intranet success can be compared to
Jakob Nielsen recommends conducting an evaluation study of an organisation’s current intranet for the above reasons. He warns3 “if you don’t collect information about the intranet’s existing version, how will you really know if the new version is better (or worse), and by how much.”
Nielsen offers a set of tasks on which to evaluate an existing intranet using usability testing:
Find information about an employee
Starting from the desktop, get to the intranet, and log in if necessary
Find specific info, such as stock price, fax number, or directions
Find the head of a group (org chart or substitute)
Change home (personal) information or benefits information
Find a specific past news item
Look up a policy (on sick leave, vacation, or other)
Find a job posting at a specific location
Make a request (e.g. for tech support)
Find and sign up for a training course
Find info about a group
Check out the latest news
Find information about an employee benefit
Find out about new hires, promotions, or retirements
Learn about corporate goals, sales, or other objectives
Look for a desired purchase in the internal classified listings
Find information about a specific project within the company
For each of the above tasks, Nielsen provides time benchmarks to allow intranet teams to judge the usability of their current intranet against Nielsen’s studies of intranet usability.
4.2.2Take a user-centred approach
The central premise of a user-centred approach is that the best websites (including intranets) result from understanding the needs of the people who will use them.
A user-centred approach to designing websites is a key recommendation from all eminent IA professionals such as Jakob Nielsen4 and Louis Rosenfeld5 along with government advisory bodies such as AGIMO.
“A [website] should be easy and efficient to use for all users, regardless of their level of IT literacy. To meet this goal, agencies may consider following a user-centred design approach.”6
Please refer to the separate document, Information Architecture and e-government Best Practice Analysis for more information about taking a user-centred approach.
4.2.3Continued program of user testing
Regular intranet “health checks” should be conducted with the involvement of intranet users. The frequency of the checks depends on factors such as the number of changes implemented and the size or potential impact of the change required. At a minimum, user testing should be conducted every 12 months, however intermittent testing may be required prior to larger changes. User testing could involve, for example, scenario-based tests with users (i.e. ask users to find specific pieces of content or to complete a task on the intranet) or closed card sorting (i.e. take a representative set of content from the intranet and ask users to sort the content into the current IA categories). The results would then be used to direct the realignment of the intranet.
4.3Design Best Practices
4.3.1One unified intranet
Experts in the intranet sector agree that creating one unified intranet for an organisation is always preferable to several intranet sites. Jakob Nielsen says “I know of a frighteningly large number of companies with multiple intranet homepages and multiple intranet styles: Step 1 is to get rid of that in favour of a unified intranet.”7 One unified intranet helps to avoid duplication of content, provides a consistent experience for users, and makes it possible for users to find what they are looking for within one site.
The homepage is a very important piece of real estate in an intranet. Intranet homepages can become cluttered and political battlegrounds as areas within an organisation argue and clash over who and what should be displayed on the homepage.
A cluttered homepage will deter users and discourage exploration by users. Intranet teams must carefully manage the intranet homepage, trying to balance business needs with user needs.
Jakob Nielsen offers a strategy to help ensure an intranet homepage is the best it can be:
Establish guidelines about what kind of information should be on the homepage, how long it should be there, and what happens to it when it’s removed.
Strive to maintain an uncluttered look on the homepage. Relentlessly cut items.
Use the homepage to convey the most important new information
Regularly remove older promotions and add new items.
Limit the homepage to two scrolling pages or less.
Categorise related types of information
Limit the main site navigation to the top, left and (if necessary) right sides of the page. Use the homepage’s content/body area for news and other current information.
Create homepage links to all of the intranet’s main areas. Include key site features on the homepage, such as search, the employee directory, and company news.
4.3.3Make it easy for users to access the intranet
In many organisations, staff can log into any computer within the organisation. It should be easy for staff to get to the intranet regardless of which computer they are using. Placing a shortcut link to the intranet on the desktop of all computers is helpful. Similarly setting the homepage of internet browsers to the intranet is effective. This is the current policy at DHS.
Jakob Nielsen recommends choosing an intranet address that is short and easy to remember and spell. Nielsen has observed that “when URLs are memorable, logical, or easy to guess, users are more successful in navigating to the intranet”. Allow users to access the intranet using a variety of addresses, such as simply typing “intranet” into the address bar. An example of an easy to remember URL is “internal.amazon.com”
4.3.4Log-in and password
It is generally more user-friendly to allow users to access the intranet without having to log-in. However, in some cases there are benefits for having users log-in to the intranet:
Security reasons e.g. to protect information
The intranet can identify users, so users can benefit form personalisation features
However, requiring users to log-in to an intranet can be problematic because:
Users forget their username and password
Users call the organisation’s IT helpdesk for assistance in logging-in
Users may not understand the benefits of logging in
If log-in is required for an intranet, Nielsen offers the following guidelines:
Only require the user to sign in once to access the entire intranet (and any systems accessed the intranet). Single sign on always provides the best user experience.
Use the same username and password log-in as the user’s organisational network log-in. Synchronise the user’s network log-in to their intranet log-in.
Once a user is logged-in, display their logged-in status. Allow users to log-out.
The current DHS workspace portal supports single sign on and personalisation.
Ensuring an intranet is structured in a user-friendly way will help ensure intranet users are able to find information quickly and easily. A report by IDC8 states that “an enterprise with 1,000 knowledge workers wastes $48,000 per week – $2.5 million per year – due to an inability to locate and retrieve information.”
To design a site structure that is intuitive, the same best practices apply to designing an internet site structure as they do for an intranet structure. Please refer to the separate document, Information Architecture and e-government Best Practice Analysis for more information about site structure best practices.
4.3.6Personalisation and customisation
Personalisation allows an organisation to assign an individual to a particular group which is then served up intranet content specifically targeted to that group. For example, a group of managers may receive intranet content reminding them of the due date for the annual performance review or notices about training courses specific to managers.
Many software vendors promote the benefits of the personalisation and customisation features their product contains. Jakob Nielsen warns9 “if you can’t do [personalisation] well or don’t know enough about users, it is better to hold off until you can collect more information “. Similarly, Gerry McGovern writes10 “it's about getting the basics right. You don't need personalization to have a high quality staff directory, and that's what most intranets badly need right now.”
There are some situations where personalisation may be a beneficial option for an intranet11:
To provide access to confidential or personal information
To provide the ability for users to enter or edit information that is confidential, personal, or necessary for doing business
To provide information that only a specific team or type of person, such as managers can or should use.
To provide information that differs for employees in different regions or offices, such as information about benefits, policies, or procedures.
Nielsen also suggests that “personalisation can be helpful if an organisation is trying to move from having numerous separate sites to providing a centralised intranet…A move towards personalisation could help streamline these disparate sites while still providing the necessary information to each employee”12.
However, the overriding guidance is “proceed with caution”. Nielsen suggests13 basic personalisation, such as:
Pre-populating know user information in forms or processes
Pushing personal information to users, such as available leave days
Providing news or information specific to the user’s location, department or role
Hiding links that user’s don’t have permission to access
Letting users manage their own personal information, such as home address and phone number.
Alternatively, customisation allows users, rather than IT or the intranet team, to set their own preferences. For example, a user may be able to customise which tools or applications appear on their view of intranet homepage, create a list of favourite links on the intranet, change a colour scheme or control the page layout.
Nielsen states that “although content customisation can be helpful for employees, many won’t bother to change the intranet’s default settings. For employees to use customisation, it must be immediately apparent, obviously beneficial, and easy to implement.”14 Of the myriad customisation features in existence, link customisation is one that can be very helpful and beneficial for users15. This allows users to create a set of shortcuts to either information on the intranet or to external sites.
Intranet forms include both online forms (forms that can be completed and submitted online) and downloadable forms (forms that can be downloaded from the intranet, completed then submitted independently of the intranet).
All online form best practice guidelines that apply to websites also apply to intranets. Please refer to the separate document, Information Architecture and e-government Best Practice Analysis for more information about online form best practices.
Nielsen recommends putting all forms in a central area on the intranet16. Forms should be crossed linked to the form’s main topic. For example, an annual leave form should be cross-linked with an HR area because users may look for the form by topic.
In the central area, forms should be listed by topic or function, not alphabetical order. A search function should also allow users to search for a form. Also forms should be pre-populated where the intranet user has been identified earlier (i.e. via a log-in).
For downloadable forms, Nielsen suggests indicating clearly if a PDF form is editable. “The problem…is that users don’t realise these pages are editable”17. Nielsen suggests a message should be placed at the top of the PDF form and near the editable area on the form indicating it is editable.
In recent years, video has started making its way onto intranets. The benefits of providing video on an intranet include18:
It’s more personal than the written word,
It shows emotion,
It shows movement,
It’s more lively than text.
There are possible drawbacks to using video on an intranet. These include19:
Greater server space may be required,
Greater bandwidth may be required,
Lack of computer power to display the video properly,
Sound disturbances around the office,
Time and expense of producing video.
When using video on an intranet, Sam Marshall20 says “what seems to work best are very short, uncluttered messages.” Nielsen recommends a running time of less than 3 mins21.
Nielsen also recommends including the following information22 alongside the video so users can determine if video content is relevant to them:
The video’s length,
The date of the video,
A detailed description of the content,
Information about the presenter,
Links to references made within in the video and links to related intranet content.
Delivery of video content on an intranet should be governed by intranet standards and guidelines.
4.3.9Internal job advertising
Providing a list of internal job vacancies on an organisation’s intranet helps make it easy for staff to find suitable internal positions and encourages internal movements within the organisation. Some organisations list employment opportunities on their public websites only. However, posting job vacancies on an intranet helps to better support current staff who seek internal opportunities.
Nielsen recommends listing all jobs i.e. those available to current employees and those also open to external candidates and the difference between the two should be clear to users.24 Listed jobs should be organised by division or by location rather than in alphabetical order. Nielsen recommends25 including the following details for each job listing:
Salary range, if acceptable
Cross link job ads with relevant intranet content
The internal jobs section on an intranet should provide search functionality to allow users to find a job by keyword.
Ideally, users should be able to apply for an internal job wholly online via the intranet26. The application should be simple and should allow users to attach a resume.
4.3.10News and events
Organisational news and events information on an intranet can often be the “killer app” that elevates an intranet to be an invaluable resource for staff. An intranet offers employees a centralised place to stay abreast of company news, policies, deadlines, and other information. Intranet news can also include information about individual, group and team projects. This helps staff know more about their company and the work being done there.
Nielsen strongly recommends including news items on the intranet homepage27. Including news on the homepage ensures users see timely, important information when they visit the intranet. Different categories of news can be included on the homepage (for example, organisational-wide news, events news, staff news) – each category should be clearly labelled and defined within the homepage to avoid user confusion over the purpose, importance, and type of each category. It may be important to separate some news categories. For example, news about organisational performance or official policies might not sit well with information about social events or internal staff news. Thus, “official” news (e.g. news from HR or corporate communications) is often distinguished from more informal news.
Furthermore, in addition to news on the intranet homepage, the intranet should provide:
all news in one main news area on the intranet
a centralised area to communicate info about staff promotions, new hires and departures
a centralised area for events from all areas of the organisation.
When displaying news items on an intranet, Nielsen recommends:
a categorised and searchable list of news
a clear heading that links to the news item
an abstract to describe the news item
the date the item was posted
cross linking news items to related intranet content
a news archive (categorised and searchable).
Once a news item is no longer displayed on the homepage and within the main news area, the item should be moved to an archive area. All news items should be archived and accessible for 3 years after the published date28. The news archive area should provide search functionality and also sorting functionality to help users locate an archived news item.
Nielsen suggests including links to the three most recent press releases29. This helps to ensure staff know at least as much about the organisation as the outside world does and that they hear company changes, accomplishments or announcements from the organisation first.
Nielsen also suggests customising the news presented to the user’s job, location, and any other variables that would help offer the best experience for the user30.
Providing “outside” news on an organisation’s intranet, such as headlines from national news websites or weather information, should be carefully considered. In most cases, Nielsen advises against this. He says “there are enough newspapers and news sites that cover general news well, and users know how to find them”31.
General (lot. generalis - umumiy, bosh) - qurolli kuchlardagi harbiy unvon (daraja). Dastlab, 16-a.da Fransiyada joriy qilingan. Rossiyada 17-a.ning 2-yarmidan maʼlum. Oʻzbekiston qurolli kuchlarida G.
One exception is when employees do not have web access.
Nielsen advises organisations to “consider allowing users to write, add and edit news items”32. This can be a significant factor in keeping news fresh and varied, and to empower many content providers. Moderation, or a more detailed workflow, can be designed to ensure news items are written well and adhere to the organisation’s style guide.
The intranet is an ideal place to host information about teams, projects, and people33. “Staff need the names of people to go to for information and services. They need to know which departments to turn to for various tasks. They need information on the company’s various offices and who to contact for simple things, like finding a hotel in the area. They might be thinking about changing jobs within the organisation, and need a little information about a certain team. They need to know about their industry and – closer to home – about their company’s core projects and products. They need to know who’s joined, retired, and been promoted. They need to know about events they should attend. Most commonly, people need phone numbers for co-workers”34. For these reasons, the employee directory on an intranet is very often the “killer app” that staff use frequently.
An employee directory contains the names and details of staff and teams within an organisation. Nielsen suggests including the following details for each employee profile35:
Direct reports (such as an administrative assistant)
A photograph (if appropriate for the organisation)
Nickname or preferred name (to help with searching for an individual, for example “John” can also be known as “Jack”)
Presence awareness (“in” or “out” of the office/desk). Nielsen recommends allowing staff to enter absences for other staff. This allows for unexpected absences to be recorded in the directory.
The same details should be shown for every employee profile in the employee directory. Where applicable, details in an employee’s profile must be linked to related content. For example, a manager’s name should link to that manager’s employee profile; division/team information should be linked to any information about that group available on the intranet.
Nielsen advises organisations to “consider adding information about employees’ areas of expertise and details about their job responsibilities, projects, and clients so employees can search for each other based on knowledge and skills.”36 Including knowledge and skills information in employee profiles can significantly assist knowledge management in an organisation. Some organisations allow employees to add information about their knowledge or expertise areas to their profile. However, as with all personalisation functionality, staff may not embrace this freedom.
Employee directory search
An employee directory search should be included on every page on the intranet, and ideally this should be placed in the horizontal menu bar37. Over the past few years there has been much written about how to provide both an intranet wide search and a staff directory search on the intranet.
Nielsen38, Step Two, and Gerry McGovern all recommend providing two separate search fields: one for the intranet wide search and anther for the staff directory. Specifically, Nielsen recommends two separate stacked searches, clearly labelled39. Some intranets provide a single search fields with two radio buttons to allow users to search the intranet or staff directory. However, Nielsen’s usability study noted that when the radio button default is on the staff directory “users frequently forgot to switch to an intranet search when looking for information on the site…In general, web users are not accustomed to having to select the type of search they want to conduct”40.
Providing an “advanced search” option for an employee directory search that allows users to search for staff using partial details will help users to search when they have only limited information about who they need to find. For example, users may need to search for staff within a particular area of the organisation, or are unsure how to spell an individual’s name correctly. Nielsen suggests41 allowing an advanced search option that allows users to search by:
Nickname or preferred name
The search results page from an employee directory should display the name, location, title, email address (displayed as a link), and telephone number for each employee returned in the search results42. This will allow users to identify the person they are looking for without having to click through to an additional page. Repetitive or redundant employee information should be eliminated from the search results page.
In search results pages, name matches should be listed first. For an example, a search for “smith” should show individuals with the name “smith” followed by individuals in the “Smithville” location or those with a “smith.edu” email address.
The user experience for intranet search differs significantly from an internet search. In contrast to many websites, nearly all intranet sessions come from repeat users who have existing knowledge of the intranet’s search quality. Intranet search is one of the most important aspects of an intranet, yet it is often ineffective. “Most intranet search delivers lamentably poor results. Time and time again, I hear staff plead: “Why can’t we just get Google?””43. While the type of search technology used is important, it is the intranet content that so often restricts the effectiveness of an intranet search. Gerry McGovern states that “too many intranets are being filled with garbage-poor quality, badly written, badly structured, second-hand content. This content is "put up" by an army of low-skilled put-it-uppers. It doesn't matter what sort of fancy search technology you have - it's garbage in, garbage out.”
To ensure an effective intranet search content quality is critical. Content should be written well by trained individuals, marked-up (coded) semantically and contain quality metadata. There is a strong relationship between search performance and content quality.
While a user interface design won’t fix a poor intranet search, it is vital to ensure a good intranet search is as effective as possible. Nielsen recommends that a single intranet search input field is included in the top right of every intranet page44 and a button labelled “search” be placed to the right of the input field.
Nielsen suggests organisations use scoped search with caution. A scoped search requires users to choose and area to search within before they invoke a search. Benefits of a scoped search can include faster return of search results and fewer results returned. However, Nielsen states that “users have a difficult time just conducting [a scoped] search, sometimes failing to even realise that it’s scoped”45. Suggested strategies are:
avoid using scoped search if possible, especially if the search is fast and the results are limited
if scoped search must be used, always allow users to choose the scoping. Do not automatically scope the search based on the user’s current intranet location.
Intranet search results
Intranet users “expect the interfaces and experiences to be similar” for internet and intranet search results.
Please refer to the separate document, Information Architecture and e-government Best Practice Analysis for more information about displaying search results.
There are some best practices specifically related to intranet search results:
Last modified information is good to have, since it lets users determine whether they’re looking at the latest version.
Carefully consider what content to include in search results as all intranet content may not be relevant for a general intranet search. For example, IT request tickets should not be indexed and included in a general intranet search, but rather a ticket-specific search.
An intranet “killer app” is an application that drives people to use an intranet. A killer app might be a small, seemingly trivial application (like a world clock), or a large, complex application (like a procurement system). However simple or complex, it is an application that fulfils a general need at the organisation. Identifying an intranet killer app is vital to the success of an intranet. In his “Killer Apps – Features That Drive People to Use the Intranet” report, Jakob Nielsen states that “identifying your killer app gives you very powerful information. You can use the knowledge to make and keep the killer app the best that it can be”.
A staff directory is often an intranet killer app. Forms (such as timesheets, leave and expense forms), organisation news and events, and bulletins boards are other common killer apps. An intranet killer app must always be visible, easy to find, and quick and easy to use.
Nielsen has identified some common themes among killer apps46:
Visible and easy to find. Most killer apps are access from their intranet’s homepage.
Mission-critical content at employees’ fingertips. The biggest factor driving a killer app’s popularity is its ability to give employees critical information with just a few easy mouse clicks or keyboard strokes.
Employee directories. By far, the most common killer app is an employee directory and directory search. Employee directories are crucial for bringing co-workers together, particularly at the point of need.
Building community. Some killer apps (e.g. company news, forums, and classified boards) directly develop an organisation’s internal community.
Replacing email. Intranet killer apps prove to be a more reliable, up-to-date, and faster method of disseminating information than emails or physical distribution.
Creating an element of fun. Some killer apps introduce an element of fun. For example, using a tongue-in-cheek tone, an amusing name for the employee directory (the City of Casey has named its award-winning intranet “Boris”), uploading photographs, and quick polls to test employee’s knowledge of a particular company area. Although small, they spice up an intranet, thereby increasing employee interest and enjoyment in using the intranet. It is important to note that fundamentally a killer app needs to be useful and helpful for staff. Creating an element of fun should not be reason itself for implementing a particular killer app.
Content contributions. Many killer apps allow employees and administrators to create and contribute content. By giving people tools to create and manage content, people have a greater sense of ownership and accountability over that content.
Integrating several information sources into one place. The success of some killer apps is due to their function of bringing several information sources into one interface.
An example of the use of “killer apps” that have led to intranets winning awards are, a “Partner Dashboard” tool as part of the Fuller Landau intranet which was developed to enhance their internal time and billing system which encapsulates all the financial information kept for each client (billable hours, etc).47 This innovation turned the intranet into a valuable business tool which encouraged the staff to visit every day.
Another example is the “Project Finder” for the Urbis Australia intranet. The Project Finder provides a rich mechanism for uncovering past projects, through the use of faceted search, and rich linking between resources. Project Finder was developed with the aims of providing an extremely flexible and easy way for staff to access, explore and apply Urbis’ collective work history, make it easy to apply the identified relevant work history to business development activities to help in winning more work and to leverage existing systems, data and capabilities.48 This is an example of both providing mission critical content and integrating several information sources in one place.
4.3.14Enterprise portal and intranet integration
There is an ongoing trend towards organisations consolidating internal information systems into one enterprise portal. Recently the Department of Justice have consolidated a number of intranet sites into a portal. The integration will allow relevant information to be combined with services and line-of-business systems. For instance, when on a “fleet” page, the vehicle booking system is co-located on the page via a portlet. The Department of Education is currently embarking on a large strategy to consolidate a number of internal information systems (including an existing intranet, collaboration space, email system and an electronic document system) into one system.
In a recent report by Gartner, it is suggested that “rationalizing the portal infrastructure, where possible, can help cut costs and enable portal integration efforts to focus on providing functionality that will deliver business value”.
In his report “Building Intranet Portals – a report from the trenches”, Jakob Nielsen offers the following advice about portals:
People issues are the biggest cost in portal implementation
Involving users early eases acceptance problems
Using portal products may mean a trade-off between speed and flexibility
Many users don’t bother to customise pages for themselves and are happy to accept default settings
If you have a lot of legacy applications to bring into a single sign-on infrastructure, a practical approach is to start with the ones that are used most frequently.
In the future, Gartner expect “portals to be replaced by the "portal fabric", where portals adapt to users' preferred interaction patterns rather than forcing users to change their behaviors based on the specific portal. "Mashups" are also popular, because they make it easier to create applications and provide the benefits of more opportunistic applications. These will be important technologies to consider as organizations develop their portals.