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Why Did We Stop Trying to Deliver Usable Intranets?

February 04, 2021 Digital Workplace
James Robertson
By James Robertson

My 2010 book "Designing Intranets" outlined a methodology for designing and structuring corporate intranets. More recently, Giacomo Mason released his take on the same topic, "Intranet Information Architecture." Both of these books outline a simple premise: that the user experience (UX) and human-centered design (HCD) techniques used almost universally on websites apply equally to intranets.

This felt like a settled fact, so I’m surprised to find myself asking the question: when did it cease to be a goal to deliver usable intranets?

The shift to modern intranet platforms has triggered this question, whether it’s SharePoint Modern or one of the many independent intranet solutions in the market. All too often, projects are skipping UX and HCD techniques, and jumping straight into the technical solution. If intranets are to deliver real value, these short-circuited approaches need to change.

New Platforms, New Rules?

Many businesses are migrating their intranets to new technology platforms. Most notably, this involves the shift to SharePoint Online as part of Microsoft 365, utilizing the new Modern framework.

The Modern framework breaks intranets into a collection of sites, which sit in a flat structure by default, grouped using hub sites and accessed by a hand-created global navigation. There’s a lot to like about this approach, particularly the flexibility it provides around intranet structure, as compared to the rigid model of sites-and-sub-sites in SharePoint Classic.

In our work, however, we’re seeing Microsoft put forward pre-baked information architectures that are largely the same from organization to organization. These structures may be driven more by the technical architecture of the platform than the needs of users. Intranet vendors and solution partners are often doing the same thing: presenting a new structure without having researched needs or tested with users.

I’m also unfortunately seeing far too many design by stakeholder workshops, where intranet navigation and structure is determined in workshops with content owners, rather than as a result of task-based user testing.

The problem isn't restricted to Microsoft 365. Each of the independent intranet products has its own conceptual architecture that shapes the design and structure of sites. Purchasers of these products, seeking an out-of-the-box solution, may just ask for a structure that "has worked for other businesses."

I get why this happens: clients are looking for a new intranet and are impatient for the new site to go live. With a focus on the technology, it can be hard to get clients to buy into the idea of an extended series of UX activities. Vendors and implementers therefore take the path of least resistance and jump straight to a standard structure.

I’m not here to take the moral high ground or to bash vendors, as the responsibility lies with clients as much as it does with vendors. Instead, I want to put the focus on the key challenge: how do we deliver usable, well-structured intranets in the modern age?

Related Article: Can You Mass-Produce a Great Intranet?

Returning to Intranet Fundamentals

It’s worth reminding ourselves what we’re trying to achieve: creating intranets that work better for employees and businesses. This will almost certainly involve improving the navigation and layout of sites, alongside delivering new capabilities and functionality.

If your intranet was updated relatively recently, then the fundamental structure, navigation and design may be in pretty good shape. Intranet redevelopment may just require some double-checking and tweaking of the UX.

If a decade-old site is being migrated to a new platform, then the project may be confronted with a huge, sprawling, organically grown mess. In these cases, you may have to start from scratch, to develop intranet UX and navigation that is logical and usable, before even considering the migration process.

In either case, the fundamentals of UX and HCD apply, namely:

  • Conducting research with employees to understand (or confirm) what they need in terms of information and tools.
  • Using card sorting to uncover how employees think about information.
  • Following UX best-practices to create a draft site structure.
  • Using tree testing to see where the new structure works (and where it doesn’t!).
  • Utilizing UX best-practices to create draft page layouts.
  • Conducting usability testing to review and refine the page layouts.

Throughout this well-understood practice, a meaningful understanding of the underlying technology platform, and the business priorities of the organization inform all decisions.

Related Article: Have We Lost a Little Bit of Heart and Soul in the Shift to SharePoint Modern?

Even a Little Testing Makes a Big Difference

While the process outlined above doesn’t need to be a huge piece of work, the pragmatic realities and constraints within many organizations may make it unrealistic.

In these cases, even a little bit of user-testing will make a huge difference.

I recommend focusing on two aspects as a minimal viable product for intranet UX: ensuring that the draft structure for the new site is informed by UX best practices, and conducting online tree testing (using a tool like Treejack) to quickly review and refine the navigation.

We all want to deliver intranets that are genuinely better for employees, not just sites that are running on new technology platforms. Thankfully there’s a straightforward process to ensuring the new structure and layout works, following a methodology refined by the usability industry over the last two decades. Even when time and resources are tight, it’s still possible to make a positive impact by using a handful of UX or HCD techniques.

So let’s not skip user testing when we deliver new, modern intranets!

About the Author

James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces. He’s the author of the books “Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value” and “Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work.”

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