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Intranet Ideas

Short, practical tips on building better intranets.

5 questions that lead to a better intranet

Monday, November 29, 2004  

Consider your intranet from a user's perspective with these five questions:

Can I find it? The intranet must be easy to find.
If your users never get to the first page of your intranet, everything else is irrelevant. To make sure they do:
  • Set the intranet as the home page of every employee's web browser
  • Consider an integrated intranet toolbar
  • Make a tour of the intranet part of the new hire orientation process
  • Ensure access to all online systems is via the intranet
Does it work? The intranet must be fast, reliable and available.
Nothing saps confidence in the intranet like slow response times or, even worse, downtime. To prevent this:
  • Use an expert architect to configure your server
  • Monitor your server's consumption of bandwidth, memory, and disk space
  • Every few minutes, test the intranet's availability using an automated script running on a separate server or by using a monitoring service.
  • Have a backup server that can be up and running within a few minutes
  • Run disaster recovery simulations to make sure you can handle an unexpected problem
Is it easy to use? The intranet must be easy to use, read and navigate.
Your goal is to eliminate question marks. Everything should be completely obvious. Follow these tips: Does it make me feel confident? Good looking sites inspire confidence.
Attractive intranets are attributed expertise and trustworthiness. Why? It could be the "halo effect": according to a 1972 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, good looking children are viewed as being less naughty than their less attractive peers for the same behaviors. Same with your intranet. To make it pretty: Does it meet my needs? Your intranet's objectives must align with user goals.
This is the most important question--see last week's article for more details. To meet users' needs:
  • Figure out who your users are
  • Find out their goals
  • Help them achieve those goals
Users unconsciously ask and answer these questions within seconds upon visiting your intranet. If they answer no to any question, they won't be back. Make sure they answer yes. Seriously consider the steps you've taken to ensure users have a positive experience with your intranet.

Help intranet users achieve their goals

Monday, November 22, 2004  

Intranets are complex. But the key to their success can be distilled down to this: Figure out who your users are. Find out their goals. Help them achieve those goals.

This sounds so simple. But most companies end up guessing at user goals or building an intranet centered on the business goals. Guesswork isn't good enough, and users don't care what the business goals are. They will only use the intranet if it makes their lives easier. Business goals are still important, but they must align with user goals or be dropped.

Here's how to execute on this user-centered approach:
  • Hold a guessing meeting. Pull together 6 or 8 heads and guess who your user groups are. Guess what some of the intranet features are that would help users achieve their goals. Draft an initial list of interviewees.

  • Interview users and stakeholders. Interview stakeholders to determine business objectives. Interview users to find out how they would use the intranet. Suggest some possible broad feature categories, and ask the interviewees for their input. Create profiles of 'typical' users--their goals, likes, pet peeves--to help the intranet team wrap their heads around these people.

  • Determine the 3 to 5 most important features. Look for commonalities. Where business objectives and user goals intersect, plan a feature to support the goal. Concentrate on just a few features--simple is better.

  • Rely on user experience experts during development. For features that already exist in a non-intranet form, a user experience expert should spend time with users to see how they currently interact with the system. For all features, a user experience expert should create mock-ups and prototypes and test these on actual users. Don't skimp on usability.
It's all about the user. It has to be easier for them to use the intranet than to not use it. Help users achieve their goals, and your intranet will be successful.

Projecting ROI for your intranet: Don't bother

Monday, November 15, 2004  

A corporate intranet that successfully improves collaboration and knowledge-sharing is of immense value. The greatest value comes from random, profitable events--a salesperson coming across information that helps him close an important deal, or a developer avoiding a costly mistake by reading a cohort’s posting. But forecasting serendipity is impossible. Too many variables exist to accurately forecast the future effect of an intranet implementation.

So you can’t tell your stakeholders how much their intranet will save them (or make them). Any business case would be inaccurate and impossible to verify. Instead, the senior team has to simply believe that the intranet will be a strategic asset. They have to go on their gut feeling. How can you create that gut feeling?

Ask your audience to consider things like this:
  • How much time is spent searching for information?
  • How much time is spent recreating documents that already exist?
  • How much value is wasted in documents that have been lost or forgotten?
  • How much information stays locked in employees’ heads because it’s too much work to publish it where colleagues can find it and put it to use?
  • How much does it cost to repeat mistakes someone else has made?
  • What’s the cost of missed opportunities?
  • What’s the value of the Next Big Idea?
Here’s another powerful line of reasoning (though probably still inaccurate and impossible to verify): According to IDC and Delphi Group, knowledge workers spend about a quarter of their day looking for information. So, for sake of argument, say your intranet will reduce that time by one hour a week, and that one hour is worth $30 (approximately $40,000 annually plus benefits):

250 employees x 1 hour/ week x 49 weeks x $30/ hour = $367,500/ year
1000 employees x 1 hour/ week x 49 weeks x $30/ hour = $1,470,000/ year

Using this calculation, your intranet for your company with 1000 knowledge workers will save time valued at about $1.5 million.

In any event, your goal is not to deliver a precise ROI dollar figure. Rather, your goal is to offer so many convincing lines of reasoning that any idiot can see that the intranet will be of strategic importance to the company. ROI may be clear-cut for, say, a new piece of equipment on a manufacturing line. But in the knowledge industry, ROI is difficult to ascertain, if not impossible.

Custom browser toolbars for your intranet

Monday, November 08, 2004  

Last week a client asked me how much it would cost to integrate a custom toolbar for their corporate portal into everyone's web browser. After estimating $20,000--my default answer that actually means, "I have no idea"--I decided to do some investigating. It turns out that building a custom browser toolbar, like Google's or MSN's, is simple and cheap. And it may be a good idea for your intranet.

Toolbar companies promote their products to web site owners as a way to retain users and build brand loyalty. I don't know what kind of delusional web site team thinks their corporate web site is interesting enough that users would want it as a permanent fixture on their browser. But an intranet is a tool people use to do their jobs. Making it easier to access improves the intranet experience for your employees and increases overall usage.

On the other hand, it may be preferable simply to make sure that all employees have their home page set to the intranet. Consider:
  • Toolbars eat up screen real estate, which is already at a premium, especially on 800x600 displays.
  • Toolbars require a software installation. It's simple software, but I get nervous anytime a change will affect the desktop of hundreds of users.
  • Toolbars generally only work for Internet Explorer on Windows. There is limited selection for non-IE browsers.

To set your intranet as every employee's home page, your IT department can use Tweakomatic to generate a global logon script that will make the change.

If you decide adding an intranet toolbar to everyone's browser is the right choice for your company, follow these guidelines:
  • Focus on the basics. Have a button for the home page, an intranet search box, and a direct link to heavily-used sections. Don't get bogged down with unnecessary features.
  • Keep icons and words simple. Any icons should be simple and clear--test them with users to see if they're understood. Text links should avoid abbreviations or any catchy or made-up words.
  • Usability test download and installation instructions. If the installation will be done by the end user, considerable effort should go into writing and testing the instructions. Observe actual users attempting the install on their computers, and make adjustments to the instructions where necessary.
  • Get the toolbar built by a reputable company. I can't speak from any first-hand experience here, but Visicom Media seems to be a legitimate company with an impressive client list. Beware of free or almost-free toolbars.

Google for the enterprise

Monday, November 01, 2004  

Google is poised to transform enterprise search just as it has transformed internet search. The Google Search Appliance is the tip of the iceberg.

They have an enterprise division. They have Desktop Search. They have the Search Appliance. They have the R&D from google.com. They have billions of dollars in cash.

They also have the right core concepts. Everything they do is simple and usable. Compare Verity, the major enterprise search player. Their solution will cost half a million dollars to implement and require half a dozen IT staff to maintain. To generate relevant results, huge effort must go into prepping the content for search. Google, on the other hand, believes that this effort indicates flawed software. "Our approach is that the software ought to be able to deal with the content as it exists," says Dave Girouard, Google's enterprise general manager.

My idea of the perfect portal is an almost blank screen with a search input box. You type your query, and it returns exactly what you're looking for--a list of relevant, useful links, just as reliably as you'd expect from google.com. To me, that's intranet Nirvana.

And it's not that far off. When Google expands the reach of their appliance to include content that's not web-enabled, such as content on network drives, and when they integrate it with search on the desktop, we may be there. I believe that any investment in Google for the enterprise is a wise move.

About the Author

I'm Chris McGrath, an intranet consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I've been working on intranets since 1997, and on plain ol' web sites for even longer. I run One Intranets, the firm that co-created ThoughtFarmer -- an enterprise collaboration platform for Windows-based intranets.