I have been asked a number of times to talk about Intranet development and I have always avoided doing so. This is partly because I am not an expert in the field (although that doesn’t normally stop me talking about something!) However, it is also because intranets are a massive area and one in which so many mistakes are made. There seems to be a huge amount of naivety about developing and running Intranets. Against such a backdrop I am somewhat unsure where to begin.
In the end I have decided to take 5 of the most common misconceptions about Intranets and see if we can shed some light on why they are wrong.
A money pit
“The intranet is not important like the website. It doesn’t generate a return on investment”
This seems to be a common perception especially among senior management. Unlike a website, the intranet isn’t perceived as business critical. Instead it is seen as nothing more than a hole into which money is poured. The problem is that an intranet doesn’t typically generate revenue. However, it does generate a return on investment.
The real benefit of an Intranet is in productivity gains. If used a correctly it can:
- dramatically reduce the time to access key information
- act as an effective method of disseminating information
- be a way to manage workflow
- become a key component in improving communication
” I don’t need to worry about accessibility because I know exactly who is using the site”
The perception that you don’t need to worry about accessibility on an intranet is naive. Just because you don’t have users with disabilities at this stage doesn’t mean you never will. Moreover, accessibility is about a lot more than the disabled. By building your intranet with accessibility in mind you can offer up the chance to deliver it to other devices such as mobiles.
Finally, many people who are not registered as disabled have accessibility issues. This is especially true with an elderly user who may have poor eyesight or arthritis. Building your intranet with accessibility in mind can improve the usability for everyone.
“We only need to design for Internet Explorer 6 because we use that across the entire company”
Single browser support on your intranet is a risk. Building for the peculiarities of one browsers can easily come back and bite you later. A company wont stay with the same browser forever. Even an upgrade from IE 6 to IE 7 could easily break your site. Build from a solid base of web standards and you have the confidence that changes to the browser platform will have a minimal impact.
The other advantage of this approach is that it is entirely possible to open up parts of your intranet to suppliers even if they do not share the same IT infrastructure as you.
“Its not like a website, people are required to use the Intranet as part of their job”
It is true that people are expected to use things like the intranet as part of their job. However theory and reality are very different. I have seen many intranets effectively abandoned because they were just too difficult to use. It is quicker to use other methods (such as the telephone or email) to find the information required.
An intranet will only succeed if it:
- has the right information
- is easy to use
- is engaging
Some of the most successful intranets are those that work as hard to be sticky as any website would. Adding social features is a good way of doing this as well as making sure your site has the right “killer” applications. However, most importantly you need to ensure that the site is easy to use and people can quickly find the content they require.
“The idea is that everybody adds and maintains the content. It doesn’t need a web master”
In a utopian world an intranet should not need a web manager. Each employee should add and maintain their own information on the system. However, the reality is that this doesn’t happen. Some people are simply too busy to “mess around with the intranet” while others upload far too much erroneous “stuff”.
An intranet needs a web manager in the same way as a website does. It needs somebody to be a guardian for the content ensuring that the right stuff is online and organised in a logical manor.
Developing intranets is a huge subject and one that I shall return to in the future. However, hopefully these few misconceptions have helped challenge your thinking of how to approach their design and build. Although designing an intranet is very different to designing a website, it is actually surprising how much they have in common too.