Why Intranet design is so bad and how to fix it

Paul Boag

Intranet Design is almost universally terrible. This is costing companies in productivity, training and even in customer experience. Fortunately, we can fix this.

“How come I can download an app onto my mobile and instantly know how to use it, yet I need training to use our intranet? Shouldn’t our intranet design be more intuitive than a 99c app?”

This was just one of the comments I heard in a recent stakeholder interview. People are fed up using inadequate intranet software. Many of those I interviewed had given up on the official software. Instead, they used tools like Dropbox, Google Docs and Evernote to store intranet content.

The problem seems to exist across the board. I am hearing the same thing from employees across many companies and sectors. I am also hearing it about almost all internal systems, not just intranets. From customer relationship management to procurement or the CMS. They are all painful to use. You only need to look at the design examples below of intranet homepages to see what I mean.

Examples of intranet design
Why is it that intranet design seems to be almost universally terrible?

User levels of frustration are only getting higher as millennials enter the marketplace. This group are digital natives and they expect a certain standard of software. They expect software to adapt to them, not the other way around. They expect effective intranets and, increasingly, social intranets too. They expect something with decent interface design.

The result of this frustration is that employees are abandoning these systems. Employee engagement is often non-existent. People use email instead of a CRM or put documents in Dropbox rather than on the intranet. This leads to systems being out of date and thus irrelevant to the organisation.

How have things got to this state? Why is enterprise software so bad? Why does intranet design suck so much?

For Intranet Design, One Size Does Not Fit All

I think technology is often oversold. Content management systems are the solution to content. Intranets are the answer to improving efficiency. Customer relationship systems will manage the customer relationship. But, that is just not true!

Unfortunately in the eyes of senior management once a piece of software is purchased the problem is solved. Buy a Sharepoint intranet and the job is done, move on to the next challenge. This is the limit of their intranet strategy and rarely do they consider the user interface. Rarely do they even consider Sharepoint alternatives.

One size rarely fits all. Organisations rarely work in the same way, even within the same sector. Even if a law firm purchases an intranet designed for the legal sector, it doesn’t mean that intranet design will be right for them out-of-the-box. That kind of approach simply does not lead to a successful intranet.

Not only does every organisation work in a different way but so do people. The functionality required by a secretary to the CEO is going to be different from somebody in accounting or HR. Yet, often intranet designs do nothing to streamline the experience for different groups. Everybody gets the same interface, the same intranet search, the same intranet features. Heck, they even all get the same intranet home page.

Many of these systems can be tailored to individual organisational or employee needs. It’s just that they don’t do that out-of-the-box. They need configuration and optimisation that often does not happen. That or the wrong systems are purchased in the first place.

There must be a better way.

Intranet Best Practice Starts With the Users Need

Too often the procurement process for these systems begins with a list of desired features. I believe this is the wrong starting point. We should be approaching internal software such as a corporate intranet in the same way we develop external applications. We should start with the user needs.

Whether you already have systems in place or not, I would encourage you to identify your different user groups. Who will be using each system?

Once you know that, you need to shadow them for a while. You need to understand how they work. What is it they do each day and what systems do they already use to get their work done?

Look for pain points in that system. Look for weaknesses in their system and talk to them about where they get frustrated. Identify information they need to do their jobs and be aware of any unnecessary clutter that gets in their way.

Finally, identify your users top tasks. What tasks are your different user groups doing again and again? These need to be super accessible.

You may be tempted to think that this provides enough information to buy the right system for you. But, just because something has the functionality you need, does not mean it is easy to use.

Before leaping into buying expensive software, let’s get started by first design the user experience. We can do that with some simple prototyping.

Prototype Your Perfect Intranet Design

Creating a prototype of how our ideal intranet design should work does not need to be time-consuming or particularly expensive. Best of all it can replace a long-winded and abstract functional specification.

Using nothing but a bit of HTML, CSS and javascript or a prototyping tool a UX designer can build a working prototype that can be tested with real users. Does this prototype match their workflow? Does it give them quick access to their key tasks? Does it accommodate the differences between different user groups? What parts of the prototype have the biggest impact on productivity and which are just nice to have?

Intranet Design Prototype Tool
There is no shortage of great prototyping tools that make intranet design easy.

We can iterate this prototype based on user feedback until it represents the optimal user experience.

With that desired vision in place, then you can compromise intelligently.

Informed Compromise Towards a Modern Intranet

A working prototype provides a good measure against which to compare different software. Much better than a functional specification.

Can your existing intranet be set up to mirror the prototype? If it can’t exactly recreate the prototype, where are the points of compromise? Based on your user testing, are these unacceptable compromises?

If your existing system cannot replicate the key functionality of your prototype, look at alternatives. Talk to other vendors and show them your prototype. Ask whether their software can replicate it and once again decide over areas of compromise based on user feedback.

Do you see the difference? The experience is designed around the user, not what the software can provide. It adopts a modern design process.

If you cannot find software that meets the needs of your intranet users, consider building a bespoke system. It makes no sense to buy ‘off the shelf’ intranet software that nobody will use or provides no business benefits.

I know what you are thinking. This makes sense but senior management won’t go for it. They won’t pay for the creation of prototyping or bespoke systems. Well, that depends on how you sell it.

Selling the Need for a User-Centric Intranet

It can be hard to convince management to spend money on prototyping. Hard if a clever salesman is saying their software can solve all the businesses problems. Harder still if management has already paid for a fancy system. But, there are solid business arguments for this approach.

If your company has a system that is not fit for purpose, you should be able to prove this. Collect data on how users interact with the system. Combine this with usability testing and stakeholder interviews. This should be enough to create a compelling case. At least enough of a case to justify some limited prototyping of alternative approaches.

Remember you are not asking them to replace the intranet. You just want to prototype what a better approach would be and see if the current software can be set up to match this. Often when management can see a better way, they are more open to change.

If you do not already own an intranet then you are in an even stronger position. Enterprise software is expensive and so ensuring it is fit for purpose is important. Getting it wrong could mean wasting hundreds of thousands.

A prototype will prove more effective than a functional specification at measuring the suitability of software. It will also make it easier to compare competing products.

Of course, management could take the position that employees will just need to get used to what they have. There is some merit in this argument. Given time users will adapt to even the most archaic of systems. But at what cost?

The Cost of Poor Intranet Design

Bad intranet design leads to increased training and more support. Both are a cost the organisation has to bear, not to mention the frustration it causes. Even more significant is the cost of lost productivity. Organisations are keen to maximise efficiency and easy to use systems go a long way towards this.

Unfortunately, some management teams seem to care little about internal processes. But what they do care about is customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is becoming one of the biggest metrics organisations measure. We now live in a world of connected consumers. Consumers who have a voice through social media. That makes organisations sensitive to negative comments and customer experience.

Yes, enterprise systems may be used by your employees. But the truth is they have a massive impact on the customer experience. It is these systems that ensure a timely response. They help deliver the product. They handle the customer relationship. That is why internal systems are becoming the next big competitive advantage for many companies and cannot be ignored.