Intranets – the ultimate vanity case!

March 17, 2011

Most intranets don’t deliver what their users need: they may contain a lot of content, but most of this doesn’t address users’ priority goals. We see this on clients’ intranets, which were originally set up 7 or 8 years ago because it seemed like the ‘right thing to do’, but have since been allowed to grow organically with no focus and direction such that users can’t find what really matters to them. Why is it that we hear users say, for example “Oh, it’s easier to ring up HR about that query because it’s too difficult to find it on the intranet”?

What do users want from intranets? Gerry McGovern’s research on users’ needs from intranets has concluded that ‘Staff overwhelmingly want a better organized intranet where they can quickly find people, policies and procedures, and forms’. His research has shown that there are a limited number of tasks that are really important to users: when respondents were asked to identify their top 5 tasks (out of 58), ‘finding people’ (i.e. a workable contacts directory) emerged as the most important task, and ‘the top 5 percent of tasks (finding people, procedures/processes, and forms) received 33 percent of the vote’.

So, why don’t intranets deliver what’s needed? There are probably 3 key reasons why many intranets don’t deliver:

  • Lack of clear site aims: originally most intranets were set up because the technology was there, and it was the thing to do because other people were doing it. There was often inadequate thought about what the aims were for the organisation and the individual users. At a top level, intranets should be about increasing organisation effectiveness (how well it does things) and efficiency (how quickly it does things). Defining what effectiveness and efficiency means in an organisation will provide clarity about why the intranet exists and help shape its key features
  • Lack of understanding users’ priority goals: you’d think that understanding priority user goals would be easy for an intranet – after all isn’t everyone a user? And Gerry McGovern’s research suggests that there’s actually a small number of very important things for users that need to be highly visible and accessible – if you just asked users in the organisation “what will help me do the ‘right’ job in the most efficient way”. But it obviously isn’t that easy – mainly because over time intranets seem to become corpulent organic bodies that lead lives of there own – so bloated that the key things that users really want are obscured. And that leads onto the third point…
  • Intranets are the ultimate ‘vanity case’ for content authors to publish their wares – whether or not the content is critical to users. The intranet is a good place to vanity publish what you do and justify your place in the organisation. Without a clear publishing model and a robust approach to implementing that model, unnecessary content will emerge and clog up the intranet reducing its usefulness to users.

A small proportion of tasks on an intranet represent the biggest proportion of user goals – so getting users quickly and easily to these ‘most important goals’ will both increase user satisfaction with the site and increase operational efficiency and effectiveness.This requires absolute clarity from the organisation about what the intranet is for, what users want from the intranet, and a ruthless approach to managing content.

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