End User Involvement, Governance, and Expert Help Drive Success in the 10 Best Intranets of 2017

The winners of the Nielsen Norman Group’s 10 Best Intranets of 2017 come from a diverse set of industries, countries, and organizational sizes, but have common themes that contributed to their success.

unified communications
NEC Corp. (CC BY 2.0)

January doesn’t just mean the start of a new year for me – it also means an opportunity to review the Nielsen Norman Group’s Intranet Design Annual. The 10 Best Intranets of 2017 were officially announced on January 7, 2017. Even though it’s a little weird to call these the best intranets of 2017 – especially because the submissions were completed in June of 2016 – the report has a lot of interesting and helpful information and design trends that intranet design teams should consider. A word of caution as you review the full report, just because a feature was used in an “award winning” intranet doesn’t mean it needs to show up on your intranet! Megamenus continue to be a popular method for intranet navigation – and about half of the award winners use megamenus for global navigation. But that doesn’t mean your intranet must have a megamenu! You do, on the other hand, need to make sure that your users can find what they need easily. But, that doesn’t mean you must choose a megamenu as your navigational approach. On the other hand, if you don’t have a plan for ongoing governance, you can pretty much be assured that your intranet will fail. So, read the report with an “outcome” lens.

Here are some of the key insights I took from the report and how they align with my experience as an intranet designer and information architect:

Creating an award-winning intranet takes time. The average time spent creating intranets recognized by Nielsen Norman Group has decreased from an average of 36 months in 2001 to 17.3 months for the current year’s winners. The report notes that the average time was very hard to calculate for some of the winners, whose design was part of a much longer term iterative planning and development process. While you might be able to calculate a specific time for an intranet migration or upgrade to a new technology platform or a new design, a good intranet is never done – because the if content becomes stale and there is no ongoing care and feeding and governance, the entire intranet investment is wasted. The key lesson to learn from the winning organizations: don’t rush the process and plan to evolve over time.

Don’t try this at home – or at least, don’t try to go it alone. All 10 of the winning organizations used outside agencies and consultants to support their intranet redesign projects. In fact, the report notes that every winning team in the past two Intranet Design Annuals has relied on at least one external resource. As a consultant who specializes in intranet design, of course I’m biased about getting external help. I think it’s important to do so – especially when you are changing technology platforms as part of the re-design. I don’t think this is because internal teams always lack the specific skills needed to design intranets. This can often be the case when it comes to user experience and information architecture design, but it’s not always true. A re-design effort typically requires a concentrated investment of time and resources – and existing staff resources my not have the bandwidth to take on a major project of this nature. An advantage of partnering with an intranet specialist is that you can take advantage of their experiences across multiple projects. I am not a big fan of outsourcing the entire intranet re-design or development project. At the end of the day, you need to make sure that a team is left inside the organization with the knowledge and training to iterate, evolve, and maintain the intranet going forward. The most successful intranet projects I’ve worked on have an active and involved “product owner” and a support team within the organization committed to ongoing governance and content management.

Involving end users and key stakeholders is critical. All the award winners had a lot of end user and stakeholder involvement in the intranet design. They did interviews, surveys, usability tests, field studies, and workshops to ensure the participation of the people who need to use and get value from the intranet. I once had a prospective client tell me that we couldn’t talk to any end users in the design of the intranet. We elected not to submit a proposal. On another project, we made some assumptions about content organization that were proven completely inadequate with a small usability test conducted early in the design process with end users. The end users approached the design with completely fresh eyes and a different perspective. Even though we involved a lot of end users in the information gathering process, we also involved end users as we iterated the design. This turned out to be critical for user adoption.

Governance planning was a key part of all the winning projects. It’s encouraging to see how important governance was to all the award winners. There were no big surprises when it comes to intranet ownership – the award-winning intranet owners still come down to HR, Communications, and IT. One of the winners, Goodwill, has a strong Knowledge Management program and has a team to manage the intranet from KM and IT. When I’ve worked with organizations that have an active and respected internal knowledge management program, this group most often has ownership responsibility for the intranet because it is so closely aligned with their objectives.

Award winning intranets help people get work done. All the intranets recognized this year provide a home page or a dashboard page that provides work-related personal information. In all the hundreds and hundreds of stakeholder interviews I’ve done for intranet projects, I’ve never had a single person tell me they wish there was more news on the intranet home page! The one request I consistently hear is for personal task, tools, or decision information on the home page – or easily accessible from the home page. Users want an intranet that helps them get work done, not just see the latest news. I noticed this same trend as a judge of the Step Two Intranet and Digital Workplace Awards. The Intranet and Digital Workplace awards recognize intranets and digital workplace projects that show a measurable business impact. You can’t do that just by having a visually pleasing design – you must provide meaningful information that drives business value.

Search needs attention. I was excited to see that many of the award-winning teams paid serious attention to search as part of their strategies. This included content strategies to return relevant and well-described results. I am a big advocate of having a focused workstream for search on intranet projects – and I am reminded of the importance of search planning often by my friend and search guru, Martin White (take a look at Martin’s latest blog post and then follow his blog and website for more great information about intranets and search). (Agnes Molnar’s Search Explained site is also a good resource for SharePoint search topics.)

Most of my intranet stakeholder interviews include users telling me the same two words when I ask about it: “Search sucks.” Getting search right is partially about content design and tuning search outcomes by developing a list of “promoted results or “best bets” based on common searches in your organization. But, it’s also about paying attention to search queries on an ongoing basis. What terms are people searching for? Make content that is part of the most popular searches easy to find. What terms are not resulting in results? Use this information to identify new content or potentially search substitutions to account for common misspellings. If your users have a long negative history with search, don’t forget to do training and communications about search improvements. Teaching your users how to craft an effective search query is a critical skill both inside and outside the organization.

80% planned for mobile with a responsive design. Most of the winners incorporated a plan for mobile access as part of the redesign project using responsive web design. It’s important to not just design for mobile, but to test on mobile devices as well. That said, just because you can view your intranet on your phone doesn’t mean that the experience is helpful. I think most users would get more value from a custom app for key intranet functions than only having the ability to view the entire intranet on their phone. Even though all of my clients want mobile access for their intranet, their experiences seem to show that while tablet access is important (because a lot of executives just carry around their iPad), phone access to intranet content is only occasional.

Half of the winners are based on SharePoint; four on premises and one on Office 365. I know that my pals at Microsoft would have loved to see all the winning intranets built on SharePoint. In the 2016 report, 9 of the 10 winners included SharePoint in all or part of their intranets. This year, SharePoint is used at seven of the organizations but is the primary platform for only five of the winning intranets. I don’t think this reflects organizations turning away from SharePoint. Rather, I think it is a result of the fact that 2016 was a year of massive change to SharePoint and Office 365. SharePoint 2016 became generally available in May of 2016 – only a few weeks before entries were due for the 2017 intranet awards. (One of the winning intranets was based on SharePoint 2010!) Modern experiences were delivered for team collaboration in Office 365 during 2016 but modern publishing for SharePoint is still a work in progress.

It is likely that we will see more SharePoint-based winners next year and the following year as organizations who have been waiting to implement major re-design efforts while Microsoft completes the “modernization” of publishing and communications capabilities in Office 365 (and then SharePoint 2016 on premises) implement their re-design efforts to leverage the emerging capabilities. In other words, why undertake a re-design effort in 2016 when we know new guidance will be delivered in 2017. One other thing to note: organizations are excluded from the award if they use SharePoint “out-of-box” – even if the solution meets the organization’s goals and needs. The assumption in the report is that “an out-of-box experience will not deliver the out-of-body experience that the winning intranets offer.” I love that quote and mostly agree, but in the past year or so, I have seen an increasing number of “intranet in a box” solutions enter the marketplace. While some are pretty “canned” and will only have value to a small subset of organizations, others offer the ability to leverage customized elements in a configurable way to create a custom experience within constrained guardrails that offers a “best of both worlds” scenario.

One of the 2017 winners (Tourism New Zealand, the only Office 365-based solution), leveraged an “intranet in a box” solution to provide mobile-friendly page layouts and custom web parts. Hopefully, intranets built on these solutions will not be excluded from future awards, especially if they clearly deliver business value and meet the other award criteria. If you want to learn more about the offerings in this space, ClearBox Consulting in the UK recently released the second edition of their review of SharePoint “intranet in a box” solutions, which includes a review of 26 offerings.

The complete 2017 Intranet Design Annual includes comprehensive insights and recommendations for designing great intranets as well as screen shots and lessons learned from each of the winning organizations. There is a lot to consume, but if you are working on an intranet project it is worth the effort to see how other teams have organized and what approaches they have used. Every organization in the report had at least one if not several significant challenges to overcome during their intranet project – from major budget cuts to users who had major negative experiences with the previous intranet. I’ve never had a single project that hasn’t had at least one major challenge to overcome. It’s nice to know that we’re not alone! Visit the Nielsen Norman Group website to purchase a copy of the 2017 Intranet Design Annual and read articles (free) summarizing this year’s report.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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