As published in the Autumn Edition of Forward, a quarterly modern business solutions magazine by nSynergy. Click here to read or download the full publication.
Web design has come a long way in the past two decades. In fact it has probably come a long way in the past two days. The sky’s the limit for web designers with real creative freedom, as they’re restricted only by the size of their imaginations – and their clients’ wallets.
If we sat a website from 2014 alongside one from 2006, the contrast would be dramatic. The newer site would be cleaner, less heavy with navigation bars and links, with greater interaction between site and user, and would most likely incorporate modern principles like flat or responsive design. Today’s websites are also much better at hiding technical complexity and pre-empting what information their visitors want. However, if we performed the same comparison with intranets, we haven’t come very far at all. Aside from incorporating a few nicer visuals, it seems we haven’t significantly changed our mindset in terms of what makes a good intranet design.
The world has changed. Why haven’t we?
Technology has certainly evolved to support advances in design. Just look at the capability differences between the last three SharePoint instalments across 2003, 2007 and 2013. The world has of course changed rapidly, along with user needs and expectations. So why are intranets of the past still being touted as modern solutions? If you are out there innovating in this space, or challenging your company to innovate, we commend you. But it appears the broader IT community needs to start challenging their mindset in this area.
Here are six techniques you can employ to bring your intranet into the present, while keeping an eye on future needs:
1. Design for your users
The term ‘intranet’ has become synonymous with a single point within an organisation. But this is not a true definition – it never was. We have created a belief that there’s only one intranet and that it will work for every user in an organisation, no matter who they are or what they do.
When it comes to large intranet projects with a lot of technical requirements, project teams tend to generalise and compartmentalise user needs. The guiding theory being that you can’t please everyone, so go with what the dominant users want, and not be too concerned about the remainder of the population. What happens then? Ninety nine times out of 100 the latter will stray from SharePoint and use their own tools or work arounds. Only by investing time in activities like persona profiling – the process of identifying several core user types and determining how just they work but what is important to them – can you begin to understand who your users are and use this to inform your choices.
2. Design for need and context
Identifying who your users are is the logical place to start, but you then need to understand the context of their needs. As an example, a retail company might say they need SharePoint to distribute information to store workers and to act as ‘the single source of truth’ for all policies, training materials and news, etc. On the surface, this appears a fairly straight-forward requirement, which can be solved with a traditional, almost out-of-the-box SharePoint site. But after speaking to users, you determine they are largely shift workers who have just a few short minutes each shift to access and consume company information on a tablet. These new insights immediately tell you the users need a simple, efficient, touch-friendly solution. Context is key. Using storytelling and real world scenarios to understand how different users interact with information, known as building use cases, is a very effective technique in helping to determine user needs and context.
3. Design for touch
Tablet usage exploded so rapidly that it’s now virtually omnipresent. As a result, most users are now comfortable with all kinds of touch interactions, opening up the idea of anytime, anywhere interaction with any kind of technology. And yet take up from companies willing to accommodate touch within their intranet scope remains low.
There are naturally a range of interesting implications for how we can deliver touch in SharePoint. For example, consider a SharePoint solution in engineering, manufacturing, or a factory-based operation where workers need to access information on touch devices. Predominantly male workers. Now think about the number of fat fingers that would struggle to touch on a small icon! The reality is any touch solution would need to be ‘fat finger friendly,’ and, don’t forget that 12% of these users will potentially be colour blind as well.
4. Design for any device
This point should probably come with an asterisk, because we don’t strictly believe you need to design for every device. But you do need to understand what devices are being used among your workforce, and also to accept that people work under a range of conditions e.g. a desk-bound worker consumes information differently to a more mobile field worker. And further to this, that device usage changes throughout the course of each day. Most people will switch between a tablet, laptop and desktop screen (or screens), and their mobile device when they’re out and about.
What are you going to deliver for them? Everything? Probably not. But you do need to understand what they do on each device. E.g. users probably won’t jump up and down to access company news on their phone, but they may want to submit a leave form because they forgot during work hours. Or, if news is of interest to your users, would you design a purpose built page that functions more like a consumer news app than the intranet? Understanding typical interactions, plus the context and the device being used is an important part of your overall big picture.
5. Design to excite
Have you ever rolled out ideas for a new or improved intranet site? How did your audience react? Was it ‘Wow!’ or ‘That’s amazing’? If not, you might have missed out on an important opportunity to capture engaged users early on. The best ways to excite people are by bringing them on a journey and offering them something visual– even if it’s only a lo-fi wireframe. We are a visual species, and according to research undertaken by 3M Corporation, our brains processes images around 60,000 times faster than text. So when it comes to intranet design, don’t lead by showing users a whizz bang piece of functionality or try to wow them with a workflow. (Zzzzzzz…). Bowl them over with something that looks cool or familiar and you will start to win hearts very quickly.
6. Design to evolve
SharePoint solutions are people solutions. And the one thing we know about people is that they change. Constantly. Which means business solutions must be open to change too. A Senior Consultant recently had a customer say “You need to understand, I will tell you what I need now, and you will deliver it, but in three months I’m going to need something different.” Funnily enough it was refreshing to have a customer openly admit to this! And that’s precisely what your users will do. Once you meet their needs with an initial solution, and it’s no longer a pain point, they will move on to another pain point, which will be just as vital for you to solve.
Build some longevity into your intranet design by making it flexible and scalable. It can even be a good idea to adopt a staged the release of different features or functionality. Drip feeding users over a period of time allows them to understand SharePoint’s evolving nature and how it will meet their needs over time, therefore keeping them engaged and wanting to use it.