Some key considerations for achieving a successful intranet

Perhaps I should do myself a big favour and keep a set of generic documents to stuff into proposals – but I don’t! However much I try to copy and paste what has gone before, I still end up refreshing my thoughts for each new proposal. The following are some thoughts I put together for a recent intranet proposal – top level project issues that I think merit attention at the beginning of each new intranet I get involved in.

Informing and engaging users
There are key elements of an intranet that must be realised in order to achieve core business objectives, such as document repositories, content searching, user permissions management, news and so on. At the same time, the users should want to come back, the intranet should become the “go-to” application of choice for many of their key daily tasks. In other words, there must be a balance between informing users and engaging users.

Intranet is a process, not a system
Clearly an intranet is a system, but it is also more than that – a vehicle for changing the way that people work, for making their lives easier and the company more effective and efficient. As users start to engage with the intranet, they will find new ways of engaging with the knowledge provided by the organization. The ultimate goal of a good intranet is to become an effective knowledge sharing platform – not just between the company and the users, but also between users.

You can’t know what will work in advance
Some ideas that seem excellent on the face of it don’t work in practice due to unforeseen or unforeseeable circumstances. Often ideas that we seek to translate from other settings – such as social media – fail in a corporate environment. For instance, my agency have implemented highly engaging attractive features such as noticeboards for car sharing, which have failed to take off. On the other hand, small elements of functionality such as ‘Who’s locking up’ and ‘Who’s out of the office’ add an unexpected value, and are picked up with enthusiasm by users.

Early involvement = happy users
Because an intranet is a system that impacts upon users’ everyday lives, they need to have confidence that it will work for them. If the system feels imposed from above, it is likely to meet resistance in rollout. If, on the other hand, users are involved early and often, it is easier to identify what works and what doesn’t work.

Ideally the development process should include a product owner from the client, as well as representatives from key user groups. By so doing, it becomes possible to identify what works and what doesn’t work early on, as well as creating a group of enthusiastic advocates who will help smooth the way for eventual buy in by the user base as a whole.

80% of value from 20% of functionality
With intranets, as with many any other kind of technology, 80% of the value is realised using 20% of the functionality. By releasing key functionality early in the development cycle, it becomes possible to:

  • achieve early wins
  • demonstrate successful progress
  • build user confidence in the solution
  • ensure the most critical functionality is the best tested

In Conclusion
If pushed, I will always prefer a methodology that involves frequent releases and lots of user input. For reasons of internal politics, as well as the paperwork required for formal budget applications, it is often not possible to wholeheartedly adopt an agile approach in full. However, I think it is a matter of focus here – are you more bothered about ticking boxes, or about maximizing the amount the business objectives achieved with your budget? An agile mindset is all about getting useful work done as soon as possible, about satisfying pressing business needs, building confidence, and flushing out issues so they don’t stack up at the end of the project. Agile does not mean chaos – despite prejudices to the contrary. Agile to me means acting in light of the facts, and illuminating the facts through action – once the research has been done and the groundwork has been laid.

KISS with CMS!

KISS – “Keep It Simple Stupid” – is often mentioned in relation to technology, but not very often observed. User Experience may be well established now as a discipline, but many systems are still woefully lacking in due consideration for users, requiring them to jump through lots of hoops to achieve their everyday goals.

Content management systems (CMS), including intranets, are an increasingly important kind of technology, one that more and more corporate staff are expected to deal with. Given its expanded role, it is vital that users should feel comfortable using their company’s system whenever they need to. For some users this will be an every day experience, and for others once a week, perhaps. Some users may access the content over the web on their PCs, others on their tablets or mobiles.

However frequently it is used, and on whatever platform, it is vital that users find their system intuitive and engaging – they should only be presented with the minimum level of complexity required to complete the task at hand, any extra complexity should be accessible in the background, but neatly tucked away. The tasks that take up 80% of your time as a user shouldn’t be slowed down by the ones that take up 20% of your time.

Being Useful Means Being Usable
It may be a tautology, but it is still one that is worth spelling out: a system is only useful if it is used, and it will only used if it is usable – hence careful interface design has a major role to play in the effectiveness of information systems. In an age when organisations are expected to produce a constant stream of timely and appropriate content, it is in their interests to decentralise the creation of content and the sharing of knowledge, to avoid the ever present problem of content bottlenecks. It is thus also in the interests of organisations to make their systems as easy to use as possible.

I have witnessed many different CMS systems in use, of all shapes and sizes, and some of them prove to be difficult to use because they employ inconsistent or unclear metaphors for interacting with content. I have sat through training sessions on some of the market leading CMS systems, where most of the time seemed to be spent explaining away idiosyncracies of the interface. The success of such systems often reflects the fact that sales are sometimes made purely in the boardroom, rather than with reference to everyday users.

A CMS system may in itself be excellent, but if the agency implementing a website or intranet is lacking a deep understanding of its inner workings, and best practices, you can be sure that users will have a hard time getting to grips with the implementation. On a number of occasions I have had to pick up projects where an agency has thought that a CMS just means editable text, rather than structured content, meaning that users were expected to user HTML in their editing process, when properly implemented the users should only need to worry about their own content.

The Influence of Software as a Service (SAAS)
If there is something that the explosion of Software as a Service has demonstrated, it is that given the right kind of intuitive interface, users can be up and running in moments with doing what they need to do, even if the more complex side of their activities may require some extra training or research. It should be just the same with a CMS system – get up and running in minutes, while you find out more about the advanced features as and when you need to. A good CMS system should be effectively invisible to users – if it is working, it should not draw attention to itself, the focus should be the creation, the curation and the consumption of content.

Kentico CMS – Easy and Effective
There are no doubt many CMS systems that could be used to achieve the appropriate mix of simplicity, engagement and sophistication for users, but my own personal preference is Kentico. Ever since I chose this as my agency’s preferred CMS platform, I have been consistently impressed with its mix of features and simplicity – when properly implemented, users find it so easy to get to grips with that they hardly need any training. At the same time, it can do anything it needs to, as well as being easy for developers to extend in any way required. Whichever tool you use to manage your organisation’s content – don’t forget to keep it simple!

A “Marriage Contract” for Successful Projects

When a client engages the services of an agency on a major project – an intranet or major web site for instance – the important elements of the contract are not necessarily those written on the paper to which the signatures are added. Given the high level of mutual dependency, intense frequent contact and joint expectations, this relationship can often feel like a marriage.

If it is going to work, the relationship must be fair,  the “marriage contract” must allow for trust and understanding on both sides. The agency, for its part, must undertake to keep the client’s goals firmly in mind, offering a good level of flexibility and understanding, as well as a commitment to a high quality outcome without trying to pump the price up every time anything changes. On the other hand, the client must understand that not everything can be known in advance – there will be human, organisational and technological challenges that crop up along the way, delaying the project, or requiring more effort and resources. The client must also understand that the agency is a business, that work costs money and that changing decisions costs time. Most importantly, perhaps, they should be willing to listen to informed advice and accept that any agency worth its salt will have some useful insight into what works and what doesn’t work in their own particular medium.

Like all marriages, the one between agency and client must involve mutual empathy and respect – liking each other helps too. Working in an often very exposed position, dealing with the high and often conflicting expectations and desires of the many and varied project stakeholders, the client Project Lead needs the agency to understand the pressure to deliver, they need to be know that when their neck is on the line, the agency will pull out all the stops to make good on promises made. Similarly, on the agency side of the fence, the project manager knows the importance of regular praise and thanks for their team – designers and developers work best when they know that the pride they take in their work and the time they spend debating the minutiae of interface design is being appreciated by the users.

Let’s be honest, we all spend a vast amount of time at work. When we are working hard, when we are putting our all into a joint enterprise, we need to enjoy ourselves, to feel fulfilled, to receive encouragement and positive feedback when it is deserved, in the client and agency alike. When the relationship goes well, when everyone feels liked and fairly treated, when everyone is looking out for each other, that is when great things happen, when the ideas flow.  At the same time, just like in any other marriage, there will also inevitably be some habits that may annoy each from time to time – but such is life – sometimes we must all bite our tongues.

Now the project is over, just one question remains – who gets the bouquet?

 

Roundup of the week (w/e 13/02/2011)

Last week’s most significant news must surely have been that smart phone sales are now outstripping those of PCs . The explosion in tablets and mobile more generally is already proving to be a profound game-changer for the way we interact with both content and software. On the content side, people gather their intelligence in entirely new ways, and consume it in much smaller packages. On the software side, people expect to make choices about smaller aspects of functionality, installed and fulfilled with almost no effort – it can only be a matter of time before the app market model becomes the main model for consumer software on all platforms.

Market News

  • Smartphone Market now Bigger than PC Market
    Anyone in any doubt of the importance of mobile must surely have had their minds changed by the official announcement that smartphone sales are now outstripping those of PCs. Mobile is exploding, and the way we access information, the web and even software has changed for good. http://www.businessinsider.com/smartphone-bigger-than-pc-market-2011-2
  • Leading Industry Analyst Mary Meeker Predicts Future of Tech
    Anyone with slightest interest in the future shape of the mobile, PC and tablet markets simply must read the presentation delivered by Mary Meeker at a major Google event last week. http://www.businessinsider.com/mary-meeker-matt-murphy-2011-2
  • Microsoft Trades HP for Nokia
    Is it a case of one-in one-out for Microsoft – as Hewlett Packard departs its embrace for the enticements of webOS, Nokia recognised the increasing precariousness of its position post-Symbian and hooked up with Microsoft. Seems funny how yesterdays all-powerful-giants come to be portrayed as underdogs or has beens in relation to Google, despite their massive ongoing market share. Yet, this deal isn’t necessarily bad news for Google – Nokia’s shares have slumped and it may be that existing Microsoft phone partners (Dell, LG, Samsung, HTC) may be questioning their long-term allegiance now that Nokia is set to receive special treatment. On the other hand, the guarantee of a large market going forwards is bound to attract the more active interest of developers in Windows as a mobile platform. http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2011/02/11/microsoft-nokia-deal-might-be-the-best-thing-that-ever-happened-to-android/
  • Sony may Abandon iTunes
    After accusations of Apple effectively holding it and other content producers to ransom, Sony may be one of the first to entirely abandon iTunes, in favour of alternatives. I sense that this is the first of many major battles ahead for Apple – whose past history is littered with examples of it attempting to keep very tight control over all activities related to its brand and platforms, and which nearly led to its demise in the 90s. http://www.theage.com.au/digital-life/mp3s/war-looms-as-sony-hints-that-it-will-abandon-itunes-20110210-1aonn.html

CMS / Knowledge Management

  • SharePoint 2010 Deployment Reaches 44%
    The proportion of SharePoint installations on 2010 is now equal to that on 2007, which marks a turning point in how developers are likely to be focussing on making use of the extra features available in 2010. As with any such version turning point, it is difficult to wholeheartedly pursue development of brand new functionality for as long as backwards compatibility is a key driver. http://www.cmswire.com/cms/enterprise-cms/sharepoint-deployment-reaches-44-but-faces-challenges-010143.php
  • Pen.io allows ad-hoc micro-content-management
    Task.fm found Anthony Feint has created Pen.io as a platform for creating ad-hoc content management for individual pages or page sections, without having to set up hosting accounts – only a URL and a password is required. As an agency, we often get situations where a static site is too difficult to update, but a full CMS seems overkill – I think this may well catch fire! http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/10/techcrunch-pen-io

Web

  • IE9 Release Candidate Available
    The first official release candidate for IE9 is now available. This will apparently make Microsoft’s browser much more standards-compliant with almost full support for CSS3, as well as adding a considerable amount of HTML5 support, as well as geolocation, privayc controls, hardware acceleration improvements and a whole bunch of other goodies. From an agency point of view, if IE9 really is as compliant as promised, there will be a lot of happy faces from designers and developers alike. http://www.webmonkey.com/2011/02/new-ie-9-offers-geolocation-privacy-controls-and-more-speed/
  • Bing Growing, more Accurate than Google Search
    After last week’s tussle between Google and Microsoft over the ownership of search results, figures show that Bing is continuing to grow at Google’s expense, whilst apparently offering more accurate results. The increasing amount of spam afflicting Google’s results is opening up a space not just for Bing, but also for others such as Blekko who are focussing heavily on the quality of search. It is not inconceivable that Google may be outflanked soon by someone in the way that it outflanked Yahoo on its own rise to fame and glory. http://www.businessinsider.com/bing-more-accurate-than-google-and-gaining-share-2011-2

Social Media

  • Cultural Dimensions of Social Media – The Facebooks of China
    The so-called Great Firewall of China has ensured that much of the social media so dominant elsewhere, such as Facebook, is simply not available, which has led to the creation of sites that first cloned, and then altered these key social media experiences. Whilst it may be marked in the case of China, there is a more general point to be absorbed about the crucial nature of social. cultural and demographic context in the use of social media. http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/152/the-socialist-networks.html

Tablets

  • HP webOS preview
    Clearly HP want to be taken seriously as a software company as well as a hardware provider. What do they expect to bring to the tablet market that isn’t already there, other than a strong association with B2B. This roundup from the Cocoia Blog summarises some of the interface elements we can expect – webOS looks quite promising on this view. According to Silicon Valley Insider, the US launch may be as soon as June, at a price of $699 – $100 cheaper than the Xoom. From a developer’s point of view, webOS sounds like a dream, based as it is on javascript and HTML5 – one enterprising 14 year old has already built a successful company developing for webOS. http://blog.cocoia.com/2011/hp-webos-event-roundup

Mobile

  • BBC iPlayer Released for iPad and Android but not iPhone
    The decision of the BBC to release the iPlayer only for iPad and Android 2.2, and only allowing streaming over wifi, kicked off a predictable storm of protest – which would have been expected for anything much short of universal access. The combination of a commitment to Flash on the part of the BBC, and Apple’s rejection of Flash has certainly left the corporation in a difficult position. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2011/feb/09/bbc-iplayer-app-ipad-android
  • Haptics Platform Released for Mobiles – Engagement of more than just the Visual
    One of the great boons of mobile devices, I have long thought, is the possibility for different kinds of physical engagement, above and beyond the visual domain that we habitually use – most notably in the haptic (touch) sensory modality. Thus the announcement by Immersion of their MOTIVE platform for Android caught my attention. This platform will allow companies to use an amazing range of haptic effects on nearly any Android phone. My bet is that over time muti-modal sensory interfaces will help us navigate not just games, but also tasks, with greater speed and efficiency – once a suitable shared haptics vocubulary has evolved. http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/10/buzz-editor-immersion-releases-motiv-haptics

This Week I got Excited About:

  • Kentico CMS 5.5 R2 Intranet Portal
    The new version of Kentico comes with an out-the-box Intranet portal template – which we have started using to implement our new company intranet – first impressions are very positive, though the real proof will come when we start using it in anger. http://www.kentico.com
  • Rapid-I Rapid Miner
    Very easy to get this data mining framework up and running in terms of getting it to function – but obviously you need to know exactly what you are doing – working on a hobby project with this to do textual analysis of RSS and Twitter feeds – bit of a learning curve. http://rapid-i.com/content/view/181/190/
  • CrunchBase
    Free database on technology companies, people and investors – a kind of corporate & financial wikipedia. Good for doing research on Social Media and technology start-ups, as well as the Silicon Valley big-boys. http://www.crunchbase.com/
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