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.

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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!

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