In 2009, half of the winning intranets, as determined by Jakob Nielsen, used SharePoint, specifically the MOSS platform. SharePoint’s notable popularity is particularly interesting considering that from 2003–2006, the Nielsen’s winning intranets didn't use earlier versions of SharePoint at all.
Yet, building a company intranet with SharePoint may limit a design’s flexibility. Because intranet designers may not be building intranets from scratch as much as they used to, their focus has shifted towards improving usability as a way to influence the look and feel.
Like any website, in order to improve the usability, it’s essential to define who the user is and what tasks are expected of them. For general public websites, the user is a consumer, from whom a monetary transaction is desired. But for a company intranet, the user is the employee and the intranet is designed to help improve their workflow.
When building any intranet it’s important to consider guidelines for accessibility and usability specific to the platform, just as you would for consumer websites.
Four of the 2010 winning intranet sites (as judged by Jakob Nielsen) used SharePoint and all were able to capture a specific and different look. Some provided sites that resembled traditional home pages while others provided a dashboard of controls.
Integrating widgets and tools can help employees find relevant information easily. Yet, just because widgets can be easily embedded doesn’t mean that they should haphazardly pepper a page. Whether it’s a weather, web traffic or calendar widget, designers should ask if the information provided actually helps save an employee time or supply information that would be hard to access otherwise?
Widgets and other embeddable tools may look fun and exciting, but as Gerry McGovern reminds us:
Focus on service. Focus on your employees' time. Be relentless in seeking to save it. If you do you will create a great intranet.
Mobile interfaces for intranets are also becoming more prevalent. This year, 30% of the intranets reviewed by Jakob Nielsen had special mobile features. As well, many organizations have begun to recognize the needs and requirements of its mobile workforce and are developing interfaces designed specifically for smart phones and table devices.
Just because an intranet is designed for internal users doesn’t mean that navigation shouldn’t be strategic. Designers should figure out the tasks involved and lay out the site accordingly. A well designed top-level navigation can save users time as well as make the intent of an intranet evident to everyone.
Once you decide on the tasks to be carried out, consider how an organization works and how they describe their work. Using language that is too formal or too relaxed can backfire and cause issues.
Nielsen provides a breakdown of how some winning sites named their top-level navigation.
Recently we wrote about the rise of the social internet. With social media becoming more and more integrated into the enterprise, social media tools like IM, wikis, social networking, discussion forums and blogs are helping to increase productivity and communication between departments and constituents.
When deciding which tools to integrate, consider the actual and perceived participation and ROI that they will likely generate. As well, employee training should be made available, and policies that dictate proper usage and behaviors should be widely addressed and communicated, so as to alleviate risk and meet compliance standards, depending upon the industry.
Branding & Company Culture
While a company intranet should cater to employee’s workflow needs first and foremost, it should also help them associate positively with the organization for which they work.
By not actively marketing the ways an organization interacts positively in the world, is a missed opportunity for human resources. Employee retention means that a company won’t lose time and money retraining staff. As well, a company’s best brand managers are its employees. If they feel that their employer is working to support them professionally and personally, they will be more likely to spread the word.
Knowing your company’s culture is also important when building an intranet. For example, an employee directory might include more than just title, department and phone numbers. It might also include hobbies and other more intimate attributes, depending upon the culture already established. Cultivating and facilitating a friendly and accessible company starts from within.
Ultimately, using SharePoint shouldn’t impair an organization’s ability to design a functional and productive intranet. However, building a successful intranet requires a combination of information architecture and human resources, all of which helps your employees manage their time and work better.