You need to identify the return on investment (ROI) for your Intranet project. What's going to give you the most bang for your buck -- design or functionality?

Does it Come in Green?

Intranet projects are typically owned by one of two camps -- IT or Marketing. Generally speaking IT projects tend to focus on the technology, be that large enterprise platforms like SharePoint or smaller open source CMS systems. Marketing projects tend to focus more on design.

Marketing teams naturally think more about the people on the receiving end of the message, and the company brand. This situation tends to create a conflict in the objectives of the project. IT will be looking at the technology platform, what it can offer and how it be deployed and configured. Marketing will be looking more at the user experience, the navigation, and look and feel.

IT vs Marketing can be, albeit it crudely, boiled down to functionality vs. form.

Functionality v. Form

This issue can be illustrated by a fictional exchange between a marketing based client and delivery partner at the beginning of a project:

Partner: "So this is SharePoint. Out of the box you get.."
Client: "Hmm.. it's very blue. Can we make it look like our website?"
Partner: "Why of course, we can make it look like anything you wish. But I would say.."
Client: "Oh great.. well I don't like that navigation either, and the calendar is a little plain.."

'Look and feel fever' has begun to grip the project. Subsequent project conversations will now be spent discussing a custom look and feel, a brand new navigation and styling the out of the box components. The client will focus on how things will look, and there is a danger of ignoring what exactly what the system will do, and how it will function.

The extreme outcome of this situation can be a very attractive system, but one that doesn’t provide an adequate return on investment. Couldn’t the money spent on look and feel be better spent elsewhere?

So What About the Content?

Why is 'look and feel fever' a bad thing? Put simply it is the quality of the content, and the usefulness of the functionality, that will determine the success of a portal -- not what it looks like. If it works and makes user's lives easier it will thrive. If it does none of these things, but looks good, it will die.

'Content is king' is probably one of the most over, and misused phases in this industry. However, some fourteen years after Bill Gates coined it, it does still hold some truth. No where more so than on a company portal. People will not use a system unless there is a good reason to do so, and content is a key driver.

Let us take the humble blog as an example. A blog is simply a set of regular posts from a particular person or group -- it is an online diary. A CEO blog though is an excellent way to tackle internal communication issues. A CEO who posts something every day is providing an excellent channel to their staff. If they are posting relevant, up to date, constructive material, than all the better. If they both allow and act upon feedback, then even better still. Does it matter what this blog looks like, if the content is there? I’m not so sure.

Alongside the content of your portal must sit a suitable feature set. Functionality must make end users lives easier, and make their working day more efficient. One relatively simple method of achieving this is to pull access to all line of business (LOB) systems into the portal. Make the portal the only place to access the time-sheet system, the holiday calendar or other HR systems.

So I Can't Customize my System at All Then?

Applying zero custom design work or branding just isn't realistic, it also isn't desirable. But any branding work must come second to the content and functionality of the system. That is not to say the graphic design must be sketched out on a napkin a day before go-live. Simply that it must not dominate the project, especially in the early stages.

Define the project scope, work on the information architecture and develop functionality ideas -- then create a graphic design that works with this solution skeleton.

There will always be a requirement to customize the look and feel of a particular solution or platform. A custom look and feel, tied to a company's own branding, will aid usability and drive ownership. User experience is a vital part in the success of any Intranet system. But the design should support the function, not the other way round.

Ultimately adoption will be driven by what you can do with the system, the time it will save you and the functionality it will offer you. Function, not form, is the key to portal success.