The concept of the browser-based intranet as most people know it is a relic of the 20th century: You may as well dress it down in flannel and send it off to a Pearl Jam concert. A seldom elegant mashup of communication channels, application functionality, document collaboration and now enterprise social, the intranet at its heart is an idea from the days before mobile and BYOD that, much like the Cadillac Escalade and the British aristocracy, continues to hang on long past its expiration date. And yet it’s not going anywhere any time soon.
Why, in the face of mobile apps and the still burgeoning smartphone culture, do companies continue to spend millions of dollars every year re-platforming, re-designing and upgrading their intranets? It’s a simple question with a simple answer: Like the gas-guzzling Escalade and the distinctly undemocratic House of Lords, a sizable number of people with even more sizable monetary resources have a vested interest in keeping it going.
Even so, eventually things will change. The responsive designs of today get the job done, but when you’re used to using simple, easy-to-interact-with apps for everything from buying a car to learning the guitar to (finally!) creating a PowerPoint deck, calling up a browser and scrolling … and scrolling … and scrolling or typing in search terms will eventually seem like one step too many. The responsive, mobile intranet of today might be good enough for now, but in the not-too-distant future we’ll reach a tipping point where users have become so inured to the mobile app experience that anything more complex is nothing but an excuse to go find (or build) an app for that.
After all, apps already exist for news publishing (communication channels), social networks (enterprise social), creating and editing documents (document collaboration) and just about everything else (application functionality). The intranet at best isn’t far from being nothing but a branded launchpad for all of these things.
There’s an App For Everything
From a change perspective, it’s largely accepted wisdom to identify the mobile experience as a primary factor affecting the design of next-generation intranets. Note that we've said the mobile experience, as opposed to mobile devices outright. That experience includes not just form factor and pinch-and-zoom touchscreens — the means by which we interact with software — but the software itself.
The whole concept of targeted, specific “apps” for every targeted, specific action isn't new — it echoes single-use applications built in the ancient days of terminals and client-server architecture — but it represents a significant shift from the concept of the intranet portal with which we've been living these past fifteen years.
Do-everything portals seem clunky and cluttered in comparison to a set of apps that, each in its own way and time, allows access to a key work function, process, or set of data. Evolutions in mobile UX such as Apple’s “Multitasking Gestures” (think ALT-TAB if you’re a Windows lifer) make swapping apps easier and multitasking a less painful process. It’s easy to see a day when intranets — if they exist at all — serve merely as a paper-thin presentation layer containing nothing but corporate branding, some news and links to various key apps. And of course some would say you can just turn the news into an app, or simply create one app to launch all the others — the possibilities are perplexing.
Responsive Designs are More Popular (So Far)
The alternative to the app-driven internal experience has been responsive design — or more properly, the traditional intranet made responsive. (Whether it’s truly responsive or simply adaptive, the result — an interface that shapes itself to fit a user’s browser/device — is what we’re after here.) Most of the intranet redesigns we see today include at least some elements of responsiveness. Others are explicitly driven by it, and in general it seems to be the way the prevailing winds are blowing. But only for a while.
It won’t be long before mobile platforms — which have already passed the desktop in popularity among consumers — have become the primary means by which an overwhelming number of users are accustomed to accessing information. When that happens in the consumer marketplace, the shift in the enterprise won’t be far behind, but business may be farther in the wake of the consumer than some pundits imagine.
The Users are Changing
When people are used to doing things one way, you have to give them an easier way to do those things if you want them to embrace a change. When it comes to accessing information, people used to calling up apps at the touch of a fingertip won’t readily go back to browser-based search-and-scroll. They’re going to want their apps, don't doubt it.
The folk holding the purse-strings in many cases will be tied to their Escalades and their old chums in Parliament, but it says here that eventually the collective user experience of mobile — like eco-friendly engines, like populist democracy — will roll in like an implacable tide. And when that happens, for the traditional intranet, the last echoes of the 20th century will finally fade from hearing.
About the Author
Rich Wood is director, modern applications at Perficient, Microsoft's 2013 US Partner of the Year. He has been planning, designing and building enterprise solutions for intranets, extranets, and public internet sites since 1997, and has been involved with collaboration technology since 1992. Rich has deep experience in information architecture, user experience, social collaboration and enterprise architecture and technology strategy, and blogs frequently at perficient.com. You can find him on Twitter as @richOthewood.
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