“I can’t find stuff!” is one of the most common complaints I hear against intranets. 

Personalization (as well as search) gives companies a way to deliver more meaningful content to their intranet users.

Personalization has a clear vision, “when I log in I just want to see what’s most relevant to me,” but actually implementing it is far from straightforward. Too often, personalization efforts result in making things a lot more frustrating for users. 

Personalization vs. Customization

People tend to use personalization and customization interchangeably. Note the difference between the two terms:

Personalization: The intranet automatically adapts what it displays to the user’s profile (ideally from HR data, but it could be from initial pick-lists).

Customization: The user can directly change what they see, for example by subscribing to topics or adding shortcuts. In extreme cases, the page may be mostly blank until they do this.

Customization rarely works (as we'll go into below) so let's focus on personalization.

Why Personalize?

Complex organizations typically have complex intranets. It’s not necessarily due to the size of the organization, but that they operate in multiple sectors, markets, languages and disciplines.  

A US retailer may have over 100,000 people working for it, but if they all do basically the same work replicated in thousands of stores, the low level of complexity doesn't create much of a need for personalization. 

Conversely, a mid-size law firm may cover 20 countries, 10 languages and 15 different practice areas, where much of what happens in the intranet is irrelevant to any single specialist.

Personalization allows us to tailor the experience to cut down on the amount of navigation it takes for users to find what they need. Consolidation of multiple intranets into one often acts as the trigger for personalization, because the menu systems for the site get a whole lot bigger and multiple home pages merge into one. 

Model What Should Happen

As always, start with the user. Their relationship with the organization will cover many areas, but at least five or six dimensions will probably vary for them (more if you add language), as illustrated in the figure below. 

Typically, they will need to know about:

  • The Company as a whole (e.g. strategy, performance)
  • The Market they work for (e.g. Canada, Latin America). This may not apply to roles such as Research and Development or Head Office
  • Their Location typically relates to a site or office, for practical information about security, safety and that all-important lunch menu. We can also align employee Services here, such as HR, IT and Travel. These two need to be segregated from Market because people with different market responsibilities may share the same building. For example, the VP of Latin America may sit in the New York head office next to the VP of North America
  • Their Function, such as IT, HR, Sales and Marketing. This is someone’s professional dimension, so covers processes and knowledge sharing. It shouldn’t be confused with the delivery of services that some functions provide, as employees shouldn’t need to know which function provides those services
  • The Division they work in. This only really applies to companies that have multiple product or customer lines, for example, Automobile, Aerospace and Retail. Each division may almost act as a company in its own right, in which case this may be the dominant dimension
  • Projects and Communities sometimes get missed because they don’t feature on the org chart, but they are a vital part of an intranet feeling like it is relevant to someone’s work

areas for intranet personalization

The figure shows some example topics, but every company will need to work out a specific allocation according to their operating framework. If that operating framework isn’t clear, then treat this as a big red warning sign that personalization will be a political minefield. 

Build Consensus Around Personalization

Getting people to understand the end product of personalization can be challenging: It is a conceptual leap from one site equals one audience, which is easier for content owners to understand, even if it pushes the complexity onto the user instead. 

I find it helpful to combine personas with wireframe mock-ups. Pick five to six personas for each of the dimensions above and sketch out what they would see when they log in. 

For example, Karin is a Finance manager in a global chemicals company based in Sweden. Her role is business partner to the Nordic team in the aerospace division:

intranet personalization in action

The Wireframe might show a homepage with news consolidated from these dimensions, plus menu items of [Our Company] [Aerospace] [Stockholm Services] [My Projects] [My Communities].

Delivering the Experience

When it comes to delivery you have a scale of options, from very simple to very involved. I’ll cover these in more depth in a future article, but in brief you can:

  • Give people a different start page. This is basically audience segmentation and works if you can reasonably personalize along one dimension, such as division or country
  • Aggregate news by tags. This is flexible, but there’s more to intranets than news
  • Personalize the navigation. Personalization gets very powerful here, but the logic to automate it can be challenging
  • Rely on customization. Here the user must choose what they want to see. In most cases, only around 10 percent of people actually do this.

Remember the Golden Rule: Don’t Be Creepy

Personalization has its limits. 

One of the early personalization projects I worked on was strongly driven by phonebook details. We looked at people’s profiles and gave them home pages matched to their location, their function, the product line they worked on and the market they covered. 

This greatly simplified the navigation, but when people wanted to look at another function or brand it made it really hard to find.

If you personalize too much — and people don’t understand the logic behind it — it feels creepy. Moreover, people get disorientated. 

It’s like taking them blindfolded to a specific aisle of the supermarket and thrusting all the ‘relevant’ products at them. A useful starting point, perhaps, but they don’t have any idea what else is there. 

Going through a menu navigation sometimes helps people get oriented because they learn the structure as they go.

In my next article I’ll expand on the implementation options for personalization.

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