Most of your intranet is irrelevant. 

This isn’t a criticism. As intranets grow more comprehensive, much of the detailed content won’t apply to any specific individual. 

Amazon is the same: I have no interest in the majority of its stock. But the trick that Amazon gets right — and that intranets need to emulate — is that it feels like what it offers is relevant because it personalizes what I see.

In my last post I discussed how to design the personalization experience for an intranet. Here I’m going to explore the different options for implementing personalization and the pros and cons of each:

  1. Start page segmentation
  2. News aggregation
  3. Personalized navigation
  4. User customization

personalization dimensions, sam marshall article

Personalization dimensions

Start Page Segmentation

The simplest way to give some degree of personalization is to have a different, distinct start page for each geography, such as Canada, Brazil and France. 

Typically, each start page will follow the same template but will include a section that covers ‘Local news’ and a menu of services specific to that country. Company-wide news can also be part of the template, either manually re-published or (ideally) automatically pushed through from the corporate comms team. 

This approach's advantage is that it's simple to implement (using a browser setting or based on the user’s IP address, for example). Using a common template can also make it easier to keep things in step when changes are made to the global navigation or design.

The big downside is that it really only works for one dimension (see the figure above). As soon as you want to add personalization on a second dimension, such as function, then you get an explosion of template possibilities and it becomes too unwieldy. For example, each Canada page now needs Canada + HR, Canada + Sales, Canada + Finance, etc.

News Aggregation

News aggregation offers a partial solution to the multi-dimension problem. 

In this approach, each news story is tagged with a target audience. The intranet displays news to individuals by matching that keyword to their profile (driven by their profile settings, people finder details or Active Directory, for example). In effect, when they go to the page, the intranet retrieves news using a saved-search with these keywords as filters.

Keywords allow the same story to be targeted in multiple channels

Keywords allow the same story to be targeted in multiple channels

The news aggregation approach can work well when you have stories relevant to multiple audiences, but not everyone. News with multiple keywords can be pushed to several news streams at once. SharePoint, for example, can do this relatively easily out of the box.

Of course this approach has some downsides too. Some worry that important stories will get pushed down the list by lesser stories. However, judicious use of page design can address this: add a ‘Headline’ tag to the main stories and show these as hero images. Put remaining stories in an 'other news’ feed, or ‘pin’ important stories to the top. 

A second concern is that users will see duplicate stories, for example in the illustration above when they go from the ‘France’ page to the ‘Sales’ page the ‘France Aug Sales figures’ story would show again. However, this is common on the web and rarely a deal-breaker.

Navigation Personalization

For some intranet owners, a focus on news means that navigation personalization gets overlooked. Navigation personalization can be a powerful tool in simplifying the user experience. 

Imagine if every time you wanted to book a meeting room you had to go through a hierarchy of: Services > France Services > Paris Office > Meeting Rooms. It would be so much easier if your services directory knew you were based in Paris so gave that as the default, with other offices as extra options. A smart “How do I …?” list on the homepage can be a useful upgrade over the ubiquitous “useful links” list. 

Going further, some intranets make all of the top-level menus user-specific. In my last post our example user Karin saw: [Our Company] [Aerospace] [Stockholm Services] [My Projects] and [My Communities] for example. Karin's profile readily provides this information and when put to use, it gives a strong sense that when she logs onto the intranet it understands who she is and what she might need. 

The closing advice of my last post was don’t be creepy and over-personalize, and that’s a particular risk with this approach. To get the balance right, make it clear how Karin can see other options, otherwise we lock her into a silo. For example, the [Aerospace] menu needs to have [Other Divisions] as an option.

User-Driven Customization

Unlike the options discussed so far, users drive customization rather than the system. It relies on employees making the effort to choose what they want to see up-front.

The problem is that they rarely do, even though the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term cost in effort. Carroll and Rosson called this the paradox of the active user

Few companies have managed to get more than about 10 percent of their users to customize their experience. I've seen intranet homepages two years after launch where users still have big blank spaces saying “Please select your function to see news.”

However, a little customization can at times go a long way. One example is where a pop-up dialogue asks them to make a simple forced choice, much like setting the home city for a weather app. 

Indeed, the app model works well, because people are used to doing customization on their smartphones by selecting the apps they want, and a ‘speed dial’ app widget on an intranet can tap into this understanding (global law firm Linklaters used this to good effect with their My Apps section). 

Combined Intranet Personalization Approaches

All of the above can be usefully combined. Any personalization approach will likely hit a niche scenario where the rules just don’t work, and this can frustrate users much more than having no personalization at all. For example, some functions work in a ‘business partner’ model, where an HR representative is assigned to Marketing, or IT to Research and Development. Business partners don’t just want to see what is happening in their own function but in that of their internal client too.

Customization combined with news aggregation can help here: let people add or ‘follow’ additional topics, and see the personalization settings as sensible defaults rather than immutable rules.

Ultimately how far you go with personalization takes us back to the opening question: what will it take to make your intranet feel relevant?