After three years, our old friend Jakob Nielsen (news, site) returns to the topic of intranet portals and shares that the latest implementations focus on stability rather than innovation.

When portals first began to proliferate within corporate firewalls as the platform of choice for intranets, the goal was to provide users with as many gateways as possible to information that could be useful.

However, the corporate communications teams learned that users didn't want to go through multiple gateways to gain access to information. Users wanted that information displayed on their customizable landing page.

Although only three years have passed, we have arrived at the latest generation of the corporate intranet.

In those three years since Nielsen last studied intranet portals, three key findings emerge: 

The Good: Personalization is Real

When most organizations originally launched intranet portals, personalization was a "nice to have." The prevailing thought was to first design and implement for every employee, then go back and add the ability for individuals to personalize their experience.

Currently, personalization is a fundamental requirement. Why? As Nielsen says: More Stuff! There is so much information that can be surfaced on an intranet portal that users can be overwhelmed with options, leading to avoidance of the intranet altogether.

Users desire and require the ability to turn sections off and move things around. If you don't own any stock in your company, you don't want to see the stock ticker. If you are a heads-down developer, you want a widget that shows the status of your continuous integration server rather than your email inbox.

You get the idea.

The good news is that portal vendors have been working on personalization features for years and it appears they are starting to get it right.

The Bad: Governance is Necessary, But Often Incomplete

According to Nielsen, every organization with an intranet needs governance but few have enough or have implemented it properly.

The trick appears to be finding the right amount of governance for the size of your organization. The rule of thumb is: The bigger the organization, the more governance is required. But like every rule, there are exceptions.

The issues occur when this equilibrium gets out of balance. For example, if an intern is deciding what goes up on your intranet or if a change in punctuation requires three meetings and four levels of approval, then you are doing governance wrong.

My advice is: Talk about it. First, discuss the situation internally. Try to find a consensus on where you stand as a communications leadership team. If the collective opinion is that you have too much or too little governance, then brainstorm some alternative strategies. While you are working through things internally, reach out through your network and find out what your peers at other organizations are doing. Try to avoid inventing a new wheel, if a perfectly round one already exists.

Lastly, Nielsen advises you to avoid purchasing a governance solution:

The only universal conclusion actually relates to this lack of perfect governance solutions: Anybody who attempts to sell you one is hawking snake oil."

The Ugly: Mobile User Experience is Lacking

It does not surprise me that mobile optimized versions of intranet portals are struggling to gain traction. Most intranet champions had to fight just to get enough funding to launch the new intranet. When said champion went back to the steering committee asking for more money for a mobile version, they were either laughed out of the room or thrown out.

But the person who is punished is the end user, as usual. People with smartphones and tablets are downloading apps that display amazing innovation and provide substantial productivity benefits. And yet, the same users -- if they can get to their intranet from their mobile device -- cannot look up a phone number that they really really need.

When the cries get loud enough to authorize a mobile version of the intranet, Nielsen stands by his advice from research done in 2009:

Good mobile usability requires a separate design with a reduced feature set for mobile use cases, focusing on time- and location-dependent tasks. It's not enough to make an existing portal accessible through phones, because the UI is optimized for desktop use."

What Do You Think?

Do you buy in to Nielsen's findings, or does your experience tell a different story? Share your thoughts in the comments below.