I took a peek at the article last week reporting on the NNG 10 best intranets of 2012 with some curiosity regarding what would be reported and I found something that was infinitely more interesting to me in the user comments.

You Can't Judge an Intranet by its Homepage

Dreissen writes: “Thanks for sharing, but may we see some screenshots of those intranets to understand why they won?!” This comment was interesting to me for one big reason; Dreissen and, I’m sure, many others like him believe that they could understand why an intranet “won” by looking at a screen shot. This belief is for me a chicken/egg type paradox.

A seasoned experience professional with a trained eye on how to dissect a screen shot would never think that they could extrapolate from a screen shot reasons why that intranet was selected, and anyone who believes they could extrapolate does not have a trained enough eye to really dissect a screen shot in that level of detail. 

What A Screenshot Can Tell You

So why can’t a screen shot tell you why an intranet was selected? The same reason that a leather jacket or a new pair of kicks can’t make the junior high dork cool. So many executives ask intranet technology and business owners to make their intranets “look cool” and they just don’t get it. Three things can be gleaned from a screen shot:

  1. A broad view of visual design on isolated pages -- Visual design when viewed from a screen shot does not tell you how a visual design was interpreted and extended throughout an experience. How were interactions treated? Was thought put into typography and how it can be used to convey relative importance? Was a design style-guide made? How are scripted or rich media animations treated? A screen shot can never tell you these things any more than a single head-shot photo of a person on match.com can tell you weather a person is attractive to you.
  2. A suggestion to content that is surfaced in an intranet and possibly some insight into the information architecture at the highest level -- A screen shot won’t provide any insight into the content hierarchy beyond the depth of navigation that is presented, nor will it tell how well search works at finding content and it won’t tell how well, or even if, a taxonomy is integrated into the content and the experience.
  3. A hint of the features and functionalities that are present -- The static nature of a screen shot cannot provide anything in this area beyond what a label and iconography can communicate. It can’t tell how a feature actually behaves and it most definitely cannot even begin to communicate how the features respond outside of “happy path input”.

Success, Like Happiness, Comes From Within 

So what was it that made the NCR intranet worthy of selection? Given that I was lucky enough to lead the Macquarium team that played a significant role in the strategy and detailed design of the NCR intranet, I will do my best to explain what I believe led to the selection. First off, I don’t believe in the notion that “what a thing is” or even “what a thing can do” are what makes it great. Rather it’s “what goes into making a thing” and “how it accomplishes its functions” that sustainably separates an individual from the pack.

From my personal experience with the Macquarium and NCR teams, several things stand out in these categories:

  1. Empathy -- Empathy is where almost all substantive achievement begins. In an intranet project, developing an understanding for the creators, consumers and curators of content is absolutely necessary to deliver something of significant and lasting value; i.e., something that is cool rather than something that looks cool. If people on your team say “we know what they need” your internal alarms should be going off, because this sort of statement, and the attitude from which it arises, is the true opposite of empathy; contempt. It is contemptuous to believe that a wide and diverse group of hundreds if not thousands of people, along with their work contexts and needs, in your organization can be immediately understood by people who do not actively talk to them. The very first thing your audience actually needs is for you to listen to them rather than assuming you understand them.
  2. Perseverance -- Macquarium came into NCR more than a year after the redesign project began for a “project rescue” engagement. The morale of the business and IT teams was very low and the tension between the two groups was so bad that several key team members from the business side openly advocated shutting the whole project down while the development team was looking to find a way to assume authority over the project and launch the site as it stood at that time. Like any major program at the enterprise level, intranet endeavors can and will encounter low points in both faith and morale that must be traversed if something exceptional is to come out on the other side. I would even posit that if there is no hardship in your intranet program, then you're not breaking with convention enough to be exceptional. Perseverance is the attribute necessary to overcome the inevitable hardship that significant programs all face.
  3. Unflinchingly High Expectations -- One of the most memorable aspects from my engagement with NCR was the unabated desire for excellence that came from Colleen Swanger, NCR's director of design and digital. Even after being placed on the NNG list, Colleen is still not satisfied with the end product and I will not be surprised, in the slightest, if the executives at NCR fund her work for continued improvement (more in an effort to shut her up than to try to leverage a jewel of an asset that makes for a great workplace where employees feel valued for their contributions).
  4. Willingness to do the dirty work -- Many interactive agencies out there are so concerned with focusing on “the strategic work” that they have eschewed the low-level design work. Macquarium came in the picture when the first agency, EightShapes, recommended us to NCR stating that low level interaction design was not their thing. This is not a slight on EightShapes, their work was very good and what was even better was their willingness to turn work away that was not in their wheelhouse. Truly exceptional and surprising experiences are made in the details. If you want to make an exceptional intranet (which cannot, by definition, be delivered with a vanilla implementation of any package), get ready for a lot of effort to be put into wireframes and styleguides.
  5. Empathy -- Yes smarty-pants, I did already list empathy. And no, pretentious one, I am not using repetition as a trite manner of reinforcement like “location, location, location”. There is a form of empathy that hardly anybody really talks about in UX circles; empathy for team. This was the one things that helped NCR move past the partisan positions that tore the team apart into business and IT. Spending time investigating the challenges that each group faced in detail helped the whole team to start seeing each other as people who were:
    • Honestly trying to do great work.
    • Facing constraints and obstacles that were real and not indicative of a lack of effort.
    • In need of reasonable assistance, rather than chastisement, when attempting to understand each other.
    • Feeling significantly denigrated when entering into heated and positionally-charged debates that seemingly debased their voices and concerns.
    Once the team started to see through each other’s eyes and could feel the pain of their teammates (who were halfway around the world), they started to talk from a place of understanding and grace rather than a place of criticism. This tone change brought about a change in the view of the team itself; from two teams to one and ultimately enabled the project to regain momentum towards completion, an actual deployment, rave reviews from their employee audiences, executives and ultimately the experts at NNG.

After reading this article I hope readers can begin to stop looking at end products and thinking they can really be understood and replicated from the outside in and realize that true greatness can only be achieved when your focus and efforts begin first on the inside and then drive out.