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Intranets today offer more functionality than ever before. But too often, this out-of-the-box functionality is released in the exact state it arrives, without any further configuration. For your intranet users and business to get the most out of new and existing functionality, some effort is needed to adapt it for your specific use cases.

What follows are some common ways intranets fail to meet the needs of its users.   

Intranet Site Structure (or Complete Lack of)

Have you ever rented a vacation home or apartment and tried to cook something in the kitchen? Other people’s kitchen organization rarely makes sense to us. Why are utensils in this cabinet and not the other one, where do they keep the plates, how do you work the stove? It can be frustrating, and some people just give up.

This happens to me a lot, but not always. Sometimes I come across a kitchen with labeled cabinets. I don’t have to frantically open every door, I simply read labels or the house guide. It’s a much easier and smoother experience.

It probably only took the host a few minutes to print those labels, but what a difference it made for each guest. The high ratings in their reviews often speak for themselves, even if the labels may never be directly mentioned.

This is no different from your intranet. Dropping an unstructured list of sites on your users will cause frustration, leaving people struggling every day to find what they're looking for. Even if you did an amazing job on the technical side of things and the technology is rock solid, reliable and secure — adoption may suffer.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Simply understanding what content your users are looking for, and then structuring and labeling this content can dramatically increase intranet adoption and satisfaction — and that’s what it’s all about.

Related Article: Don't Judge Modern Intranets By Their Predecessors

Flat Site Structure in SharePoint Online

Suppose you're using SharePoint online for your intranet. SharePoint Online comes with a lovely dashboard as shown below. It clearly displays all of your labelled sites and even provides an activity feed on each site.

However, all of the sites are flat, displayed on a single dashboard. Is this OK?

The introduction of the flat site hierarchy in SharePoint Online provided the flexibility to move sites and their content around. Essentially, all of the sites are independent of each other, so people can freely create sites and not worry about where they created them. Everyone who has access to them can pull them up.

This sounds like great flexibility to have, but if left untouched, it can quickly become a nightmare for users to navigate their way around content.

This is how SharePoint Online shows all of your sites and news articles.

sharepoint onine

Pretty simple and straightforward if you have a handful of sites, but what if you start creating project sites and other team sites? Those will immediately get mixed with the rest of the intranet in one big list of sites.

Related Article: Don't Call Your New Intranet 'The Digital Workplace'

The Problem With 'Frequent and Recent Sites' 

We all get bombarded with many distractions these days — both inside and outside of the workplace. Some distractions are intentional and crafty, such as phone notifications and alerts. Other distractions are unintentional, a result of poor design. One example of poor design I often find, is the Recent & Frequent function.

In theory, if I accessed something recently, chances are I’ll need it again, right? In practice, it depends. And often the answer is no. As a result, the functionality is more likely to distract me from finding the content I was looking for in the first place.

It happens quite often. Do you sometimes open a browser tab and by the time it loads you forget what you were looking for? Or sometimes you open the tab, navigate to the article, close the browser, only to realize this is not what you wanted. There is a great article on this experiment done with multiple users, but I’m sure you have first-hand experience of this as well.

Frequent Sites have a similar problem. In theory, it’s wonderful: all of your frequently accessed sites bubble up to the top and infrequent sites go to the bottom. In practice, users need access to a number of sites as they work. Moreover, sites that you frequently use this week may not be the same next week.

As a result, users have to constantly click “See All” and search for that one elusive site they need now. 

A much better approach is to separate sites by function or purpose, group them, and label those groups appropriately. This way, for example, even if I don’t access the News & Events site all that often, I can still see company-wide events I may be interested in, even if it’s only once a year.

Ideally, you’d gather a sample of users from across the organization to help you define these labels and groups in a workshop. If you can, run a tree test and see whether this organization of content was logical. With a tree test, you get measurable results which improves content discoverability.

Related Article: Get Your Intranet on Track With Effective Improvement Cycles

Sometimes, It Only Takes a Little Effort to Improve Results 

As new features emerge in the intranet world, it’s natural to get distracted and just run with the new functionality. But once the initial excitement wears off, it's time to put in some work. The key to a successful adoption is knowing your user scenarios and tailoring functionality to meet those scenarios. In many cases those configurations are easily performed out-of-the-box and bring significant value to your users.