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PHOTO: federica ariemma

One lesson I learned early on is this: a well-designed interface is your secret weapon when it comes to intranet and digital workplace success.

This still holds true today. On more than one occasion I've seen teams launch a really great feature on their intranet only for it to go ignored. Then the homepage gets a redesign and lo, everyone starts raving about the new feature, which has been there for months.

Strong design and great UX are an essential part of any intranet and digital workplace. You must tick that box if you want to drive adoption and good usage.

Does Standardization Make Design Less Important?

Some argue that design isn't as important since digital workplace tools are becoming more and more standardized, especially with the explosion of Microsoft Teams and the roll-out of platforms like Workplace from Facebook.

Arguably the channel where there is traditionally the most flexibility over design — the intranet — is now also seeing standardization with SharePoint modern and the communication site template. Large organizations are now going more and more “out of the box” with SharePoint Online.

Flipping the argument, I think the standardization and commoditization of digital workplace tools we are now seeing illustrates the importance of good design. While options for customizations to accommodate your corporate identity may fall lower on the priority list, the good design, aesthetics and usability of a communication site and SharePoint Modern interface are critical ingredients of their success. 

Related Article: Do You Still Need to Brand Your Intranet?

9 Ways Great Design Supports Your Digital Workplace  

1. Stakeholder Engagement During a Build

A digital workplace project, and particularly intranet projects, require engaging senior stakeholders to get their buy-in, support and even sign-off before the project can start. Keeping them engaged throughout the project is equally important. Senior support helps enormously during launch and for ongoing improvements.

Similarly, you may also seek the engagement of users, content owners and digital champions. At best, so they're fully involved in an iterative design process, at least, so they can improve your final offering and to drive momentum up to and after launch.

Good designs help support engagement here. It gives your stakeholders something tangible to provide feedback on, makes what can sometimes be abstract functionality real, and triggers other ideas for features or unexpected issues that might occur. Above all, a good design gives everyone involved confidence in the project and your ability to deliver it.

2. Post-Launch Adoption

A confusing, out of date or clunky interface presents a barrier to adoption. This is avoidable. When users are presented with a poor design, they will make unfair assumptions about the quality of the underlying functionality or content, which can impact their willingness to use your site. A good design can have the opposite effect.

Related Article: The Pandemic Popped These Closely-Held Digital Workplace Beliefs

3. Usability

I don’t really need to explain why usability is central to the success of your platform. Generally, I find there is much greater awareness of this now than ever before. Teams are employing user-centered design techniques to support usability, although in practice many are still cutting corners, especially when it comes to testing designs early on in the design process.

4. Accessibility

Accessibility is extremely important in design, but there is significant room for improvement. Accessibility receives more attention today in part due to increased fears of legal risks as well as various regulatory compliance demands. But accessibility is still generally regarded as separate from usability and design, a slightly annoying consideration rather than a core design principle.

Related Article: We Need to Build Accessibility Into Our Digital Workplaces

5. Strong Content

Strong content and especially strong imagery are the hallmarks of a good intranet. A good design can help ensure content quality. IT view content and design as separate components: design in the front end, the CMS in the back end, and the content. However, a significant link between good design and good content can be found from the business perspective. How you design site templates dictate how content is presented. Templates help maintain content standards and make it easier for content owners to publish. Content owners also like to see their efforts displayed on a beautifully designed page: no one bothers to read when pages look horrible.

Another point to consider here links to my earlier point about the customization limitations of tools like SharePoint. This means content has an even greater role in making a visual impact and communicating the organization’s brand. Choosing on-brand imagery in your content can make your brand sing louder.

6. Corporate Branding

Opinions can be divided about the level of corporate branding reflected in a design: IT functions tend to care less while comms teams do care. Your company culture, your type of business and the aims of your intranet and digital workplace all play a part here. For example, a fast food chain with a highly transient, younger workforce may need stronger branding than a small law firm.

I think corporate branding is important, but not always in the way people think. For example, having a separately branded icon on mobile devices to reach a corporate intranet is necessary. But having an intranet that is 100% faithful to your brand guidelines is perhaps less so — and anyway — you don’t always have the choice. A factor here is also how good your corporate branding is. There are some lovely designed brands out there ... I’m sure Apple’s intranet looks fantastic!

Related Article: A 5-Point Digital Employee Experience Manifesto

7. Consistency

Consistency helps avoid confusion and jarring experiences for users. When you create a good user experience with, for example, a new intranet, it can highlight just how bad some other user experiences are. This issue arises frequently when trying to drive forward integrated digital workplace experiences.

I worked with a client where most people were happy with most of the systems used, but everybody, including the product owner, HATED the HR system because it was poorly designed, looked out of date, was clunky and stuck out like a sore thumb. The solution was to allow users to conduct common HR transactions through the new intranet, where people would no longer have to suffer that poor design.

8. Targeted Experiences and Use Cases

Most organizations have specific use cases and individual needs where out of the box interfaces don’t meet their needs. Some customization of the design can help get the right digital workplace in place. Increasingly products recognize this and are trying to offer design options in configuration to avoid interfering with upgrade paths.

Ultimately this is a compromise, but in general, using some customizations in design can make a significant difference and is worth the effort, even though customization should always be approached cautiously as it will mean more work later on to ensure things don’t break following an update.

9. Reuse

A new intranet can often be the first time anybody has really considered design for internal systems. A new design can highlight the importance of usability. Ideally, as you work on design work, you also create a “design system” or similar with guidelines, code snippets and more so it can be reused on the next project, or shared with your digital agency. The value of design then exponentially increases.

Design Drives Good Employee Experiences

Design is important in the digital workplace and in driving a good digital employee experience. The rise of out of the box products among others changes the equation, but it doesn't lessen the part design and the quality of your interfaces play in long-term success. If you want a sustainable, well-adopted and impactful intranet or digital workplace, good design is critical.