Every year, I look forward to reviewing results of the Intranet Design Annual study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group. The study provides an in-depth analysis of the inner-workings of the most successful intranet projects from the year prior. The 2017 Intranet Design Annual Report is loaded with great examples from projects representing diverse industries.
If you're considering a new intranet project for your organization, you may want to purchase the study. If you're not ready to make that level of investment, here is a list of the five best practices featured in the 2017 report.
#1 Extensive User/Stakeholder Involvement
It is important to engage your end users and stakeholder community throughout your entire project, but critical during the planning and testing phases. Failing to embrace stakeholders during these two phases can doom your project from the start.
This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but, in my experience, many organizations still overlook this critical step. Most organizations don't want to exclude their stakeholders, but when it comes right down to it, they just don't know how to effectively engage them.
The first step to engaging end users is to establish a good working relationship between the IT team and the user community. Next, you need to identify the right tactics to employ. Whether this is your first time getting into user research, or you're a seasoned professional, these two articles are great resources to lean on.
By successfully engaging your key stakeholders, you'll be in a position to deliver a better solution and experience faster adoption rates.
#2 Research-Driven Navigation
Research-driven navigation highlights a specific dimension that was proactively addressed by all of the winning intranet teams. Organization charts can be great tool for planning your intranet—but you can't assume the site should be architected following the same hierarchy. Many organizations find it better to organize their intranet content by task rather than topic.
Determining the best approach for your site requires some research and planning. On a recent project, I followed these simple steps to identify and validate the proposed site navigation structure:
User Surveys – A simple survey, with open-ended questions, is an easy way to collect great data (like pain points and opportunities for improvement) and to show users that their voice is being heard.
Open Card Sorting – Conducting high-level open card sorting exercises can help establish a better understanding of your organization's vocabulary. It's rarely as straightforward as you might hope or expect, so acknowledging some of the nuances early is invaluable. OptimalSort is my go-to tool for card sorting.
Content Analysis – Start by analyzing the documents and data maintained at each department level – looking beyond file names and content types. Focus on the organization's business processes and collaboration needs across different teams and departments. The stakeholders I meet with are always intrigued by the mind-mapping tool that I use to capture my findings.
Tree-Testing – Next,I like to dive into testing. Using TreeJack, you can mock up a proposed navigation structure and put it in front of users. Whether you engage 10 users or 1000, you will learn something new and useful every time.
Wireframes – After tightening up the navigation structure, marry that structure with some low-fidelity visuals. The saying "A picture is worth 1000 words" is never more true than in website and intranet design. I'm a fan of Axure for robust wireframing, but Balsamiq fits the bill for most projects.
As great as this list is, keep in mind that every project is unique. The value is not necessarily in the specific steps or tools, but the overall approach.
#3 Agile Development
Next is Agile Development, breaking large portions of a project into smaller functional portions that can be developed quickly. This supports the approach presented in intranet best practice #2 in the following ways:
- Customer collaboration is a primary focus, rather than negotiating requirements.
- Driving towards a working solution is more important than creating a ton of documentation.
- Responding to change is valued over following a pre-determined plan.
If you're familiar with Agile Development, then you probably recognize those three points from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Given the amount of information and debate that's readily available, we'll keep this section short. However, it's worth noting that 7 of the 10 winning intranet projects utilized some version of Agile.
It's not the only way to build a winning intranet site, but in the 2017 study, 6 of the 10 winners built their sites using some version of SharePoint. In the 2016 study, 9 out of 10 sites used SharePoint.
So why is SharePoint so popular among award-winning sites?
Despite having its difficulties over the years, SharePoint has evolved and can meet the needs of just about any scenario that an enterprise may face. Although the Nielsen Norman study did not specifically address why project teams chose to use SharePoint, you can see where they leveraged different aspects of the platform.
The most popular features identified were:
- Project and document collaboration
- Social collaboration (Skype and Yammer)
- Responsive design capabilities
Like any platform, building on SharePoint requires planning and preparation. According to Blue Chip's own Microsoft MVP, Paul Stork, When Implementing SharePoint, Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail.
#5 Consulting/Design Partner(s)
All 10 of the winning intranet teams hired external consultants and/or design partners to help achieve award-winning results. Any organization that isn't fully proficient in any of the previous intranet best practices should consider engaging a professional consultant to bridge the gap.
Whether you're considering SharePoint or another intranet platform, the value of professional consultants will be realized quickly. If your organization is on the fence about whether or not to hire a consultant, consider the following:
Technology is a moving target. From licensing to on-premises versus cloud, there are a lot of decisions to make. If you don't live it and breathe the technology every day, it's good to have help navigating the ever-changing landscape.
You can't afford to get it wrong. Enterprise intranet projects have high visibility and even higher impact. Job security aside, a bad rollout can be a costly venture. External teams can help you mitigate risk.
It's better to learn from the mistakes of others. Professional consultants have earned their stripes. In addition to learning from their own experience, they've been called in to fix some of the worst implementation mistakes imaginable.
Often, consultants can deliver your message more effectively. The objectivity and experience that a consultant brings to a project is unique. Whether it's company politics or conflicting personalities, consultants can bypass much of the resistance that internally situated professionals encounter.
There you have it, the Top 5 Intranet Best Practices – practical ways to take action and make the most of your next intranet project.
Need help with your intranet project? Don't hesitate to contact us directly.