The design of intranets can be pretty standard, with many sites following the same basic layout. The diagram above shows a typical intranet page, consisting of the following elements:
- page header, containing global navigation
- left-hand navigation, containing local navigation
- body of the page
- page footer
This is all pretty standard, nothing that anyone wouldn’t immediate recognise. By default, new intranet designs tend to automatically follow this model. All that being said, I’m nonetheless starting to wonder: is left-hand navigation evil?
Left-hand navigation is obviously not inherently evil. There is a clear need to help users to navigate their way into the intranet, down to lower levels of the site. The left-hand navigation provides a simple and consistent way of doing this, as well as providing ‘at-a-glance’ visibility of the major links and sections.
So far, so good. So, what’s the problem then?
The issue is not with the design of the left-hand navigation, but how it’s used. In particular, how it ends up being used in a decentralised authoring environment for a large and organically-growing intranet.
These are the issues that I see all too often:
- New items get added to the left-hand navigation in an ad-hoc way.
- This quickly leads to a near-random list of items, with major sections (“HR policies and procedures”) scattered amongst individual items (“Online payslip”).
- In many cases, there can be more than a dozen items squeezed into the tiny sidebar, severely impacting on readability and usability.
- By providing a convenient (and default) place to put links, there seems to be no requirement to think through what is added.
- With the key links on the sidebar, this leaves little obvious purpose for the body of the top-level pages, and many authors (feeling the need to fill them with something) write the standard “about us” or “overview text”.
- This leaves the body of the top-level pages as useless “blah blah” text, with the primary purpose of these pages (navigation) being squeezed into the sidebar.
- Links are often also duplicated in an ad-hoc way between the left-hand sidebar, the body of the page, and any right-hand “related information” boxes.
- Having run intranet usability tests, we often see users completely miss the left-hand sidebar, particularly when it is poorly designed.
Note that experienced authors and site administrators do not fall into these traps, and there is nothing inherently evil about the left-hand sidebar. However, in a large organisation many authors are fairly inexperienced and are given little in the way of clear guidance or training.
Having been given the responsibility to maintain the HR section, they do their best to find a place for new content as it is added. Without a clear understanding of information architecture principles, the ad-hoc use of the left-hand sidebar seems like a perfectly good solution.
In practice, however, the poor use of the left-hand sidebar keeps coming up as one of the major usability issues on intranets. Even when completely redesigning sites, the ad-hoc use of the sidebar seems to creep back in even before all the content has been migrated, lessening (or even entirely eliminating) many of the intended benefits of the redesign.
This also comes back to the need to design intranets all the way to the bottom, and not to finish the design process at the home page of the site.
Eliminate the sidebar?
I’m wondering whether the answer is to entirely eliminate the sidebar. I’m a great believer in having the key navigation to lower-level content within the body of the page. Usability studies consistently show that users focus on the body area, and filter out most (or all) of the surrounding elements.
This devotes the majority of the top-level pages to their primary purpose: navigation. It also gives more space for supporting text and other design elements which greatly improve information scent.
They would be eliminated not because they are inherently evil, but because they inevitably seem to be used poorly in a decentralised environment. Of course, training and mentoring of authors to build their skills is the only long-term solution, but eliminating the left-hand sidebar might remove one of the obvious traps for inexperienced authors. It might also help to eliminate much of the useless “blah blah” content that overwhelms many intranets.
Your thoughts on this? Please do email me.