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The amount of work involved in designing a new intranet or redesigning an existing intranet is minor compared to the time needed to maintain an effective intranet over the longer term. In fact, it is common for the initial excitement of a new intranet to fade away as the reality of day-to-day maintenance and the challenges of improving the intranet become apparent.
For this reason, intranets tend to go one of two ways after launch – they either stagnate with few new features added over time or become masses of unstructured content and functionality created in a random fashion. This typically continues until the next redesign is announced.
Does this mean a redesign project is the only way to substantially improve an intranet? Is this the only time that user-centred design activities, such as staff interviews and usability tests, can be conducted? If a redesign project is not launched, how can the intranet team possibly find the time to improve the intranet whilst at the same time meeting the day-to-day maintenance schedule?
This article outlines 10 practical ways that an intranet can be improved incrementally without yet another redesign. Although some of the methods may require mini-projects to be set up within the intranet team, many of the methods can be applied alongside the team’s usual maintenance activities.
1. Adopt the right attitude
The biggest hurdle to creating an effective intranet is the belief that an intranet can be, or needs to be, ‘fixed’ in one go. A redesign project can never meet the needs of the entire organisation at one time. Meeting these needs takes time, as ongoing effort is required to build the intranet into an valuable business tool.
Remember that incremental improvements do make a difference, and that each improvement builds upon previous achievements. Be patient and educate your users and stakeholders that the intranet requires continuous improvement to remain relevant and effective.
With this attitude in place, you will be ready to embark on some of the ideas in this article.
Continue to learn about staff needs
2. Continuously learn about staff needs
The design or redesign of the intranet will involve activities to determine the needs of staff that an intranet could address. However, staff needs continue to change over time. Often the introduction of the intranet causes requirements to change as staff see how the intranet can help them. To continually improve the intranet, it is important to keep learning about the needs of staff.
Take every opportunity to learn about your staff needs. There are a range of ways to do this informally that do not involve an extensive research programme.
Learn active listening skills and interview techniques — these will help you to understand intranet needs better.
Listen and think about everything you hear regarding the intranet. If you hear something that doesn’t quite ring true (“I can never find my payslip”), don’t ignore it — follow it up until you understand why people are making these comments.
Learn to actively listen and ask questions
Don’t answer questions, ask questions
Whenever someone asks where to find something on the intranet, take the opportunity to learn more. Find out the context that surrounds their question. What task are they trying to complete? What steps have they taken already? What section did they think the information should be in? This will begin to build knowledge of what staff are really trying to do with the intranet and will provide insights into how they approach tasks.
Say “show me” as often as possible, and get people to work through what went wrong for them. Don’t criticise or tell them how they should be doing a task, simply watch them and learn.
The understanding gained by watching someone using the intranet will be much more valuable than purely telling them the answer.
Actively seek feedback
Don’t rely on a ‘feedback’ link to gather feedback — the main time people will fill it in is when they are particularly frustrated. Actively seek feedback by:
- asking colleagues what they think of a new feature
- asking people on internal workshops about their intranet experiences
- contacting new starters and ask them whether they have any questions about the intranet
- talking with help desk staff to find out whether there are any questions that people are asking frequently
Identify the real problems
If you hear criticism about the intranet, don’t take it at face value. Dig deeper to determine what the real problem is and how you can fix it.
For example, people often say things like “the search never works”. There isn’t enough detail in this comment to allow you to make improvements, so you need to learn more. Run a usability test or do some further research to find out enough information to resolve the problem.
3. Conduct regular usability testing
Usability testing is often conducted towards the end of a redesign project. However, it is just as useful to undertake usability testing throughout the life of an intranet.
During the design or redesign, not every part of the intranet will be covered by a usability test. It is also rarely practical to undertake a usability test of every addition to the intranet. A regular usability test program allows you to keep track of how well the intranet is supporting core tasks and identify new usability problems.
Prepare a set of scenarios that can be used for every usability test — these allow you to analyse how well the intranet is performing over time. For each series of usability tests, create a set of scenarios that aim to explore untested areas of the intranet or specific tasks. This allows you to ensure that the intranet is usable for a wide range of tasks.
After each usability test, write up the results and make these available on the intranet. Show staff what you have been doing to improve it and highlight areas where the intranet has improved.
Ensure the intranet continues to align with business strategies
4. Align with business strategies
An effective intranet is one that supports the strategies of the business, by communicating those strategies and providing the tools and content to enable the strategies to be implemented throughout the organisation.
Rather than focusing purely on administrative tasks, take the time to understand the core strategies of your organisation, whether these are to reduce call centre costs or improve the satisfaction level of your external customers. Think of ways that the intranet can support these strategies, such as:
- Set up a section on the intranet to communicate the progress of key strategic initiatives. Include what each initiative is aiming to achieve, who is driving the initiative, results achieved to date, and who to speak to for more information. By providing this information on
the intranet, staff have the opportunity to keep up-to-date with the strategic focus of the organisation.
- Identify content or functionality that can help achieve a key strategic goal. For example, if the focus is on reducing call centre costs, investigate whether the intranet can provide quick access to product and service information that will help reduce call times. See the article Knowledge management for call centres.
For more ideas on aligning the intranet with business strategies, see the article Does your intranet support core business?
Staff collaborate with people across the organisation — support this
5. Support existing collaboration
Often we assume that the way that work is done in an organisation reflects the organisation chart — that is that work is completed in small, independent teams. In reality, much of the best work in an organisation occurs across the organisation chart — that is, people in different teams coming together to pool experiences and create better outputs.
An intranet that supports the latter way of working will provide much better value to the organisation and its staff. The intranet can support this way of working in a number of ways, including:
- Helping people to find one another. Staff need to be able to get together with the right people and contact people with similar experiences.
- Helping staff to avoid re-inventing the wheel, by allowing staff to share current or previous projects.
- Allowing staff to share their knowledge and experience more easily.
6. Improve the intranet in sections
One of the most practical and achievable methods of improving an intranet is to work on one section at a time. This enables the intranet team to concentrate on a defined content area and set reasonable goals and deadlines for their work.
Make improvements one task at a time
Consider some of the following methods.
Improve one task at a time
Select one or more tasks that are commonly performed by staff or performed at critical times for the organisation. For example, filling out timesheets or completing performance reviews. Concentrate on improving the way the intranet supports those tasks. Sit with a few staff who are familiar with the task, or need to perform the task in the future, and watch them try to complete the task on the intranet. Ask them to ‘think aloud’ and note down any problems they have with the task. See the article Improving your intranet task by task.
Work with a business unit or team
Identify a particular business unit or team that is committed to improving their content and functionality on the intranet, or a team that does not currently have an intranet presence. Work with the members of the team to understand the tasks staff perform using their information. Using the results of the task analysis, update the content and functionality, and make any adjustments to the intranet’s information architecture. Ensure the changes improve the user’s ability to perform the tasks in question.
7. Improve findability
Take one piece of content, or a task, and see how easy it is to find the information using the intranet’s search engine. Think of all the keywords users are likely to enter to find the information, and see what comes up. If you have access to staff, organise 10-15 minutes of their time and watch them as they try to find the content on your list.
As findability problems are uncovered, review the metadata for the relevant pieces of content. This approach is also likely to uncover gaps in content and task support. Note down these gaps and decide how best to fill them. This may be a conversation with the relevant content owner to feed back what you have found.
Another great way to improve findability of intranet content is to set up a failed search terms report. This report lists all the words or phrases entered by users that bring back no results. Run the report each month and look for terms that users are regularly entering. Investigate whether the searches failed because of incomplete metadata or because the content does not exist.
Analyse intranet statistics and search logs to identify gaps and changes over time
8. Use existing data
A range of data may already exist that you can utilise to learn more about use of the intranet. For example:
- Site statistics provide information about what pages are being visited and how this changes over time. This can provide ideas on the most popular areas of the intranet and tasks that staff attempt while using the intranet.
- Help desks generally capture information about staff enquiries. This information can provide ideas for improvements to intranet content or ways that the intranet could support staff (such as better help information for a key business system).
- Search reports include queries typed into the internal search facility. They can highlight the most popular topics and how these change over time. Search reports are also a valuable source of how staff describe the information that they are looking for, and can be used to improve the labels used in the intranet navigation.
Analyse the reports from these sources regularly to keep on top of what is happening on your intranet.
9. Build author skills
Content authors are one of the most important, if not the most important, contributors to the usefulness of the intranet. They are experts in their domain, and without them you don’t have an intranet. However, authors do not always have the online writing skills to effectively communicate their expertise and knowledge.
This is where the intranet team can play a key role, by helping authors to identify the right content to place online, and write the content so it answers common staff questions.
Outside of traditional training, here are two ways that can be used to skill authors.
Set up a community of practice
If you do not already have an intranet community of practice, consider setting one up. An intranet community of practice is a group of intranet stakeholders (authors, publishers, reviewers and the central intranet team) that share responsibility for maintaining and improving the intranet. The community meets on a regular basis to set standards and learn new and better ways of doing things. Encourage authors to join the community and use some of the meetings to run in-house writing skills workshops or share authoring techniques to create more useful and usable content. See the article Establishing an intranet community of practice.
Conduct one-on-one coaching sessions
Set up one-on-one coaching sessions with interested authors to help build their content planning and writing skills. As coaching is the process of working with people to help them achieve their goals, avoid turning these sessions into training. Instead work alongside the author on a piece of content they are currently scoping or writing. By the end of one or two coaching sessions, the author should be able to point to a published piece of work you have completed together.
Whilst working with authors take the time to learn about their domain. This will not only gain the respect of authors but also help the intranet team to be more knowledgable about the organisation.
Authors are key to an effective intranet — support them
10. Create author how-tos
Content authors frequently battle with content management systems (CMS) that are cumbersome to use. This results in a shift of focus from creating great content to learning how to master the CMS.
Most organisations try to solve this problem by training staff in how to use the CMS, backed up by a training manual or a section on the intranet with author guidelines. This approach works except when the training manual or set of guidelines fails to answer authors’ real questions. For example, a guideline on how to load an image into the CMS can tell the author what buttons to click and what to enter into the relevant fields, however if it does not tell them the tricks experienced authors know about usage of graphics, it is of limited value.
An intranet can be improved over time by building a repository of well thought out how-tos for authors. Instead of rushing to write a whole set of guidelines, build up the repository one by one. Consider using one of the intranet community of practice meetings to brainstorm a few how-tos.
When writing how-tos, ensure they really answers authors questions. Follow these tips.
- Speak to experienced authors and find out the questions they get asked by their less experienced colleagues.
- Speak to new authors and find out what has caused them the most pain when using the CMS for the first time.
- When writing how-tos think of all the things that can go wrong along the way. What questions would you have if you were doing a particular activity for the first time.
- Don’t confine the how-tos to what the authors need to do on the CMS. Answer questions they might have about the entire process. For example, in the case of images, how do they source them, what tools are available to manipulate images outside of the CMS, and how do they name image files.
Encourage the use of the how-tos by referring to them when authors call for help. If an author tells you that a how-to does not cover their question, update it so that the next author does not have to struggle with the same issue.
A truly effective intranet is not created by a one-off design or redesign project — most of the work in creating an effective intranet occurs long after it’s release. To continuously improve your intranet, it is important to continue to learn about user needs, make sure that the intranet remains aligned with business strategies and provide ongoing support to authors.
(For an overall methodology for developing or redeveloping an intranet, see the Intranet Roadmap.)