Seven roles of the intranet homepage
There is no more contested or challenging page on the intranet than the homepage. As it is the most visible page on the site, everyone wants their piece of the homepage.
There is also contention about the role of the intranet homepage:
- Should the homepage be mostly about news?
- Is navigation the key element?
- What tools should we surface on the homepage?
- How do we decide which links are included?
The many different stakeholders involved in the intranet will each have their own, potentially differing, opinions about these questions.
What is agreed is the importance of the homepage. It is the starting point for staff, and the jumping off point for the rest of the site. If the homepage doesn’t work well, then staff frustration will quickly be heard.
Time should therefore be spent carefully designing the homepage, and getting the balance of functionality right.
To assist with this, this article outlines a framework for thinking about the intranet homepage. It outlines seven key roles, and discusses aspects of each.
Use this as a starting point for discussions within the intranet team, and with the broader group of intranet stakeholders.
While there is no one ‘right’ answer, take the opportunity to revisit the homepage, and judge whether it is best meeting the needs of staff and the organisation.
Balance the use of space on the intranet homepage
Seven roles for the homepage
There is a lot of information squeezed into the homepages of most intranets. This includes news, links and tools.
Many of these have been added over time, as part of the overall organic growth of each intranet. Items are added at the request of stakeholders, and new functionality requires additional links.
The makeup of the intranet homepage is also strongly determined by the owner of the site, and the key stakeholders involved. Internal communications will naturally focus on news, while IT may concentrate on personalisation and portlets.
Regardless of who owns the homepage, there will always be contentious decisions. Key business areas may wish to promote their every activity, however minor. Some functionality may be squeezed to the edges on a homepage dominated by just a single function.
While certain conventions have built up around the design of homepages, it is not clear that these meet the needs of staff. It is worth stepping back to take a fresh look at what goes on the homepage.
In broad terms, there are seven key roles for the homepage:
- key tools
- key information
- community and culture
- internal marketing
Each of these roles are explored in the coming pages, along with screenshots of typical designs.
The highlighted area above shows a common design for news on the homepage. While there are many ways of presenting news, it is typical to list a number of recent stories along with a featured story.
In this case, several different types of news is displayed, including corporate news and a summary of media mentions.
As the most visited page on the intranet, the homepage is the natural place for corporate news. The intranet is also seen as a primary communications channel, one that reaches the majority of staff.
When designing the news section on the homepage:
- Minimise the number of different types of news, as this can cause confusion for staff (some intranets have crept up to half a dozen different news sections).
- Provide a well-written summary for each news item, and use graphics only when they provide additional information or context.
- Focus the news not just on corporate announcements, but also operational updates that are highly relevant for frontline and operational staff.
- Target news to specific groups, to allow both ‘global’ and ‘local’ news to be delivered without overwhelming all staff with updates.
- Consolidate multiple news sections scattered throughout the site into a single news feature on the homepage.
- Develop a clear policy for what is published as news, to ensure that updates are relevant and useful.
- Avoid ‘what’s new on the intranet’, as staff are unlikely to pay attention to these before the point of need. Instead, write a proper news story if the update is significant enough.
While news is important, staff will not typically visit the site just to check whether additional items have been added. Communications teams should therefore focus on making the intranet useful first, with comms benefits flowing as a by-product.
When asked, most intranet managers will indicate that the most important purpose of the homepage is navigation. This reflects the intranet’s broader role as the gateway to organisational information, and the ‘first click’ towards desired content.
Yet it is surprisingly hard to find examples of intranets that devote any significant space to navigation on the homepage. In many cases, navigation is squeezed to the edge of the page, around other elements (typically news).
In the worst cases, staff are burdened with difficult-to-use drop-down and fly-out menus, sometimes three levels deep. These generally fail to meet accessibility standards, and are cumbersome to use.
One of the key concepts underpinning good intranet design is ‘information scent’, as discussed in the earlier article Information scent: helping people find what they want. This means providing staff with plenty of context about what links mean, and what to expect.
Even when well designed, global navigation across the top of the page is always limited in how much it can convey.
Many intranets would benefit from devoting more space to navigation within the homepage.
When including navigation within the homepage:
- Limit the use of ‘quick links’, as these can easily grow over time, and have little inherent structure or order.
- Explore the use of task-based navigation, such as a ‘how do I?’ section.
- Consider using space on the homepage to present key links within each major intranet section, thereby increasing information scent.
- Establish a clear policy around what links are published on the homepage, to manage stakeholder expectations (and demands!).
Intranets are used when they are useful. This means helping staff to quickly and confidently find the information and tools they need to do their jobs.
The intranet homepage provides an invaluable opportunity to surface to key information, and to directly help staff complete their common tasks. This should go beyond just global navigation or a single sidebar.
3. Key tools
In addition to providing links to tools and applications, these can be presented directly on the homepage.
This may include core intranet functionality such as intranet search, or the staff directory. Placing these within the body of the page can overcome the ‘banner blindness’ commonly associated with links at the top of the page.
Search and the staff directory are also the most frequently used intranet tools, so it makes sense to apportion them space on the homepage.
Important business systems can also be surfaced on the homepage. This may include tools relating to HR or finance, workflow systems, or operational business systems.
Providing this kind of functionality on the homepage goes to the heart of the intranet as a ‘place for doing things’ rather than just for ‘reading things’.
It also delivers the concept of the intranet as a gateway or single entry point, much more than just providing a long list of links to applications.
When including key tools on the homepage:
- Include the systems and functionality that will be used widely throughout the organisation.
- Target additional tools to key user groups, such as managers, sales people and front-line staff.
- Consider automatically tailoring the homepage to present targeted tools only to the relevant staff groups.
- Seamlessly incorporate functionality without requiring additional log in (‘single sign-on’).
- Ensure that the functionality provided is extremely simple and usable, even for general staff.
The intranet can, and should, evolve into a business tool, beyond just a place for publishing content. The intranet homepage should be used to progressively deliver new tools for staff.
Be careful, however, of pursuing a technology-focused vision for the intranet. Most staff have only modest technology skills, and it is easy to deliver functionality that will not be understood or used by staff.
4. Key information
The intranet can be used to surface key corporate results and figures. Depending on the type of organisation, this might include:
- sales figures
- stock price
- safety results, such as the number of days since the last serious accident
When delivering this type of top-line information, ensure that it is relevant and useful for a large cross-section of staff. The information should not get in the way of other roles for the homepage, such as news and navigation.
If the homepage is tailored for specific audience groups, it can also be used to deliver figures relevant to just those audiences.
As shown above, this might include cost and profit figures for managers, or the status of the pre-sales process for sales staff.
Presenting these types of figures can give much-needed visibility to key performance indicators for the organisation as a whole. Work with senior management to determine the details that best reflect corporate strategy and directions.
There can also be a cultural benefit in presenting these figures, such as highlighting the organisation’s safety record.
5. Community and culture
Beyond just being functional, the intranet should reflect the culture of the organisation it serves.
Organisations vary immensely in their culture, practice and history. This leads to many different approaches to conveying the culture on the intranet.
Start from a definition of the organisation’s internal brand, often determined as part of an internal communications strategy. Assess how the intranet should reflect this, and design elements of the homepage accordingly.
It can also help to reinforce the culture, or to support efforts to shift the culture in a different direction.
While the intranet alone cannot change the corporate culture, it can act as a channel for change management programs, or more subtly reflect the directions desired by senior management.
The intranet can also showcase the staff within the organisation, or include social elements such as buy-and-swap announcements.
When including community and cultural elements:
- Work with senior management and key stakeholders to identify what messages need to be communicated to staff.
- Consider showcasing staff profiles, ideally with a photo (humans are hard-wired to respond to faces).
- Put a ‘human face’ to the intranet that goes beyond a dry corporate presentation of information.
- Find the right balance between ‘softer’ cultural elements on the homepage, and more functional aspects.
- Include cultural elements throughout the design of the whole site, rather than just focusing on a single element on the homepage.
Some intranets have a very strong brand in their own right, such as ‘Boris’ (see the case study Publicising the launch of ‘Boris’ at City of Casey). If this reflects the culture of the organisation, it can be a very powerful way of addressing community and cultural needs.
6. Internal marketing
Intranet teams are constantly bombarded with requests to promote new projects, initiatives and tools created by business units.
These may be major changes, or incremental updates (from the perspective of the intranet team). They will also vary in their relevance to the broader staff audience.
Regardless of this, there is a consistent desire to promote these updates on the intranet homepage.
While some updates may not warrant such visibility, others will, and the intranet team gains little by saying ‘no’. The danger is that if the central team acts as a gatekeeper, it simply forces the business unit to escalate the issue to a sufficiently senior level of management.
Intranet teams should therefore find a way of saying ‘yes’, while balancing internal marketing needs against other homepage functionality.
This allows publishers in the business units to meet the expectations of their managers, without reducing intranet usability.
When delivering internal marketing on the homepage:
- Create clear areas for internal marketing messages.
- Allow some or all of these marketing messages to have an associated graphic (as in the screenshot above).
- Tightly define where internal marketing can appear, and limit the number of items that can be displayed.
- Avoid including marketing items in ‘quick links’ or other similar lists, as these can easily become permanent inclusions.
- Limit the time that internal promotional items can remain on the homepage.
- Create a clear policy for what can be promoted on the intranet.
Some organisations ask business units to ‘book’ space on the homepage. The items are then only up for a week, and afterwards are moved into the normal navigation.
Always look for these types of ‘win-win’ approaches to managing internal marketing requirements.
The adoption of collaboration tools is growing exponentially, driven by the spread of wikis and SharePoint.
In many organisations, it is not long before staff members are part of a dozen different collaboration spaces. This can make it very hard to keep track of the spaces, and to remain aware of updates and additions.
As discussed in the earlier article Using the intranet to access collaboration tools, the homepage can act as a true gateway to these spaces. With current technology, this is easy, and should be done within all organisations that are rolling out collaboration tools.
Personalisation can be added as a feature on top of any of the seven roles outlined in this article. To limit the length of this article, an exploration of this is out of scope here.
Getting the balance right
Reading through the list of functionality that can be included on the homepage, intranet teams may immediately ask: but how can we fit this all in?
There is no one ‘right’ design for a homepage, and the various roles need to be balanced.
The ‘brand’ of the intranet should help to work this out. As discussed in the article Starting to define the intranet brand, every intranet should have a clear description of its role, purpose and nature.
If the intranet is about being up-to-date, timely and informative, devote more space to news. If the site is intended to be accurate and trustworthy, provide plenty of space for navigation links to key content.
Use this as a basis for discussions among key stakeholders, including communications, IT and HR. Focusing on the role of the intranet will help to make balanced decisions about the functionality and design of the homepage that will benefit both staff and stakeholders.