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The winds of change are blowing for intranets. Every intranet survey run in the wider community has shown that 50% of intranet teams are planning (or hoping) to redesign their sites.
With any redesign comes the opportunity for a fresh new look and feel. Drawing their inspiration from the best of public-facing sites, intranets are shrugging off their dated appearance and joining the modern age.
These design improvements matter. As discussed in the earlier article Should the intranet look sexy?, intranet sites don’t have a marketing role, but they do need to have a professional and engaging appearance.
Fundamentally, this is about trust. Staff need have confidence that the intranet will provide them with accurate and up-to-date information. An old, ugly and dated site sends the opposite message, that the intranet is uncared for and under-resourced.
There is an also an emotional element to intranet design. Intranets should reflect the cultures of the organisations they serve, and can also help to drive cultural change.
At a basic level, intranets need to have a clear brand and identity of their own, distinct from the public-facing site and providing continuity as the organisation evolves and restructures.
As intranets are hidden within organisations, it is hard to know what good intranet design looks like. This article shares a few examples from across the globe, not as definitive ‘right’ designs, but as inspiration for other teams to follow. While very different in their design approaches, all the showcased intranets have elements to learn from.
Intranets can’t afford to be useful but ugly
Attractive and useful
Intranets must be useful, for staff and for the organisation as a whole. They need to help staff find the information they need and complete tasks. They should streamline business processes, save money, and increase customer satisfaction.
While these must be the top priorities for intranet teams, intranets cannot afford to be useful but ugly.
Because they are not customer facing, many intranets have had little attention or love. Too many sites have designs that date back a decade or more, and look awful compared to even average-looking public-facing sites.
Intranets should be professional, attractive and engaging in appearance. The screenshots included later in this article provide some examples as inspiration.
But the question still needs to be asked: what does attractive mean when it comes to intranets?
The design of intranets should reflect current practices on the broader public-facing internet. At a minimum, this means intranets should at least match the appearance of current corporate and government public websites.
Intranets can also benefit from taking elements from more leading edge designs, such as ‘web 2.0’ sites, and the designs that have followed on from this.
This doesn’t mean that intranets should follow the latest fads and fashions of the web. Intranets are not leading e-commerce sites, or marketing sites promoting the latest consumer gadgets. It makes no sense to model intranets on the latest designs produced by the world’s largest web properties.
There is, however, a reasonably clear sense of what ‘modern design’ means on the web at any given point, and intranets should benchmark themselves against this.
Clean and simple
As discussed earlier, intranets are fundamentally a utilitarian tool: they are designed to help staff get their work done.
Intranet design should therefore be clean and simple. The highly designed (over-designed?) nature of marketing sites isn’t appropriate on intranets. Use of interactive elements, such as Flash animations, should be used sparingly.
Depending on the technology used to publish the intranet, the ability to create radical designs may be limited. As some of the examples show, however, even small design elements within basic page templates can have a large impact.
Branding and emotion
A good intranet design has a strong emotional element. This should reflect the organisation’s culture, branding and identity.
With many organisations focusing on staff retention and ‘being a great place to work’, this should also be reflected in an intranet that is a joy to look at and use.
The intranet brand and identity should be a stable element in the organisation, giving staff continuity through restructures and other painful changes.
Accessibility and web standards
Modern web practices deliver an attractive appearance through the use of cascading style sheets (CSS) and semantic markup.
This gives the best of both worlds: a professional design combined with great cross-browser and cross-device compatibility. It also allows the design of the intranet to be quickly adjusted and improved without having to change back-end coding or CMS configuration.
Accessibility, where sites are designed for those with disabilities, is also a key consideration for intranets. With careful planning up front, and the use of modern web practices, it should not be difficult to deliver a design that meets accessibility standards.
(For more on this, see the earlier article Accessibility tips for website construction.)
Make new designs a priority?
For all the desirability of the designs showcased in this article, should refreshing the appearance of the intranet be an overriding priority? In short, no.
There is little value in spending significant effort developing new pages designs and templates, if the rest of the site isn’t being improved. At worst, staff can perceive this as ‘lipstick on a pig’, where the site looks different but still works poorly.
New site design should be combined with broader and more significant changes, whether it’s a complete site rework or incremental improvements to key functionality.
Time marches on
There is always the danger when sharing screenshots that they will date. This is unavoidable, and no doubt readers of this article in several years will mock these ‘great’ designs.
The purpose of sharing these screenshots is not to outline an absolute ‘best’, but rather to encourage intranet teams to deliver sites that both work better and look better. Look to the current crop of websites to find inspiration for modern design practices.
Intranets that are dated and ugly discourage staff use, and reduce trust. While an attractive intranet is far from the highest priority, teams should always make the most of opportunities to deliver a new site design.
Draw on the best that the web has to offer, as well as modern design practices, to deliver an intranet that is emotionally engaging, engenders trust, and says ‘this is a site that you want to use’.