Some companies’ intranets are built piecemeal by various departments and, as the business grows, the intranet never gets the kind of attention that the company Web site or other more mission-critical projects get. Kara Pernice Coyne believes that that would all change if CIOs realized the amount of money wasted by ineffective, user-unfriendly intranets.

Coyne is the director of research at Nielsen Norman Group, which recently released the results of a usability study of 14 corporate intranets, focusing on 16 tasks provided by the intranets. Taking salaries and overhead costs into account, the study reports that a company with a very poor intranet design would spend $3,042 per employee annually to cover time spent on the tasks.

We spoke with Coyne about the study and offer five ways CIOs can improve their company intranets.

The study
The Nielsen Norman Group chose 14 company intranet sites to test—10 from the United States, three from London, and one from Hong Kong. A diverse group of employees from each company served as usability testers. The study measured their ability to successfully complete a number of tasks and the time required. The group also collected data on the participants’ level of confidence, satisfaction, or frustration regarding the tasks. The results of the study were recently published in a report, which may be purchased for $248.

Coyne said the major time-wasting traits of intranets were:

  • Inconsistent design.
  • Stale news or news that is centric to one group.
  • Poor search capabilities.
  • Multiple logins.
  • Troublesome or unnecessary features.

Coyne provided advice to CIOs for improving these troublesome traits. She explained that this type of advice is often difficult to obtain because intranets are typically behind a firewall and intranet designers can’t just browse the Web for good examples.

Create a consistent design scheme
Coyne said the study found several intranets that had their beginnings when different groups within a company created a Web page or decided to post a human resource PDF file on a Web page. From there, the intranet grew, but without any attempt to unify the various efforts. The disparate qualities of each page made it quite difficult for test subjects to navigate and perform the requested tasks, Coyne said.

“Every time the users go to another site, they have to acclimate themselves and figure out what type of navigation is there and what kind of information is there, and that really decreases their efficiency,” she said.

The same rules that apply for Web usability apply when creating an easily navigable intranet, according to the study’s report. “Links and buttons must be highly visible for clickability, and links should be color-coded to indicate when they lead to pages that the user has already visited.” The best sites used a constant set of navigation controls that appeared on every page, along with “breadcrumbs” (a navigation bar that displays hyperlinks to each of the parent objects of the current object). These measures helped keep users from moving “in circles because they couldn’t see where they’d been before.”

Offer fresh, interesting news
One key intranet usability issue that companies must overcome is getting people to use the intranet. Offering fresh, interesting news is one way to be sure that employees visit the intranet often, Coyne said.

Companies in the study goofed up the news sections of their sites in two ways. First, because the intranet is often the responsibility of the communications group or the IT group, the news on some sites tended to be interesting only to that group.

“They have to make more of an effort to partner with all the groups and get fresh, new, valuable content that’s inclusive of the entire company,” Coyne explained. “And if you can do it, have a process in place where the users can add content. Maybe it needs to be approved or go through some kind of review process, but something like that is really valuable.”

Some groups had another problem: no news, or old news. The popular intranets are ones with fresh news on the home page, Coyne added. She suggested including one to two news items per day or per week. Whatever the publishing schedule, change content frequently.

One intranet had a news item about a new fire protection rule that was four months old, and it was the only news item.

“Users commented on it,” Coyne said. “Fire protection news gets pretty stale, pretty quickly!”

Make searching easy and effective
The search feature is often the last resort of users when the navigation has failed, Coyne said. It’s vital to have a good search function.

“It’s almost like Help in some ways,” Coyne said.

While some sites had a search function that worked well, it was sometimes hard to find. Others had a search feature that just didn’t work well. You must index pages and make sure that the results are good, Coyne advised.

She said the best search features were plain open box searches—without advanced features—located in the upper right corner of every intranet page.

“Some people kind of get ahead of themselves and try to do some really advanced functionality and the users can’t really work with it,” Coyne said.

Create a unified login
Some intranets reviewed made it impossible for employees to access all areas of the site without multiple logins. This not only decreases the usability of the intranet, but can also create a security breach, Coyne said.

Employees have trouble remembering more than one password and will often resort to writing them down on Post-It notes or slips of paper kept inside their desk drawers—where unauthorized users easily find them. In addition to posing a huge security breach, requiring more than one password for login across the intranet could also cost the company a lot of money. Gartner research estimates that up to 25 percent of help desk calls are password issues and, in a nonautomated support model, password reset costs range from $51 to $147 for the labor alone.

Don’t add features without good reason
People are often proud of their intranets, and sometimes add features just for the sake of doing so, Coyne said. While she said it’s good to take pride in producing good tools for users, it’s very important to consider the impact that features will have throughout the organization.

As an example, Coyne provided an anecdote about a company in which the accounting group asked that a tax calculator be added to the intranet to help calculate tax on expense reports. While the feature did save time for the accounting department, it created problems for the users.

“They were spending a lot more time and their salaries were a lot higher, so it ended up costing the company quite a bit of money,” Coyne said.

As another example of an unnecessary feature, Coyne said one intranet had a place where employees could add a note to their employee profiles about their schedule, whether they’d be out of town for an extended period of time, etc. The time to create this feature was wasted, however, because users were already accustomed to entering that information into their e-mail program, such as in Microsoft Outlook’s Out Of Office feature.

“I wouldn’t recommend not to do it because there’s another alternative, but the point is, look at what else is out there before you just, knee-jerk, say, ‘Yeah, I can put that on the intranet,’” Coyne said. “Think about if it’s right for the whole organization.”

The best of the best
Coyne said the best intranet designs from the study had clean, simple home pages. The best home page designs included a news section and information about all organizations within the company, and had a clear, easy-to-find search feature. The World Bank Group intranet home page, shown in Figure A, had many features of a good home page, according to Coyne. She said the page’s standout features are:

  • An available, simple, visible search.
  • An employee search.
  • Simple, persistent navigation.
  • Concise news items with a few graphics that add to the message, instead of detracting from it.

Figure A
World Bank Group’s intranet home page has user-friendly features.

Lend your support to intranet efforts
Intranets often aren’t all they could be because management’s support is weak, added Coyne. Often, one person is supporting an intranet with thousands of pages, which is “setting that person up to fail,” she said.

She encouraged CIOs, CEOs, and other executives to provide the funding, staff, and support necessary to create a valuable intranet. This support is especially helpful when kneading a host of disparate pages into one consistent design.

Intranet creators often care a great deal about their effort, and when someone tells them to design it a different way, they resist, she noted. From discussions with intranet designers, Coyne said it helps if the mandate to create a cohesive site comes from a higher source.

In addition to lending support to intranet designers’ efforts, it’s important to treat them with as much respect as Web site designers in other parts of the company. During the study, Coyne called an intranet designer who told her she’d been “promoted” to the commercial Web site.

“They just don’t feel like their position is honored,” she said. ”I think that to get the best work from people, of course, you’ve got to make them feel good about what they’re doing.”

Is your company’s intranet wasting your employees’ time?

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