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The Intranet Beauty Pageant

At the recent IBF24 event, hosted by Paul Miller and the team at the Intranet Benchmarking Forum, the second annual “My Beautiful Intranet” competition was held. The winner was a good looking site from the Government of British Columbia. Congratulations to everyone who entered and in particular to the team behind the winner.

However, much of the debate online and offline surrounding this intranet beauty pageant concerned a number of key questions:

  1. What is ‘beautiful’?
  2. What is the point of aesthetic beauty without functional beauty?
  3. What can we learn from the participants and winners?

What is aesthetic beauty in intranets?

Gitte Lindgaard et al. published a great paper in 2006 entitled “Attention Web designers: You have 50milliseconds to make a good impression”. That ‘good impression’ will be a composite of a number of elements which will include aesthetic design. It’s worth focusing on that number: 50 milliseconds is the time it takes to show one frame of view on your television; the time it takes a bee to flap their wings ten times; the time it takes light to travel a third of the way around the earth and roughly, a tenth of the time it takes you to blink. In this channel, first impressions really do count but they count less on an intranet where the only choice an employee can exercise is whether they do, or do not, use your workspace. After all, there are no other internal competitors to your intranet unlike the web.

As we wrote here at intranetizen, aesthetic design is important. Your intranet must be a digital reflection of the company and must, of course, be an engaging space. As Don Norman put it in his excellent paper on emotion and design, “attractive things work better” . Getting the design layer on your intranet is an important part of the process.

The perception of an intranet,  facilitated in part by a slick visual design must never be undervalued. In that 50 milliseconds, we have no opportunity to mechanically dissect the website and to score it’s functional excellence, but we do get an instant objective hit from the design. However, we’re attuned to notice discrepancies, discordance, visual alarms, errors and distractions in designs; as Norman puts it, “the best designs are often the ones that are least noticed”. That instant visual hit we get from an intranet is tremendously important element in defining how your employees feel about using the tool. Be careful to ensure that you’re using imagery appropriately on your intranet.

However, we need to look beyond to usability and functionality to ensure that you have a space that is fit for purpose.

What is the point of aesthetic beauty over functional beauty?

William Morris, the 19th century English textiles designer said:

If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful

For intranets though, there is little place for beauty without function, and further, that brilliant function is in itself beautiful. The elegance is in the execution. Don Norman, of the Nielsen Norman Group puts it like this “good design means that beauty and usability are in balance. An object that is beautiful to the core is no better than one that is only pretty if they both lack usability”.

Intranets that are beautiful without being functional have no place in the enterprise. Intranet programs that focus on the design layer and not meeting the needs of employees are doomed — if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig! Pay the greatest attention to what your intranet does and how it helps employees, rather than what it looks like because ultimately, that is how it — and you — will be measured.

10 observations from this years participants

  1. We no longer care about the fold. Content is flexible and liquid
  2. Personalisation is increasingly common
  3. News is still a lead topic (but I do wonder if this is the number one topic of employees, or just internal comms teams)
  4. Humanising words like ‘our’ and ‘my’ are popular
  5. Finding people is a critical tool judging by the number of times it appears
  6. Social activity feeds have not made it to the homepage yet. Is this still an up-and-coming trend?
  7. Most intranets have a name.
  8. Video adds theatre to your intranet and is a common vehicle for news and executive communications.
  9. Unified Messaging capabilities are coming — the Verizon site shows neat integration of email/calendaring and more into the intranet
  10. Employees still like to see the weather on their homepage, rather than look out of the window.


I like the IBF ‘My Beautiful Intranet’ competition because it gives me a fantastic opportunity to be inspired by other organisations intranets. How an intranet looks is important as it sets perceptions for the employee and can make them feel your intranet is a more efficient tool than it might actually be. The risk of such a beauty pageant is that we focus purely on the aesthetic rather than function. Beauty must me more than skin deep and for all it’s prettiness, the intranet better do the work for your employees.

There are 3 comments

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  1. Zeb Ahmed

    Ah I remember this conversation well 🙂

    Agree completely except that point about the news.

    I instead would say “it totally depended on who had ownership.”

    Those intranets that had dual ownerships were also more likely to focus less on news and more on staff needs where the homepage was concerned.

    But those that were purely Internal Comms driven were mostly news driven (but not all – depends on the maturity of the comms team & the organisation.)

  2. @DigitalJonathan

    Agree too Zeb! If internal comms own the homepage, I think news tends to be somewhat over emphasised on the homepage. Speaking from a personal perspective, I think I see more news on my homepage than I actually need.

    When you have a broader intranet ownership, space hogging tendencies are muted! Another excellent reason for broad governance!

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