What women (and other intranet users) really want

Worldwide Intranet challenge recently ran a poll on Linkedin asking the question “What is the one improvement to your intranet you would like to see in 2012?” Nearly 300 people responded, and the results make interesting reading, but as many commentators before us noted, this is a poll of what intranet professionals want. The 300 respondents are not representative of the average intranet user – they’re much more representative of people like us, and the answers they gave reflect that.

Here is some tough love. Your employees don’t want any of that stuff.

What users really WANT

Now we haven’t run a poll or ethnographic study, so we’re going to make some educated guesses that, if you asked your  intranet users, the resounding response would be:

  • I can’t find stuff – make stuff easier to find
  • Search is rubbish – replace search (with something like Google)
  • It’s too slow – make it faster
  • It’s boring – make the content more relevant and fun
  • It’s irrelevant — news doesn’t help me do my job

It probably doesn’t matter if you have the fastest, best organised intranet with a state of the art search engine – your users will still want things quicker, easier and better. If they don’t now – they will soon.

Gerry McGovern’s ‘top intranet tasks’ research always comes back with a similar result. The things people do the most on the intranet are find contact details, read news, review their salary and check the lunch menu.

So why are we all clamouring for social features and improved collaboration platforms?

What the business really WANTS

Here’s the rub: your exec, or steering group or sponsor isn’t really interested in giving the end users what they want.  They are tasked with improving the effectiveness of the business, whether that be through improved communication, productivity, brand engagement or other initiative. They also have a limited amount of time, money and power to make that happen. They’re only interested in delivering what the employees need *if* it also meets their personal objectives.

What users really NEED

Let’s pretend that we were really trying to help our employees rather than impress the boss or improve our CV.  What should we be doing?

It’s going to be different for each organisation but if people ‘can’t find stuff’, you need to work on your information architecture.  Not necessarily an ‘IA redesign’ project but an ongoing effort to continually test and improve it. Maybe ‘social can help here: if people can start to organise things for themselves and suggest things for their colleagues then maybe this can help.  But, you still need a good IA for them in the first place and for new entrants.

If people don’t like search, we doubt that has much to do with your search engine.  Probably this is more to do with the language the ‘business’ is using not matching the language of your user base.

If you’re not going to write the content using user language then your search engine needs to know these things.  Taxonomies with details synonym, antonym and hierarchy definitions are what most (modern) search engines use to figure this out.  Keeping these up to date with your companies evolving business language is full time job (sometimes for several people). Look out for the forthcoming Intranetizen post on search.

Performance (read “slowness”) is again probably not (entirely) a technology problem as it often has more to do with the content.  Most people don’t get a huge amount of value from ‘pretty’ pages (infact, there are suggestions that ugly pages work better), but images, styling and scripting will be the bulk of what needs to be downloaded on every page.  But it doesn’t stop there: writing for the web is different to writing in other media. Edit down – when you think you have said everything as succinctly as you can, you probably only need to reduce it by another 50%.

The speed of a site also has a lot to do with perception. ‘Lightbox’ pages seem faster (even if they take just as long as loading a new page). Telling people that something is loading makes the time pass faster for them.

Content is still king. Or it would be, were there not so much of it which is awful. Intranets bloat over time, and come to contain content which is of marginal interest to only tiny numbers of people, or out of date altogether. Quite often, every additional piece of content you put up makes it slightly harder for the end user to find what it is they’re actually looking for. Review your content to check it’s current,  and cull content which isn’t needed. Your users will thank you for it.

What the business and the users BOTH need

At some point you’ll need to reconcile these areas. Quite often, people won’t know what it is that will make their jobs easier until you show them something which actually does.

Henry Ford famously said “if you asked the customer what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.

Asking the user what they need isn’t going to tell you what makes the intranet deliver for your business. Instead, you need understand what people do in their jobs, and make that process better, so the business becomes more effective, in a way that users can take to. That way, you make people’s lives a little bit easier AND you can benefit the bottom line.



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  1. James Robertson

    A great article Luke, and I agree completely!

    As you say, the challenging is finding the area of overlap between the wants of stakeholders (and hopefully alignment with business priorities) and the needs of staff.

    This is why we always encourage intranet teams to spend time out in the field, with actual staff:

    But I’d go further than just the focus on getting the intranet basics right (although that *is* important!). In our experience, across many organisations, frontline and operational staff are keenly aware of how unproductive they are, and how bad a job they’re often required to do.

    Talk to someone in a call centre: they’ll tell you how much the customer gets stuffed around. Talk to someone in the field, and they’ll talk about the overhead of paperwork. And the list goes on…

    If we’re going to deliver intranets that are truly *valuable* for the business, then we’d better start delivering things that are directly *useful* for the business — and that’s more than either social or content.

    PS. thanks again for taking a sober view of the survey originally quoted.

    • @lukemepham

      Thanks James, agree with all of your point and personally I try to spend at least a day a month sitting with, watching and talking too ‘real users’ in the business.
      One point regarding driving value though – the other problem we ‘intranet professionals’ fall into is forgetting that the intranet is just one part of the value system.
      While an intranet *could* be used to give the call centre workers you mention some extra powers to solve customer problems, it might not be the *best* or *right* way, if say, the real problem was management culture.
      Positioning the intranet as a way to empower end users without addressing the underlying causes would be a risky strategy.

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