Big Bang Theory (for #intranets)

You have poured your soul into the intranet project. You can see your blood, sweat and tear stains on every page of the beautiful new site. You and the rest of the team have battled at every corner over the new functionality, improved design and better content – and now, it’s time to let it live!

After a straight 48hr weekend shift and a few last minute disasters the site is up and running – you just have to sit back and wait for the applause…

“Is that it?”

“I don’t like the colour’

“Where’s the weather widget gone?!”

“Why do you always go and change everything just as I had figured out how to use it!”

Big Bang theory

Big bang implementations are almost always big disappointments for ‘real people’ – the people who have to use the intranet in anger to get their job done.

Why? For a lot of reasons;

  • Because change is difficult. Learning anything is hard work – but being forced to learn something you had just got your head around is worse. It’s like someone moved the brake pedal in your car – “I don’t care if it’s in a much more accessible place – put it back where it used to be. I like it there”
  • Because the intranet isn’t that big a deal (for anyone outside of the intranet team). The only people who will really get excited about big changes are the intranet team.
  • Because people can only deal with so much at once. There’s even a limit to how excited you can get about something. People who win £100M on the lottery are (pretty much) just as excited about their win and those that win £50M or £200M.

Big bang reality

A long period without any improvement means the perception of the intranet is poor and getting worse. Every week that passes people become more disillusioned.

BANG! A huge communications campaign launches “We’ve listened! You hated the old intranet! We have thrown it all away and created something new!”

When something new does come along, if there’s a compelling reason to try it (e.g. it’s your intranet and you need it to get something done) most people will try it out. But there will be a finite amount of time people will spend ‘learning’. The more they have to learn, the more tiresome and annoying it will become and the longer it will take for them to ‘get used to it’. Which ultimately will effect adoption and overall perception.

It’s likely that, if this isn’t the first ‘redesign’ or big change that’s happened, many will already be suffering change fatigue or have a negative perception of change.

In an ideal world, everything they try, they like. They find the changes an improvement. But – even with the most amazing improvements, just like with lottery winners, there is a limit to how excited they’ll get and there’s a limit to how much they will have time to try.

Over time the changes will become the new normal. Frustrations will return. The world of Facebook or Instagram or ‘something’ will change and that will make your intranet look dated again.

The initial excitement will fade away and opinions of the intranet will return to where they were before the change

Is there a better way?

It seems that a big part of the problem with big bang is that the size of the change is too high, and the frequency too low. The obvious alternative is small frequent change. But how can you make it work?

  • “We can’t do frequent change because our development cycle is so long” – you don’t have to deploy everything as soon as it’s finished. There is nothing wrong with holding back some changes until the time is right.
  • There’s only so much people can take in at one time – and there’s a limit to how much you can impress them. So, understand which elements of the change will excite people, which are just expected and which will have little or no impact. Try and batch the changes together into releases that only include one ‘exciting change’. Create a repeatable roll-out plan that includes communications and training. Be sure to focus on the ‘one exciting change’ and specifically how it benefits the individual’s ability to work better.
  • The positive effects of change wear off over time and there is a finite amount of effort people will invest in learning something new – so, just as the last change becomes ‘old news’ and the training is complete, implement the next release of changes.

Which features will excite?

A key part of the approach is to understand which features are ‘wows’ and which features are not likely to inspire. How to do this is worthy of a separate post, but if you’re interested one way I like to understand this is to use the Kano Model.

Long wow

The approach described above is known as ‘the long wow’ and is popular with many highly successful and admired brands. Nike+, Google and Apple are all renowned for their regular,incremental upgrades or feature releases. New capabilities that keep coming make their produces feel dynamic, evolving and current – and it pays off with loyalty and advocacy – their customers constantly upgrading to make use of the latest versions or becoming ambassadors for their brand.

Long wow vs. Big Bang. Effect on user perception over time

Long WOW builds a positive user perception over time as the full experience slowly unravels. Big Bang has a big initial impact but the positive effects erode over time

Is long wow / constant change better than big bang?

Making an ongoing frequent release process effective means a change in approach for everyone.

For IT, it means stretching out the implementation phase of a project over a much longer period and gearing up development so that, by the time implementation of ‘project one’ is over, ‘project two’ has completed testing and is ready to go.

At the same time, it should make things easier for IT too – small releases are less pressure, less late nights and early mornings and less of a disaster if things go wrong.

For internal communications it means taking a much subtler approach. The fanfares and jazz hands associated with ‘big bang’ implementations quickly become tired, so communication needs to focus on what people can do ‘this week’ or ‘this month’ that they couldn’t do before. Rather than getting people excited and engaged around the communication, the excitement and engagement needs to come from the ongoing improvement of the intranet.

The approach of everyone involved needs to focus on making things as effortless and gradual as they can. Ensuring the process is predictable and repeatable.

Change will become the new constant and that will mean the intranet team needs to fit ‘bau stuff’ in and around the ongoing updates.

It’s a different approach, but one that’s proven successful for many big companies. If you can get it right it promises an easier, less stressful, life for the teams behind the intranet, and a site that’s better used, understood and perceived.

Let us know: Is this something you have tried? If not, what’s stopping you?



There are 37 comments

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  1. Martin Risgaard

    it’s hardly a surprise that the incremental approach is a success ion many companies. It we look at the most commonly used websites (not only the three you mention) they all use this approach which means that the users have become used to this type of upgrades. When you hear about big bang redesigns on the www it often seems like a marketing event from small(er) companies whose sites are not as high profile as Nike, Google, and Apple.

    If your intranet is successful it IS equivalent to Google in the sense that people use it and rely on it every day. It is a tool that supports your daily work and hopefully help you be more efficient. It also means that you expect it to look (almost) as it did yesterday – just like you have become used to with all the other online services you use.

    • @lukemepham

      So why does almost every intranet manager I speak to seem to be stuck in a cycle of redesign then walk away until it’s so awful it needs redesigning again? If incremental is so much better, what keeps so many stuck with big bang?

      • James Royal-Lawson

        E commerce sites have indeed learnt the lesson of incremental… and indeed intranets still seem to be stuck in the cycle like you say Luke – but an awful lot of corporate and non-e-commerce sites are also quite firmly stuck in the redesign loop.

        I believe the biggest factor is lack of resources to manage intranets and intranet evolution. how many intranet manager do we know that are pretty much one-persons shows – having to deal single handedly with strategy, project management, analysis, social/collaboration, politics/buy-in, etc…

      • David

        There may be funding issues as well. Funding for intranet development is easier to prioritise to those in charge when it’s underperforming and you can promise big “wow” results.

    • @lukemepham

      Now that’s the bit where you have to ask and research. Also, what wows today becomes the ‘so what’ of tomorrow. Approaches like the Kano model provide a framework to understand the kind of impact a new feature might have – but the wowness is probably audience and situation specific. You need to look at each potential feature within the context it will work and speak to real users within that work context.
      You’d probably be surprised what would wow them – with an intranet, just adding a link to the one thing everyone really needs onto the homepage can be a huge ‘wow’ moment.

  2. Bill Stineman

    Don’t mess with the weather widget.

    I’m a huge fan of the long wow – but it does create a challenge that you need roadmap with the vision (and stability) to achieve it…

  3. Nigel Williams

    Great article Luke.

    Making small changes consistently is a far better approach than the ‘reincarnation of that web thingy I stopped using ten months ago’ ; it should be more comfortable for users to adapt to (more of a ‘hmm what’s this?I’ll give it a click’ than a ‘what the hell has happened here?!?!’ response) and be far easier to focus comms and support to, even if that is on a small launch.

    I think the difficulty with the long term wow for some organisations is having the continued available resources to do it, in a matrix managed environment this might be tough, even if you have roadmapped it, as you risk fallng into business as usual and there’s always another crisis around the corner which can take precedent.

    However Long WOW should in my opinion always be good practice. If you can identify a group of advocates who actually will USE and see the benefit of this addition to their work consistently rather than the exec level who may just be interested in the achieved business benefits when it has been adopted, then your adoption (initial and sustained) should be far higher. The power of word of mouth and word of mouse is far more effective than tell communications. If this peer to peer word of mouth is consistent and positive you’re on to a winner.

    • Samuel Driessen

      Interesting post, Luke!
      Agree, Nigel. Ideally an intranet should be a continuous project, continually chaning the intranet to the changes in the organization. But many companies don’t have the resources to do this. They hire external expertise and expect the 1st version of the intranet to be good enough for the 1st 6 months.

      • @lukemepham

        Thanks Samuel,
        I don’t buy that lack of resources is the root of the issue here. As Bill points out in his comment, long wow needs a roadmap and a vision – and these need to be focused on the experience you want to deliver, the capabilities you want to enable and the behaviours you want to encourage.
        If you have those, the it’s the most resource effective way of reaching your goal.
        I think most organisations continue with a big bang cycle because they don’t really have a good idea where they want to go. without clear and compelling vision they don’t get the senior investment until their platform is seriously behind the times or under performing. If they do have a roadmap or vision, it’s technology centric and revolves around their supplier offering.

      • @lukemepham

        … Even so, going with an external to develop something good enough for the first X months doesn’t mean you can’t use a ‘long wow’ rollout. Taking the complete product, but holding back functionality so that people can gradually lean and understand its capabilities. It might be slightly more work (in terms of time) but the risk is lower and the approach kinder and more effective for your audience.

  4. EphraimJF

    In the face of so many agreeable responses to this excellent article I’ve got to be contrary.

    When you need a BIG BANG

    If an intranet has gone so long without tending that it becomes truly scorned and useless, then it’s a good idea to release a brand new intranet with a big bang. However, that new intranet needs to be built in a user-centered way and resourced for long-term success.

    Incremental changes to a really crappy intranet won’t achieve much. You’ve got to have something half-way decent to improve upon.

    Also, some companies launch new, social intranets as part of large strategic efforts to shift organizational culture and norms. If the old intranet is patently unsocial (read “not human-centric”) and executives are serious about building a culture of listening and learning, then a big bang social intranet launch can be an important milestone.

    Whether you’re planning a big bang launch or incremental improvements, the key is to build an intranet program (“programme” for some of ya’ll) rather than project and have a clear long–term intranet vision that supports the business’ goals.

    • @lukemepham

      Then I’ll have to disagree with you 😉
      Even when launching a new intranet or total replacement, its even more important and more effective to hold back functionality and release it over time as an evolving experience.
      Big bang means people will have too much change all at once to really comprehend what’s happening. Introducing a large change needs time, learning needs space. A big also means you are left with nothing else to keep people hooked or impressed. The kudos you earn from the release will fade away just like your users interest.

      • EphraimJF

        Luke! I have to sort of agree with you on this.

        I once made the mistake of doing a big bang launch and thinking the video trainings and excitement would take care of themselves.

        While the big bang was important, the follow up to the big launch was too lite. Launching a new intranet should be considered a six-month process.

        Bottom line: A big new launch may be needed, but a launch is a process, not a moment.

        • Dazbert Digital Marketing

          Well I have to agree with you both. Im fighting against a big bang approach to the development of the new intranet here. Im trying to push a new ntranet launch with a minimum feature set aimed at specific ‘quick win’ areas and then looking at iterating our design and rolling out the capability accross the organisaiton.

          If we go for a big bang, the bugs and failings will be picked up by those who cannot see the need for change that is years overdue.

  5. Andrew Woolfson


    I have an alternative view; incremental is all about little steps, gettingt people to not realise that things have changed. This has its place where thre are opportunities for a number of improvements. But and its a “but” which has to be applied to the context of the change. Have the confidence to do be bold about the change. If its a totally new way of seeing, streaming, flowing, accessing, using knowledge then “big bang” shows the decision makers are behind the change or you have command of your brief.

    The newness will become a story to be part of and the adoption is one not to be left to traditional training solutions. Its about behaviours and knowing where your business is going and being able to tap into the people and business propositions.

    I have seen many iterative or pilot driven “intranets” trip up and then end up on the corporate sidings. Be bold, and if you ar then this shows that the ways of sharing knowldge, tracking activity and signals is part of the way you want the business to be or already is, or its a bit of the future (a la William Gibson: The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed).

    Our work on “edge” a social business platform is about “newness” and is making a difference, using bold deployment and adoptions strategies.

    • @lukemepham

      Long WOW isn’t just about little steps – its about breaking down the change into chunks people can understand and have time to learn and adopt. Ensuring that those changes have a positive emotional impact on the user, and ensuring that the changes are spaced at intervals that build on the positive experience of the last.

      I agree that there may be times that ‘newness’ is a key part of the experience you want to deliver, but if you do that all in one ‘Big Bang’ you’re thinking very short term.

      • Andrew Woolfson

        No not short term – but bringing in something which the people in the business can build on.

        Nothing short term about bringing in the new and having the courage of the conviction to bring about more natural ways of working. This needs to be seen as sustainable. The people in the business themselves bring in the iterative steps.

        Read our stories – and the way we have built up the approach with Edge, nothing short tern about it at all.

  6. Martin White

    I too favour the small change approach, but on a large intranet the small changes are not obvious. I recommend to my clients that they use a dot.release approach, which is set out in detail in The Intranet Management Handbook. In essence, define your current intranet as Version 3.0. Work out what Version 3.5 will look like. and what Version 4.0 might look like. Then work backwards to define 3.1, 3.2 3.2.5 etc. When you release 3.1 make a song and dance about it, put the Version Number at the top of every page and hyperlink it to a description of the changes, plus a forecast of what is coming up in 3.2, 3.3 etc. 3.5 and 4.0 are BIG releases.

    As well as giving some ‘good news’ stories on a regular basis clients of mine who have used the approach confirm that it makes intranet team communication much easier and clearer (John – how is the revsied news layout for 3.4 coming along) and the process also helps identify dependencies betweem versions.

    PS In IE 9 the Intranetzien comments box renders the text as a slightly darker grey on a light grey background. Highlight the text to cut and paste it and it turns into a vivid and very readable bright blue. An interesting UX!

    • @DigitalJonathan

      (Thanks Martin. Text colour changed to match theme and, more importantly, make it readable)

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