Are these the ten best intranets of 2013?

Last week Nielsen Norman Group published the 2013 edition of their design annual, widely regarded as the most comprehensive guide to trends in intranet design. Since 2001, usability guru Jakob Neilsen and his team have tracked changes in design and functionality for intranets and made recommendations for the year ahead.

Regular blog readers will be aware that last year we had some questions about the methodology used, and the conclusions reached, in the 2012 report. So what’s changed in 2013? Intranetizen takes a look at the conclusions, and (yet again) doesn’t entirely agree.

Intranet teams are getting bigger

NNg found that team size has grown relative to organisational size for the second year in a row, with an average of 27 members in each of the winning teams (double last year’s average of 14).  Once again, we find this a difficult conclusion to support, due to the small sample size, and the nature of the sample.

Making sweeping conclusions about hundreds of thousands of intranet teams in general based on a sample of ten is questionable, but basing it on a sample of ten organisations which have chosen to invest heavily in their intranet is highly misleading. Our own research – conducted when we asked Where are all the US intranet managers? last year – found the number of people employed in intranet-only roles appears to be falling, with cross platform internal and external content, design and management roles on the increase.

While we would absolutely agree with NNg’s assertion “To make a great intranet, you need adequate people resources. It’s not possible to piece together a first-rate intranet that informs and motivates employees and increases productivity and sharing unless you have the staff to design, develop, deploy, write, manage, and govern.”

But we’re not convinced that this is borne out in practice — that, as NNg claim, “more resources are being allocated to the intranet design and it shows”. This assertion isn’t something that rings true with intranet managers we’ve spoken to.  Across our networks, and at conferences, people talk about the tough financial climate, the difficulty securing investment, and the need to do more with less – something which is supported by data on job openings and skills data on LinkedIn.

Great intranets take years to create

NNg have looked through their 13 years of reports and come up with a fascinating stat: on average, it takes 42 months (3.5 years) to create a ‘great’ intranet, from inception to launch.

Again, the caveats around sample size apply, and we’d be keen to see some more quantitative numbers on this, but NNg’s conclusion – that “creating a new intranet or intranet redesign has never been a small our quick endeavour” is one that bears repeating. Their figures will provide some useful feedback next time your project sponsor suggests you get your intranet project up in weeks.

Rome was not built in a day – good web design requires investment in research, design, build, and rollout, and (importantly) in continuous improvement though iteration so the product meets changing organisational needs.

Smaller companies get better intranets

For the second year in a row, NNg have concluded smaller organisations have better intranets, again based on the size of the ten winners. We questioned whether it was possible to base meaningful conclusions on such a small sample size, and suggested this was an area ripe for further study.

Andrew Wright from Worldwide Intranet Challenge quickly took up the gauntlet, looking at the data from the 87 organisations participating in WIC. He found little correlation between organisational size and satisfaction with the intranet, and on many criteria found intranets in mid- and large-size organisations perform better.

NNg conceded “two years might not be quite enough data to declare a trend, but we’ll go out on a limb: the data seems to indicate that it’s getting easier to create a good intranet, in that it’s now within the reach of somewhat smaller organizations that have more limited resources”.

Which is reasonable, except that it contradicts their first two points; if it’s getting easier to create a good intranet, why are larger teams needed to deliver them? And why does it take so long?

Great intranets seek involvement from outside consultants

Eight of this year’s ten winners involved consultants in user research, design or development of their new intranet, an increase on previous years. Their assertion that external agencies or independent consultants provide targeted expertise—that is, skills that intranet teams don’t need permanently on hand—and add credibility to employee insights is one which will ring true with many of our readers. As the pressure to deliver an intranet that demonstrates the business value grows, and organisations remain reluctant to add permanent headcount to their payroll, involving external consultants with expertise gathered from multiple intranet projects can make a great deal of sense.

However, this trend isn’t without its problems. First, it suggests the ‘intranet-as-project’ problem persists; organisations continue to see intranets as something they devote resources to in the short term, but don’t continuously support or resource in the longer term. If, as they suggest, a great intranet takes years to create, then involving consultants throughout the lifecycle of the project could be a very costly business.

Consultants can bring highly valuable expertise and credibility to an intranet team, but organisations who take this approach run the risk that this will leave the organisation once the project is complete. A truly great intranet project will ensure there is effective knowledge transfer during the project, and that in-house teams gain credibility from delivering it, so that they can continue to lobby for resources and enjoy senior management support long after launch day.

Winning projects involve content authors early on

It’s great to hear intranets are learning from the failure of ‘big bang’ projects and involving a wide range of stakeholders in the design and development process. NNg note “winning teams this year met with content owners and writers very early on, so they could relentlessly cut unused content, edit older content, give feedback, and have adequate time to migrate, test, and optimise.”

This is a highly positive development; not only is quality content still the key function of most intranets, content authors can be highly influential champions for the intranet across the organisation. Getting them on board early on, and keeping them involved in development, will  improve the end product and encourage adoption. Those planning intranet projects now should take note.

This year’s feature trends are disappointing

This year’s new feature trends – featuring the organisation’s social feeds in the intranet, using filtering and faceting to aid information-finding, and integrating people search with unified communications tools – offer little to get excited about. In fact, we were bored when reading about this year’s future trends and thought this area of the report was quite light on content.  Intranets have not been pushing the envelope for feature design this year. It’s time for all of us to step out of our boxes and truly create some award winning trends.

Mobile optimisation has paused

After several years in which interesting mobile-optimised intranets regularly appeared in the top 10, the trend fizzled out in 2012, and hasn’t returned this year. One of the winning teams – AT&T – offers a mobile app for specific frontline staff groups, while a couple of other winners have begun to focus more on mobility.

This is disappointing, but believable – and it concurs with much of what we hear from our peers. Many obstacles to mobile intranets – security, cost, complexity of delivering to multiple platforms – remain, IT departments remain cautious, and the business case sometimes hard to prove. Yet over the past couple of years smartphones have become even more ubiquitous, and as workplace IT has become increasingly consumerised enterprise users are beginning to demand the same personal, mobile solutions they use outside work within the firewall. Recent research by Unisys and Forrester found CIO’s hands are increasingly being forced by “mobile elite” employees defying policy by using their own consumer tech to meet business need. So it’s hard to see how long mobile will continue to be overlooked for intranets.

Perhaps 2013 is the year this turns the corner; with the Sharepoint upgrade path now clearer, and more organisations investing in social platforms such as Jive and Yammer, which include mobile out-of-the-box, some of the common hurdles are slowly being overcome.

SharePoint continues to dominate

70% of this year’s winners were Sharepoint intranets with extensive customisation. As James Royal-Lawson notes over on the Google+ Intranet and Digital Workplace community, “this is hardly ‘punch-the-air-and-say-yes!’ news”.

Acknowledging the continued (and growing) dominance of Sharepoint, NNg make some useful and succinct recommendations for making a success of a Sharepoint intranet – all of which we could support.


The NNg report makes sweeping conclusions about intranet teams and projects based on a small – and highly selective – sample of ten winners. This methodology, and the fact the conclusions don’t concur with what we see and hear from our networks, makes many of these findings difficult to support. Moreover, some of the conclusions would appear to contradict each other.

We’re interested to hear if larger, quantitative studies, such as Jane McConnell’s soon-to-be-published 2013 Digital Workplace Trends report, support some of these conclusions.

Nonetheless, the annual remains a useful addition to the intranet manager’s bookshelf. Its 378 pages provide detailed reviews of ten really good intranet projects, including design rationale and a wealth of screenshots full of valuable lessons and examples for those planning intranet projects now.

If you have $480, buy a copy for your organisation and publish it in the training and help section of your intranet. While we wouldn’t act on every recommendation made by NNg, it gives your site owners and publishers a great view of what good looks like and some inspiration on how to approach many common intranet design problems.

There are 15 comments

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  1. Reg Lewin

    Well done to all the winners but, wearing my cynical hat, I think NN give the impression of being a bit out of touch with Intranets these days and just knock this out every year as an easy earner.

    And before you ask, this is in no way sour grapes at not getting shortlisted, again.

  2. @sharonodea

    To be fair, in my last place we had Neilsen Norman come in for a few days to do some user testing on our intranet, as we were participating in the last edition of Intranet Design Guidelines. We found it a hugely valuable exercise – we learned how to conduct our own tests, and were given some useful and sensible recommendations. I’ve also attended their Usability Week in the past. I don’t doubt that they know their stuff with regards to web usability, and this report offers some useful insights on just that.

    What I would question is why they so confidently identify trends in the industry based on this same research piece. It isn’t possible to find a trend in any sample of ten organisations, let alone ten organisations which are – by dint of being chosen – highly exceptional.

    If you want some detailed case studies to learn from, or you want to show your stakeholders what good looks like, then this is a useful publication to have. But if you want to know about intranets in general, intranet teams or technology trends, I’d use something like Digital Workplace Trends.

  3. Reg Lewin

    Agree about trends. The number of entries for the awards they receive from around the world could provide a considerable dataset from which to pull insights rather than just using the 10 winners.

  4. Robert

    As a former intranet consultant, I found that consulting firms tend to hoard their findings as it makes it better for doing client and workshop presentations – looking fresh and on the cutting edge. I however prefer to make it all available (data-set) so we can all succeed. Sharing won’t put consultants out of business, rather would bring more value. But getting $495 (or $1,000_ for a report is also a revenue strategy so I can understand what the boss is thinking too.

  5. EphraimJF

    An important issue at play for NN Group: They won’t provide awards to the same company twice.

    This means that every year they have to find 10 companies with great intranets that have not received the awards before (or in a while).

    So far they’ve given the award to over 100 intranet teams and their pool of possible winners has changed and shrunk by that much. This means that the characteristics of the winners and related conclusions must have shifted.

    • Reg Lewin

      This has inspired me to dig out my old copies of the NN Design Annual from 2001 and 2003. (I believe 2001 was its first year). It’s worth sometimes having a think about how far Intranets have evolved. In 2001 there wasn’t much of what we know now as an intranet community with roles feeling somewhat isolated. The IBF had yet to exist, I don’t recall seeing any blogs, Intranets were often owned by IT depts and sites run on FrontPage or Dreamweaver were common. So in 2001 the NN Intranet Design annual was a significant innovation in being able to actually see what happened in other organisations, pick up on ideas and copy their clever use of framesets!

      Today, the Intranet landscape is a very different place. Technology has evolved and there are many more ways to communicate with other Intranet people. So my point is that as the environment has grown, the NN Design Annual no longer has so much of a ground breaking impact. Agree it’s still a very interesting read and useful as something to show to senior management to support change but (and not wishing to denigrate any of the winners here as I’m sure they’re great) I question whether NN can claim to be the arbiter of which are the “10 Best Intranets”.

  6. Patrik Bergman

    What also surprised me this year is that they almost recommend people to use SharePoint.This while admitting this year’s winners have tweaked it considerably and took 3+ years to reach their current status. If they mention SharePoint they should mention other software. Not everyone can pay the huge amount of consultant money this could mean. Yes SharePoint can build good intranets. But so can other software do too.

    • EphraimJF

      That’s a great point Patrick.

      In SharePoint even things as easy as creating a consistent breadcrumb trail or transferring page ownership when employee leave can be very tough and require extensive custom development.

      The power of SharePoint comes at a high price. For large companies any intranet software platform will likely require extensive effort and custom development. But they seem to have the money for it…

  7. Ronan Lavelle

    Great overview of the NN awards.

    It was interesting to see that NN estimate that over 70% of the Intranets that they assessed were developed on the SharePoint platform. It was equally interesting to see that while the desire to mobile-enable corporate Intranets might be there, effort to do so for many companies has stalled because of security concerns, mobile platform choice and the cost of developing and maintaining mobile apps.

    We wrote a response to this, which your readers may be interested in:

  8. Andrew Wright

    Hi Sharon – Great analysis. You make some very strong statements in the article such as:

    “Making sweeping conclusions about hundreds of thousands of intranet teams in general based on a sample of ten is questionable, but basing it on a sample of ten organisations which have chosen to invest heavily in their intranet is highly misleading.”


    “This methodology, and the fact the conclusions don’t concur with what we see and hear from our networks, makes many of these findings difficult to support. Moreover, some of the conclusions would appear to contradict each other.”

    I am very curious to know if you have been in touch with the NNG and what their response might be?

  9. Joe David

    We tried about 8 of these on this list, as well as another 10 just in the collaboration workspace area (Jive was one), but settled on Centroy (not on your list), mainly because it was very easy to use for folks and already had a lot of the features bundled in the core offering (things like document management, wiki, discussions, etc). I’m not the tech guy, but I am very much the revenue guy, and efficient collaboration is an absolute must-have. That said, unless it’s simply to use, all the other bells and whistles the technology guys push matter less if no one adopts. That’s the dirty little secret about most of collaboration offerings –many on your list–which disregard the end-user experience. In theory collaboration can pay big dividends in terms of increased employee productivity; however, an important point missing here is that these tools need to be adopted in order to be useful, which means they need to be easy to use..Anyways, we’ve been pretty happy with Centroy. I’m not tied to them at all. Just a happy customer.

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