Intranets: time to think differently

Posted by on December 6, 2010 in Design, General | 2 comments

Intranets: time to think differently

At the recent Employee Portal Evolution Masters conference (#epem) in Berlin last month, I must have seen 20 different intranet presentations, showcasing some genuinely excellent innovation.

But with huge diversity in the companies attending — from the heavy industrial energy company Wartsila (Finland) to Abbotts Laboratories (Pharma), I was struck by the incredible similarity in designs. Strip out the corporate colouring and nearly all intranets presented had a top-left logo with a top navigation of drop down menus (TLLTN). Is this convergent thinking, best practice in evidence, convention or just lazy design?

When I returned, I flicked back through James Robertson’s excellent book “Designing Intranets: Creating intranets that work” and saw this phenomenon repeated. James himself calls it “the all-to-familiar landing page”.

Convergent Thinking?
If we all use the same agencies, the same CMS, I guess it’s likely that we converge on similar design. If you’ve user tested your design, I suspect the TLLTN configuration wins through hands-down. After all, your end users have not seen any other alternatives.. have they?

Best Practice?
Well, nearly everyone does it, that’s for sure. The very best intranets in the world have TLLTN configuration — they can’t be wrong! Reader, so do the worst. These designs are certainly functional and require little thinking on behalf of the employee which is an undoubted bonus.

Convention?
Certainly, intranets conventionally have this design. Websites too. But as we’re learning, intranets are not websites so why should they naturally borrow from the internet? Indeed, at #epem, we were shown a couple of example intranets that heavily borrowed the internet design of the parent company and as the tweets show, it provoked much discussion. Intranets are task driven, collaboration minded, functional digital workspaces, increasingly more complex than their internet brethren so maybe the convention of TLLTN needs to change.

Lazy?
Intranet managers are tremendously hardworking — I’d never level this accusation.

Ok – so, now what?
Since the launch in April 2010, Apple has sold 4 million iPads. In addition, there are over 65million iPhones out there, over 20million Android smartphones, a good few million touch BlackBerry, 250k Windows 7 devices and I dare say Android tablets will be very popular this Christmas too.

These devices are creating a new convention for users. A convention that a few elements are fixed, but that the rest of the device homepage is configurable and is entirely the users choice. These device users are utterly at home with the idea of an app store to make their device work the way they want it — make it do what they want it to do.

Could the intranet be like an iPad homepage? Think of this:

  • A few fixed features akin to a dock with an internal app store so that employees can create their perfect mix of news, transactions and collaboration?
  • A fun and engaging interface – no harm in having a fun intranet.
  • Have multiple pages of space that the user can flick through
  • Have it sync with your iPad so it’s the same set up whereever you use your intranet

I don’t think we’re at this tipping point now, but I do think the use of smartphones, particularly Android and iOS, will change conventions on intranet design.

Have you done this already? Share a screenshot!

2 Comments

  1. I think it’s likely we’ll see more intranet type content deployed as apps, but I think we’re at least 4 years away from this being common, and just as it’s reached familiarity with a broad cross section of users, we’ll all be on to the meme after the one after tablets.

    I don’t think it’s just intranets that keep with the convention of a logo at the top left etc. (apple.com anyone), but clearly intranets are the kind of captive audience where you might get the chance to experiment a bit more.

  2. Nice post (and nice blog!). I agree with you and hope we can put more creativity in intranet design. Looking at the intranet innovation awards you can see there are companies that do this, like IDEO (of course…). But most are still traditional.

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