Intranet design and planning

Planning is tantamount to success; design while not nearly as important, keeps them coming back. However, don’t ever begin design without a plan – the equivalent of putting the horse AND the driver before the cart.

Success has many measures, and largely depends on subjective opinions, but regardless of the metric, I rarely see true intranet success. I’ve worked with award winners and I’ve worked with a lot of organizations and Fortune 500s that have better than average intranets. True intranet success is not often achieved (or held for long), and most intranet managers and champions at those companies often rate their own intranet as satisfactory at best – less than truly successful. Success costs money, and a lot of work. 

The commitment, rigor and resources required to build and maintain a successful intranet or portal are significant. And while a successful intranet does not necessarily require a lot of money per se, there are many, many facets that require successful planning and execution:

  • strategic planning
  • governance
  • functional planning
  • content
  • design
  • policies and processes
  • search
  • applications
  • etc.

And let us not forget about funding, and those executives that control the purse strings.

I refer to the collective intranet facets or requirements of a successful intranet as the Nexus of Intranet Success. Nexus [‘nEksIs] comes from a Greek word meaning ‘meeting place’ (a fitting label given the intranet’s importance as the only true, universal meeting ground or ‘water cooler’ in the average organization).

The Nexus model, which has been updated and tweaked recently (first developed in 2003), is intended to represent the desired end-state, not the process for getting there, without focusing on design or the look and feel (which needs to be very different at different organizations that represent different brands and different cultures).

NEXUS OF INTRANET SUCCESS

I’ve been known to say that the intranet is not a technology system or IT project, nor is it a communications vehicle or channel; the intranet is a business system that should represent and support all areas of the business. In fact, the intranet is really only one part technology, and many parts people and process (including planning, governance, content, etc.).

The most critical determinant of an intranet’s success – and I cannot stress this enough – is people. In particular, the crucial participation and support of senior management (the heart or inner ring of the Nexus model: Executive Support) and the end users (the all-encompassing factor represented by the outer ring ‘Motivated Users’ of the Nexus model).

The model therefore visually depicts the significant importance of people. Ironically, the engagement of both senior management and end users are critical tasks during the Planning of an intranet (specifically, the Assessment and Planning phases of Prescient Digital Media’s intranet project methodology depicted below).

At the risk of over-simplifying, the Nexus as an illustration depicts three levels or three concentric circles:

Level 1, Executive Support

Level 2, The Foundation (Planning, Resources, Content and Technology)

Level 3, Motivated Users

While some levels or factors may, on the surface, seem more important than others, optimal intranet success requires success on all levels; each level working in conjunction with one another (thus the relevance of the ‘Nexus’ and the depiction of the three levels as concentric circles).

While it can be argued that motivated users are far more important than executives, it can also be argued that if an intranet has the necessary support, funding and resources from senior management, the intranet is often well supported and successful, which naturally draws users (or ‘pushes’ users to use the intranet).

Ironically then, it is the Planning activities (and those Assessment activities depicted in the Intranet Project Methodology illustration), that builds and secures the necessary support from both the organizations executives and the end user employees.

DESIGN

While employees don't visit and use the intranet for design, an engaging design will keep them coming back; poor design will drive them away.

Anyone can design, and there are thousands of web designers out there. But the intranet is NOT a website. Creative design should not be a top priority; but rather a business-driven design approach that is strategically driven, recognizing that design should help to achieve the measurable goals. Design must facilitate the usability of the site and aid in guiding users to where they need to go while also adding appeal and assisting with engagement.

Sound intranet design follows a process that incorporates:

1- Business requirements (as expressed by management)

2- User requirements (as expressed by employees)

3- Strategic & functional planning

4- Governance

5- Information Architecture and wireframes (usability)

6- Brand standards and emphasis on focus areas

A designer of websites does not make a designer of intranets. Intranet design is more science than art; more business than creative; more functional than emotional.

A great design builds upon sound intranet information architecture, the key foundation for effective design, by reviewing key findings and strategic plans, conducting card sorts, and relying on experience and best practices for usability.

Outside of the need for an independent information architecture and wireframes, prior to beginning any design), the design goal for any organization or intranet consultant is to create a strong, dynamic, visual identity while reflecting the company brand and style guidelines.

If you begin an intranet design process, by leading with or focusing on the creative or look-and-feel, then I can guarantee your intranet will fail. However, follow a plan and a process that emphasizes business goals and information access, and you will set your intranet on the road to success.

ADDITIONAL READING:

Toby Ward is Founder and CEO of Prescient Digital Media, and the author of the first blog on intranets, www.IntranetBlog.com. He is also the chair of the Design II: Structure comes before design (June 9 and 10 in LA), now open for registration.