No matter what your focus is, today’s business world is all about creating value. A company designs a product that people need and want and provide value to their customers. Employees work efficiently to produce said product and provide value to their company. Shareholders guide the vision of a company and provide value for their employees. The cycle of created value is essential, and yet can be completely derailed if one small detail is not effectively designed.
What is that detail, you ask? The most important cog on the wheel of value is the dissemination of vital information. Your company intranet can help or hinder the value that you create. Although many company intranets are ‘good enough’, most organizations could see a dramatic rise in value by creating an Intranet that people love to use. To do that, we first need to understand exactly what it is we’re after.
Intranet or Portal?
The difference between an Intranet and a Portal is simple, but profound. An Intranet is a local version of the Internet. A Portal is a gateway where different services can be accessed. Think of it as the difference between the phone book and a hotel concierge. A phone book will give you access to information, which you can then take advantage of on your own. A concierge will provide you with not only the information you asked for, but related information – and will take much of the tedious work off your hands. An excellent concierge will provide you with information you didn’t even realize you needed yet. What we’re really after when we want to create an company intranet that people love to use is something akin to a concierge for your organization’s knowledge – a Knowledge Portal.
Beg, Borrow, and Steal
Now that we know what we want, it’s time to look at other companies who already have it. Ask yourself – what websites do I love to use? Ask your friends, family, and coworkers. What applications are a must have on your Smartphone? We’ve asked around and found some of the same answers repeating – Amazon. Facebook. Pinterest. Slack. What do these sites and applications all have in common?
- They’re easy to use. Nobody had to teach you how to use Facebook. It’s intuitive.
- You can find what you’re looking for. Namely – they work. They do what they are supposed to do.
- You can keep in contact with people. Humans are social creatures. We want to work in teams, collaborate, and find out what other people are doing that might help us.
- You can save things for later. If you come across something that is interesting, but you don’t have time to fully examine it, these sites have a way to save it and view it later. Convenience is key.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Millions of dollars have already been spent in making websites and applications that people love to use – so take the time to visit them and follow their company intranet examples. Pull what you like and use it; ignore what doesn’t work for you. If your company already has an Intranet that isn’t as useful or as loved as you’d hoped, start small and make positive improvements. You want to take people from hating your Intranet, or being unimpressed by it, to loving it. You can do this by building momentum in small steps – but you have to start somewhere.
Four Steps to Success
Whether you already have an Intranet, or you want to build one from scratch, there are four steps you should follow to make sure that your Intranet is one that people love to use. Each of these areas is vital to an overall product that will fulfill the function of being a Knowledge Portal. We consider the four most important features of any successful company intranet to be the interface, applications, knowledge, and search functionality. To add even more value, I’ll throw in some bonus tips at the end of this article.
The user interface is the first thing people see and will make or break your Knowledge Portal. If it’s not user friendly, attractive, and intuitive, the entire project will fail. This sounds like a prediction of doom, but ‘glass half full’ thinkers out there will realize that if you nail this part, everything else will fall into place. Again, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The internet is a vast repository of knowledge available at your very fingertips. For example, DesignMantic has created a helpful graphic that details the “Ten Commandments of User Interface Design.”
First, create a story. Build some excitement for your users. Embed social aspects so that people can connect. Streamline navigation so that users can find their way around easily. Make sure it’s mobile friendly – people want to be able to access knowledge from multiple platforms. Make it accessible. Know your audience and what they currently use, and make sure your program works for them. It’s worth the time to visit DesignMantic and see the full graphic – they’ve thought of things that might not occur to the average developer, like choosing a font family. Fonts that go together provide a streamlined experience; it’s jarring to switch between applications and have five different fonts jump out at you. When it comes to that, are your fonts easy to read? Does the color scheme work? Are your images clear and correctly sized? Is your Knowledge Portal overwhelming? Are there redundancies that clutter the space? All of these questions need to be answered before you can be sure that your interface is something people will love to use.
There are two things that your interface simply must have – type ahead, and search and refine. Type ahead helps users out. It will offer suggestions in case they’re not quite sure exactly what they’re looking for. What have other people searched for along these same lines? Once they’ve found their general area of interest, search and refine will help them narrow down topics to find what is really useful or expand on a topic to find things they haven’t conceived of yet.
Your user interface should have a modern, responsive design. It should do what it is designed to do – namely, to help users find knowledge and use that knowledge in a meaningful way.
So, you’ve got a user interface, and it’s awesome. Or is it? All the pretty colors and readable fonts in the world are useless if you don’t have anything else. It’s time to think about applications – what do your users need to do their work more efficiently? How can your Knowledge Portal build value for your company?
To begin, embrace the concept of ‘My’. My deals. My investments. My area of expertise. Help your people find things that are relevant to them by keeping them in one easily accessed place. Start small but grow big – first show them what they are working on, and then show them similar projects being worked on by others nearby. Then bring in knowledge similar to or in the same wheelhouse. Then show them people who have previously been involved in similar projects, and what those people are doing now. Successful companies build relationships between their biggest assets – their people.
Next, include applications that will help your users do their work. The ability to preview a file or contact is essential – with so much knowledge in one place, it can be time consuming to have to download and open each file to find the one with the information you require. A quick hover-preview can eliminate needless searching and save valuable time. BA Insight created something we call InfoSites – a way to organize content based on topic, define what it is, and suggest related content. Especially in a large company, this is a great way to avoid duplicated work – another time waster – and find collaborators. InfoSites push content towards people based on what they are interested in. Don’t forget to give your users a way to subscribe to new content – keep them coming back for more knowledge.
Think about what your users need – what is relevant to your company – and build apps around that. Nationwide developed a simple app that shows how much paid time off an employee has banked, because they realized that finding that information was incredibly difficult. They estimate that they’ve saved over a million dollars a year in wasted time by creating this helpful little app.
Bring the Knowledge
Now you have a user interface and applications – you’re halfway there! It’s time to populate your Knowledge Portal with actual knowledge. This is the meat and potatoes of your Intranet – how it is going to actually build value. The key thing is to collect the data and have everything organized in one place. Integrate your core systems – being mindful of security – and provide everything your users might need at their fingertips.
To do this, you’re going to have to focus on metadata – but don’t make the mistake of trying to do that on your own. There are automated tools out there that do this for you; research them and find one that works for you. Where you come in is taking that metadata and creating ways for your users to create value with it. Can people visualize the data they’ve accessed? Can they create a graph or chart, and see the data in real time? Can they make connections between knowledge sources – find more information on the author of a document that was helpful? Find a profile of that person with contact information? Can they analyze the data they’ve collected?
Remember the concierge example from earlier? This is where that really becomes relevant. Your Knowledge Portal needs to provide more than just what your users ask for. The key here is efficiency – having piles of knowledge dumped on you provides little value if you can’t put that knowledge to good use. A good concierge will package the knowledge he provides in multiple ways – you asked about what you should do while you’re in town, and he’s given you tickets to a museum, recommendations for restaurants nearby, the number of a reputable cab service, and told his cousin, the manager of the hottest club in town, to expect your arrival and give you the VIP treatment. Now that’s value.
Your Search Better Work
Perhaps this should have been the first tip, except that without a user interface no one could search for anything anyway. Your search functionality HAS to work. Think back to the dark ages when information was available in these things we called encyclopedias. Now imagine that the encyclopedia was not printed in alphabetical order. You’d have nothing more than some pretty expensive kindling. There has to be an efficient way for your users to find what they need.
Relevancy is key. This might seem like the hardest part, but it’s really not. There are two aspects to relevancy – profile-based relevancy and organizational knowledge. For the first, know your audience. Your Knowledge Portal needs to know who your users are, what they do, and what their areas of expertise are. It also needs to know simpler things like WHERE they are – if you search for the wifi password and you’re in the New York office, finding the password to the Boston office is not helpful. For the second, find out from your users where they get the most useful knowledge, and factor that in. What sites do they visit daily? Who is the ‘go-to’ person for questions about health benefits? What places have they bookmarked so that they can find them again easily? Remember that your Knowledge Portal has to work for YOUR people.
Outside of relevancy, your search functionality should provide access to everything you expect to get access to. Make sure you have a way to check that you are getting the results you need. Keep this information organized – are the categories of results clear? Does your search really make it easier to find things? Can users provide feedback if they are not finding what they need? Does the search provide recommendations? “Others who searched for this also searched for …” Google is as popular as it is because it does what it was designed to do. Make sure your search functionality is the same.
Congratulations! You’re well on your way to having an Intranet that people love to use. A few bonus tips that will really push your Knowledge Portal over the edge:
- Know your usage. You can’t determine actual value created without knowing whether or not your Intranet is really being used to its potential. Gather statistics. Talk to people. Listen to feedback. Are the improvements really working? Have new issues popped up? Find out who your top users are and really listen to what they have to say. Then use that data to make further improvements.
- Make celebration central. Figure out what the most popular page in your Knowledge Portal is, and dedicate a significant portion of it to employee recognition. Include photos and profiles. Make it absolutely clear that your people are valued and important. Celebrate team and individual success.
- Provide dashboards to track real numbers in real time. Show your users how their efforts are translating into company success. Value can be intrinsic as well as extrinsic, and seeing progress towards local office and company-wide goals is an extremely efficient motivator.
As you can see, there are many factors that contribute to a successful intranet implementation.
You can find my full webinar on this topic here.