This month saw the publication of Neilsen Norman Group’s intranet design annual. Over the past 12 years, this annual snapshot has charted the evolution of intranets from the unloved stepchild of the web family to business-critical tool.
Intranetizen takes a look at some of the key findings in this year’s publication and finds the conclusions challenging.
One of this year’s winners, Staples, brings home the award for the second time, joining an elite band of multi-award winners. NNg argues “these organizations recognise that intranet design is never “set and forget”… Instead of perpetually sustaining their first winning designs, these companies continued to progress”.
However, I don’t entirely agree with NNg’s conclusion. Staples won in 2006 and hasn’t troubled the top ten in the intervening six years, while each of the other multi-award winners had a gap of four years or more between wins.
This doesn’t demonstrate continuous improvement at all, but is instead indicative of the ‘intranet as a project’ problem. That is, that the intranet is seen as a tool to be developed over the course of a few months, then left to stagnate for years until it becomes such a problem that something needs to be done about it, when it gets an upgrade, and the cycle starts again.
While Staples are to be congratulated for their efforts to make their intranet world-class, it’s only when we see winners retaining a top spot in successive years that they can truly say they strive to remain the best.
NNg do provide some great advice: Firstly, that your business is continuously experiencing change, and so the intranet needs to change too. Secondly, that intranets are perceived in the context of employees’ experience of other websites. The continuous and noticeable improvement of websites which employees use all the time creates expectations of the digital workplace, which all too often leaves employees disappointed.
The 2012 annual finds a growth in enterprise social networking. This is hardly a surprise, since it’s been the focus of pretty much everything written about intranets in the past year and many predict it will be on intranet wishlists in 2012.
But just what does social mean on an intranet? This year’s winners seem to have as widely varying ideas on this as the rest of us.
The annual gives well-deserved props to winners for making co-worker information richer and easier to find. Examples include mouse-overs on names; people information appearing before you’ve even finished typing a name in the search box; and advanced knowledge and people maps. People are the heart of (almost) every business, and connecting them is vital to success. Profiles are increasingly being integrated with Facebook style wall feeds, and these in turn are becoming more sophisticated.
What would be useful to know is what this social information and functionality actually delivers for the business. Does it result in less silo working? Do employees feel more engaged? Has it got a measurable impact on, say, R&D? Social intranets need to prove their worth and there’s little in the report to demonstrate their real value to the company.
There’s some useful food for thought here and we’ll write more on social intranets in a future intranetizen post.
Mobile isn’t gaining traction
Optimistic predictions that this would be the year mobile really gained ground turned out to be incorrect; just 10 per cent of this year’s winners have a mobile version.
NNg put this down to budget and resourcing, particularly the difficulties in designing for multiple devices. As Intranetizen’s Luke found recently, many organisations are stuck on the intranet mobile roadmap. We find this a hard conclusion to support. Many enterprises have in-built mobile intranet support through content management tools such as SharePoint and mobile intranets need not be hugely complex or costly. Getting a mobile intranet site right is hard work and that, combined with the availability of fully paid-for, ubiquitous enterprise smartphones are probably the real reason that we’re not seeing a greater incidence of mobile intranets amongst this year’s winners.
As people increasingly switch to smartphones and tablets as their primary device for accessing the web at home, they’ll start to demand the same at work. We’ll wait and see what 2013 brings.
Smaller companies = better intranets?
One of the more controversial findings in this year’s annual is the pronouncement that “smaller organisations are designing better intranets this year, and have been for the past 3 years.”
Criticism from intranet specialists has been vocal, with many questioning NNg’s methodology. This finding, like all the others in the report, is based not on all entries, but on the ten winners alone. Is it possible to draw any meaningful conclusion from such a small sample size?
But questionable methodology aside, the conclusions are believable. As I argued in my earlier post on scalability, form-fit tools designed for specific tasks and audiences make for better intranets. It’s far easier to do this in a small company with a clear mission that in is in a large, complex and diverse organisation.
But if smaller organisations have better intranets, is it fair to conclude that if you work in a big organisation, your intranet destined to be rubbish?
This is one area which is ripe for further study. If smaller companies are able to better fit their intranet to the needs of their business, perhaps bigger organisations should think like smaller ones, and start diversifying their intranets. Moving away from the one-size-fits-all monolithic intranet towards an ecosystem of sites and tools which more closely meet user need could be the answer. It’s certainly an area I’d like to see explored in future editions of the annual.
The annual found team size, relative to company size, is up. The average winning team includes 15 employees, or roughly one for every thousand employees. Again, the methodology is open to criticism because it’s based on such a small sample size. As Andrew Wright remarked on LinkedIn: “Considering there are probably over a million intranets in the world, using only a sample size of 10 to draw any conclusions about the changing size of intranet teams is ridiculous.”
Muddying the waters still further is that the report doesn’t clarify what’s meant by ‘intranet team’. People with some intranet responsibility seem to be included, but it’s hard to define what that means; IT support? Testing? Or just those managing site structure and content?
Comparison with previous editions again shows some kind of trend upwards, but to make any real conclusions about team size a quantitative study would be better. Look out for the forthcoming Intranetizen series on intranet teams.
NNg notes, as we all do, the difficulty in measuring return on investment on intranet developments.
The report lists different metrics which the winners use to demonstrate ROI. The problem is, very many of them are contradictory. A couple of winners measure decrease in page views while hunting (which indicates better IA), while other winners claim increased use shows ROI.
All too often, statistics show what you want them to. Increased page views either means your content is hard to find, or that people are using it more. Increased on-page time either means people are engaged with your content, or they can’t understand it.
It is all too easy to selectively pick statistics to demonstrate to stakeholders that your project was a success. But ROI, as Jonathan points out, is about outcomes, not outputs.
What would be useful (perhaps from a future NNg report) is a comprehensive and standardised ROI measurement method for stats which enables people to compare apples with apples (and less able to bullshit their budget-holders).
Much of the criticism of the NNg design annual is based on its methodology; results are presented as if it were a scientific, quantitative study, when in fact the findings are based on the small sample of ten winners.
This is unfortunate, as the findings are actually very useful. It provides a snapshot of emerging trends in functionality, design and management of intranet sites, giving intranet professionals some inspiration for the year ahead.
There are a number of quantitative studies out there, and perhaps NNg would do well to set themselves apart from these; this report uses meticulous study of a small number of intranets, looking particularly at usability, in order to deliver detailed recommendations. The methodology is different, but still valid. No one doubts the selected winners are really good intranets. With the thorough analysis provided by their report, NNg give us all some great examples to learn from, and the knowledge we need to implement changes on our own intranets.