Intranets and internal ecosystems of apps, sites, tools, and content often start out with purpose, poise, and utility. However, over time they can become dull, bloated with worthless features, and fail at their fundamental value proposition. Competing priorities in a siloed and politicized environment can make progress difficult. We at Vokal have learned these lessons and have evolved our practice to take advantage of this product landscape by focusing on content, organization, and the people maintaining the intranet.
Lessons of a Crappy Cub Scout Prize
When I was a kid, my dad always carried a real Swiss Army knife. We did plenty of camping and hiking growing up, and any time we encountered problems with hooks, bait, wood, or equipment, the knife came to the rescue. I was so envious of that utility as a Cub Scout that when it came time to claim a prize for selling the most popcorn, I chose the knock-off Swiss Army knife. It looked like a Swiss Army Knife, so I expected something that functioned like one.
My excitement soon waned. While my knock-off had many of the functions of a real Swiss Army knife, it lacked the things I needed most: tweezers, a fish scaler, pliers. There was only one blade, which was dull. The can opener simply punctured random holes around a can, never actually opening it—the saw broke after a few uses. And let’s not forget the tools that weren’t necessary at all, like the corkscrew.
Many intranets are like that knife. At first glance they look useful, intended to be a central place for employees to accomplish something. They often contain links, news, search bars, and tools. But much like that terrible knife, the functionality offered doesn’t perform well or is not needed. These intranets become less useful over time, and disappoint Cub Scouts everywhere.
Windows into the Soul
Unlike external-facing products, intranets can sometimes showcase larger issues that underlie organizations, especially growing or transitioning ones. It’s here that competing priorities, a lack of resources, and numerous other issues often rear their heads. When Vokal enters the intranet rebuild process, we often end up holding a mirror back at our partners and asking them to really reflect on how they’ve contributed to the problems at hand.
Symptoms of a Broken Intranet
Competing Priorities - When various groups or divisions vie to get their messages, handbooks, or events publicized, the result is a cluttered, chaotic use of “ad space” on the homepage.
Disjointed Communications and Content - Department and division sites often look and feel different, having been operated in independent silos, offering no consistency in how or from whom communications are delivered. This results in employees receiving communication through email, meetings, various sites, or sometimes not at all.
Disjointed Tech Ecosystem - Tools spread throughout the intranet such as multiple site platforms, CMSs, sunset apps, and apps/tools that perform similar functions lead to overlap and confusion. Often times this renders the search functionality useless, which is the most commonly used way to navigate an intranet.
Lack of Resources - Stale and irrelevant content, dead links, and old or outdated information could be a sign of poor governance, lack of process, or a lack of the resources necessary to keep the site fresh and functional.
Employee Apathy - Low traffic on content areas, low click rate on content, and low engagement with calls to action show employees aren’t seeing what is being offered, or just aren’t interested.
As an impartial third party, we often play the role of both trusted consultant and therapist as users and stakeholders open up about the various issues, frictions, and politics that exist within their organization. As a human-centered design practice, rather than write these off as obstacles to avoid we recognize them as natural and important challenges to take in, work with and solve.
No One Cares About the Intranet, Until You Start Taking Things Away
Another pattern we’ve noticed is that it’s hard to drive enthusiasm for an intranet rebuild—that is, until you start moving things around or taking things away. It’s like when you were a kid and you had that drawer full of toys you no longer played with. You never took them out, but as soon as your parents wanted to give some away, you were suddenly all about that Lite-Brite again.
If It’s Broken, Fix it!
When Vokal enters the picture, we work with our partners to develop a strong product vision, roadmap, and messaging. We demonstrate that, in the long run, their group/division/application will be better served by the new design. We also develop features, user journeys, and personas to help with those conversations, and show them how they regain ownership of their pages, content, and functionality. Bringing our partners, with all their politics, along on the journey transforms them from obstacles into advocates who stir enthusiasm for the intranet.
Organizations need to combat the symptoms of a broken intranet in order to create a resource that is valuable to their employees. To offer this value and create long-term behavior change, we recommend that redesigns should be accompanied by:
Content Strategy - Define all content, creating an inventory and a process for creating and curating across the organization.
Taxonomy - Create hierarchy, definitions, and apply labels and tags.
Communications Strategy - Define a brand voice and put communications guidelines and processes in place.
Without these your intranet won’t be able to deliver relevant information and facilitate task completion—the basic values of an intranet.
Intranets don’t seem sexy, but they are the confluence of an organization's employees, departments, tasks, endeavors, and challenges. Intranets rarely involve much cutting edge technology or receive the same degree of ongoing design attention as external platforms, yet they touch more parts of an organization than any other resource. It’s imperative to an organization’s health to keep their’s from going stale. By listening to employees, managers, support, and leadership we gain insights into tools, products, or process/business changes outside of the intranet that impact the workforce. From this vantage point, Vokal delivers on not just the basic value of an intranet, but also provides a platform for collaboration, community, and internal branding.