Intranet best practice for 2014

Nielsen Norman GroupThe Nielsen Norman Group have published their 2014 Internet Design Annual. As usual it provides some great insights into the latest trends and best practices in the use of digital solutions for internal communications.

Great intranets are being created faster

Creating a new intranet, from beginning to end, took this year’s winning teams just 16.7 months on average. This is a major drop from the 2013 winners, who spent 26.6 months, and the 2012 winners, who took 47.4 months.

One of the reasons is the increasing use of effective Agile approaches to development. Whilst Agile may not be appropriate for everyone, if done well it can certainly streamline a project.

Intranet teams are growing

The average intranet team size this year was 16 members. Despite this, many intranet teams continue to struggle with meeting their goals within time, technology, and political constraints. The on-going trend toward better resourced intranet teams is being driven by several factors, including:

  • Swelling commitment to the intranet as a powerful business and communication tool
  • Better understanding of the need for good, usable user experiences
  • The push to integrate more tools, applications, content, and forms into the intranet design, and shifting people who once owned these processes onto intranet-related tasks
  • Recognition that it’s beneficial to involve experts in certain areas, such as search and in programming third-party tools

Smaller companies are designing great intranets

Whilst large companies do create great intranets, smaller companies are increasingly coming into their own, due in part to…

  • An increasing awareness of the business value of improving employee communication and knowledge sharing across companies of all sizes
  • The changing workforce — often distributed in many locations or working in the field — and the need to better support them via online media
  • The penetration of social features into the workplace and the desire to offer them on the intranet
  • The need to better manage the news and content communicated to employees online

Responsive design is gaining traction

This year, more teams than ever before are supporting or planning for mobile access and several took a responsive design approach to design and develop their intranet. Rather than create multiple sites to support multiple devices, the teams used responsive design to accommodate multiple devices while coding just one site.

Designing and developing a solution that supports multiple screen sizes is more time consuming than creating a single desktop site, but it saves time over developing three distinct sites for desktop, tablet, and mobile. It also makes for easier maintenance over time. Considering this potential time savings for the team — and the resulting ease of access across devices — a responsive design approach could be a very good strategy for many intranet redesigns.

Agile development and wireframing improve team communication

In using an Agile approach teams state and communicate goals based on user needs, then work in short, defined cycles to design and code features before moving on to the next stage. This helps ensure everyone clear about and confident in what they are working on.

Wireframes and functional prototypes can be used as blueprints for design, for communication, and for usability testing. Early planning discussions and stakeholder meetings can benefit from the use of wireframes; simple drawings help shift conversations from nebulous concepts to concrete ideas about functionality, design, and content.

Strong feature trends this year include:

  • Carousels – used on homepages, allow designers to fit more content in one area homepage real estate and to give equal status to a variety of different topics and functions.
  • Right-hand column – often used on homepages to provide quick access to applications, and on article pages to display related links or social elements.
  • Functional footers – offering feedback links, links to external sites, and search fields, as well as repeating links from the site navigation.
  • Local search – instead of a single search function for everything, a scoped search, in which users search within a particular intranet area, often delivers more relevant results.
  • Mega menus, present but shrinking – whilst using mega menus to present links, the best sites practice constraint, keeping mega menus from getting overly large and unwieldy, focusing instead on highlighting categories and key content areas.
  • Filmstrip – gallery-like viewing experience for highly related links and content.
  • Flat and boxy – prompted by the introduction of Windows 8 and iOS 7; this look is being reflected in many intranet designs.
  • Social features now becoming integrated, easy, and rewarding. Teams are also making strides in motivating employees to update their own information and to contribute.

Easing colleagues into the new design

Savvy intranet teams realise that springing a new design on unsuspecting colleagues is asking for disaster. People are often quick to dislike something new, particularly when they don’t expect it.

Change management is a crucial part of intranet redesign projects. Communicating with colleagues and — even more important — involving them early and throughout the redesign projects, helps make user needs clear and eases transition to the new design.

Planning for ongoing success: governance and endless change

Many intranet teams specifically plan for continual improvements post-launch, keeping resources in place, goals in mind, and governance committees convened. With this strategy, they’re making the intranet user experience increasingly better for employees, and thus the organization.

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