Intranet usability guidelines

by Tory Dunn on 1 October 2006

Intranets are one of the most valuable assets for any large organisation. They can, after all, help people do their jobs better and more efficiently, yet so many intranets offer such poor usability. Follow these guidelines and help your employees find what they're looking for more quickly and easily.

Structuring intranets

The most common way to structure an intranet site is according to an organisation's structure - its departments. Although this approach appears to make sense, a problem arises when users don't know under which department's remit their issue/query falls.

This issue will, of course, become increasingly problematic with larger organisations that may have higher staff turnover rates and/or more complicated structures.

The only real way to be confident in your site's structure is to conduct card sorting sessions, which will actually find out how employees perceive/think about the site's content.

We would generally recommend not introducing sub-sites unless there is a compelling business case for doing so. Offering sub-sites (according to country or department, for example) can be a good way for an organisation to show sensitivity to these groups. It does however have the disadvantage of increasing the number of potential places a piece of information might be.

Designing intranets

The intranet should look and behave in a consistent way (rather than, for instance, different departments having radically different graphic designs and navigation systems). Having an intranet that changes its appearance and behaviour between sections disorientates users and can introduce doubts into their minds as to whether or not all sections are as reliable and current as each other.

A good solution can be to create a standard page template with certain fixed characteristics, such as:

  • Font
  • Navigation
  • Graphic design
  • Page structure

Another interesting point we have noticed from usability testing studies is that an organisation's intranet should be easily and quickly distinguishable from its public-facing website (i.e. look different). Failing to do this can lead to employees becoming confused as to which 'world they are in' (and could even lead to customers being sent inward-facing and commercially-sensitive documentation).

How intranets should treat their content

It's important that any intranet makes it absolutely clear what information it does and doesn't provide. It's also important that the intranet's relationship with the organisation's other information-resources should be made clear (e.g. what sort of information appears on the intranet vs. what sort of information is on the fileshare).

In general, a piece of information should only appear in one location on the intranet (although it can obviously be linked to from many different parts of the site). The 2 main advantages of this approach are that it:

  • Reduces the need for keeping multiple versions current and accurate
  • Avoids potential user-uncertainty about which instance of a piece of content is relevant to a user

Managing intranets

Most successful intranets we've encountered have been governed by a strong, central team. This is absolutely necessary in order to provide an intranet with a clear and cohesive approach.

Although authorship and content-ownership can - and very often should - be devolved throughout the business, the management of the intranet itself needs to be the direct responsibility of a dedicated team. (In exactly the same way as the site's external-facing website should be.)

'Bookmarking' functionality

Intranets tend to be very large repositories of information where it can be difficult to find what you're looking for. Because of this, many users like to bookmark intranet pages, so that they know they will be able to find them again.

A common problem with bookmarks, however, is that once a person accesses a site from a new computer, bookmarks tend to be lost (because they're stored on the individual's computer). One way round this is to allow users to create 'intranet profiles' which contain online bookmarks that they'll be able to save and then access from any computer.

In order to make sure your pages have meaningful bookmarks, it's also important to write descriptive and helpful page titles (browsers take the default wording for a Bookmark from a page's TITLE tag).

Employee directory

We consistently find that one of the most popular reasons for an organisation's intranet is to find out how to contact fellow-employees. For this reason, you should always provide a dedicated central employee directory on your intranet.

Access to this directory should be provided from every page on the site and it should include all employees' details. There should be one place that people can go and be confident of finding any colleague they need to.

Support different ways of searching and browsing

You should also bear in mind that people will not always be able to provide the full name of the person they're looking for. You may have to allow users to search/browse according to:

  • Departments people work for (e.g. “I met someone from ‘Finance’ the other day but can't remember their name”)
  • Job titles and/or responsibilities (e.g. “Who writes the company newsletter?”)
  • Phonetic spelling of a name (e.g. “I'm looking for a Spanish colleague whose first name is pronounced ‘Hymie’”)
  • First name (e.g. “I'm looking for Bob in Accounts”)
  • Common name-variants (e.g. A man christened Alexander might also be known to his colleagues as Alex, Alec and/or Al)

Employee details

The details which the directory returns on an employee should seek to be as helpful as possible. Some of the most important details include:

  • E-mail address
  • Department
  • Phone number (both for internal and outside dialling)
  • Location
  • Job titles and main responsibilities (including any pages the person is responsible for on the intranet)
  • Photo
  • Manager

Local office information

For some organisations it's important to help employees visiting an office for the first time (e.g. for a regional meeting). In such cases, we have found the following information to be very useful:

  • Full address
  • Contact telephone number
  • Maps and a picture of the building
  • Transport
  • Hotels and restaurants
  • Currency and time zone information

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