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At this time of the year the world’s intranet community waits eagerly for the world’s top 10 intranets to be announced by the Nielsen Norman Group, founded by web usability guru Jakob Nielsen. Who will win and what will the key themes be? The  winners are always an impressive group (this year’s will be featured on our upcoming February Digital Workplace Live show), yet the tone of NNG’s latest research is distinctly downbeat on the subject of intranet usability.

It is 10 years since NNG started its annual winners’ report and 10 years since IBF began benchmarking large-scale intranets. We both have similar data about the quality of user experience but reach slightly different conclusions about the state of intranets today and where intranets sit compared to websites.

NNG observes: “Our latest user research of intranets paints a sorry picture of enterprise computing: we recorded marginally worse levels of measured usability than we found in our first intranet study 10 years ago”. It goes on: “Employees’ average success rate when attempting basic intranet tasks is now 74% – compared to 75% 10 years ago”.

At IBF we have similar findings (and a slightly bleaker picture in some cases) about usability, with intranets struggling to maintain standards in the face of rising complexity.

But 10 years ago intranets were just internal communications systems and now they are business critical, complex services that drive work. Intranets have become powerful digital work spaces, constantly accumulating content, people, collaboration and services. This makes maintaining usability standards harder and we have seen that to be true in IBF benchmarking in the past three years as complexity battles with task completion. In many ways 74% is an achievement in the face of rising complexity.

Testament to ingenuity

NNG says that “by comparison, today’s average success rate on public websites is around 80%”. While 74% is below the 80% figure for public websites, we all know hundreds of millions of dollars have been ploughed into websites, driven by e-commerce giants, to raise usability. Yet despite this, these highly resourced websites still only see slightly better task completion rates than do intranets. This is a testament to the ingenuity of tiny intranet teams, which have played second fiddle to external sites for those 10 years.

Intranets ought to have higher usability than websites, says Jakob Nielsen, because you “control the environment, know exactly who the users are—basically, the people in the next office”. But that is the problem: staff are seldom in the next office and are often in more than 100 countries, working in 50 different functions, spanning local languages and work patterns. On the other hand websites are generally focused on a small number of specific tasks done repeatedly. Every time we visit Amazon what do we do? Find an item, look at it perhaps and then buy it – again, and again and again. No wonder that works well.

Do you think  intranets are easier or harder to manage than websites in terms of usability?

Tell us what you think. Leave a comment below.

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About the author

Paul Miller - CEO of the Digital Workplace Group
Paul Miller is CEO and Founder of the Digital Workplace Group. His latest book, ‘The Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future’ (co-authored with Elizabeth Marsh), was shortlisted for the CMI Management Book of the Year 2016 Award. Paul’s previous book, ‘The Digital Workplace: How technology is liberating work’, helped to popularize and explain the term “digital workplace”. Paul has given many inspirational talks on the digital future of work, for audiences at Microsoft, IKEA, Google, Accenture, Harvard Business Review, Cisco, European Commission, Adobe and Oxford University.

He was ranked one of the world’s Top 50 Social Employee Advocacy Leaders in 2015 and was a Judge and Mentor for the Duke of York’s Inspiring Digital Enterprise Awards. Paul hosted the pioneering internet radio show Digital Workplace Live for five years and is Executive Producer of the 24-hour global digital experience Digital Workplace 24.

Prior to founding DWG, Paul was Founder and CEO of communications company The Empowerment Group; Publisher and Editor of social and digital innovation magazine “Wave”; and, in pre-internet days, co-founder of the Ideas Café salon. He now lives in the Cotswolds in the UK.

Connect with Paul on Twitter: @paulmillersaysor on Google +.


  1. That second last paragraph has it. Money. Investment. And ‘tiny intranet teams’. The intranet has always been the poor relation in many organisations. It’s just ‘there’ and people take it for granted. And of course senior managers rarely pay much attention to it as they don’t see it as being important enough. But maybe that’s the fault of intranet managers too, maybe we need to sell ourselves more? Maybe we need some decent PR??

  2. True Andrew. Many senior managers tell me the intranet is now “hygiene” but they also agree in work as in life “hygiene” is essential for health.


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