Inside the cocoon: How Nationwide ran a tightly focused intranet transformation project

November 28, 2018 by

With the case for a new intranet made following a series of DWG benchmarks in 2013, Nationwide set about a transformation project that would focus closely on content, usability and governance, and would subsequently vastly improve its benchmarking standings. In this second blog post of three (read the first post here), we take a look at how the Nationwide team cleaned up the intranet’s content and improved its usability, supported by DWG membership.  

“He built a small house, called a cocoon, around himself. He stayed inside for more than two weeks. Then he nibbled a hole in the cocoon, pushed his way out, and…”

The story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar builds steadily up to the great reveal, the endpoint of our protagonist’s transformation. But what exactly is going on inside that cocoon? How does he actually change from caterpillar to butterfly? This is where so many intranet and digital workplace teams fall down – at the point where strategy needs come to life and they actually have to make their transition happen in order to achieve the vision.

The excitement of a new project can sometimes get the better of you: the opportunity for change is palpable and it may feel as if this is your one shot to get it right. As we saw in the first post of this series, this was the situation for the Nationwide team when they managed to secure budget for an “intranet upgrade” project. However, they soon realized they’d bitten off more than they could chew, and the project began to stall. A series of Digital Workplace Group (DWG) benchmarks of their platform helped reinvigorate the project and provided a laser focus on three areas identified as key: content, governance and usability. Everything else could be pushed further down the roadmap. Here, we take a peek inside the cocoon, to focus on the work they did on usability and content throughout the project.  

Focusing on usability

With usability one of the areas in which they had been benchmarked and performed poorly, the case was made to include User Experience (UX) expertise within the team and to make sure usability was prioritized.  

User research was conducted through activities such as workshops, one-on-one interviews and user diaries, while tools such as online card-sorting were also employed. As regards the number of people they tested with, Jon Simons (Digital Channels Senior Manager) comments: “Usability research shows that you only need to test with six users for successful results, but it wouldn’t have been accepted if we’d only tested with a handful.” As a result, the Nationwide team conducted around 1,500 user tests through the course of the project, ensuring they were always testing and engaging with a large user base.  

The research helped them to create an initial set of wireframes, which were subsequently tested with users and, as a result of this, went through a number of iterations prior to launch. The heavy focus on usability paid off: “This had a massive impact. We weren’t too far off with our wireframes, and the user feedback meant we could tweak as needed.”  

One area in which they did get some pushback was in their attempts to apply a consistent set of design standards across the site. “We had lots of local branding, where the content presented wasn’t usable and was also not on brand. Our intranet isn’t for customers, but there are times when our members will see it.” For example, there were cases of the intranet being consulted in a branch in order to help staff answer a customer query, but the page they pulled up didn’t look professional or as if it was a Nationwide resource. While enforcing a set of standards across the platform was essential to supporting improved usability, a small number of publishers felt strongly that their content needed to have a bespoke look and feel. They were given the opportunity by the team to escalate their objections to the project board, and ultimately the team were able to apply consistent branding across the site.  

Content cleanup

The Nationwide team had set themselves no small task as regards content: to reduce the number of pages they were managing from more than 40,000 to just 10,000. To help achieve this, they broke the task down into a series of priorities.  

Firstly, using the data available to them, they decided to remove all content that had attracted 50 or fewer views per year, on the basis that it is wasted effort to maintain content that isn’t being seen. Surprisingly, this was an area where they received no pushback from their publishers.  

Next, the team turned their focus to the most popular 1,000 pages, recognizing that these needed to be made more readable. Their community of publishers had a tendency to write their pages in “business speak”, adopting the kind of formal tone, full of acronyms, that is so often the bane of intranet and digital workplace teams’ lives.  

While the Nationwide team worked with a third-party organization to help get these priority pages into shape, they were also careful to try and embed “writing for the web” skills into their publishing community. This proved to be one of the harder tasks they faced, as they found they weren’t able to impose standards, instead having frequently to negotiate with authors to achieve a balance between the desired consistent and more informal voice, and that required for the content at hand. As Jon says: “Wording can affect meaning, so we had to be flexible.”  

This has proved to be an ongoing task for Nationwide, as people have a tendency to slip back into a more formal writing style. However, the team made sure they got off to the right start within the project itself and worked to embed activities, such as making sure their own content and communications were written in the tone they wanted to see mirrored across the platform.

Training publishers

Beyond the specific need to rewrite the most popular content, Nationwide was careful to ensure that its publishing community received full training in areas such as how to publish and covering the new governance framework. The need for this refresher was one that will no doubt be familiar to many readers: “We had done training before, but it had been sporadic and some [publishers] hadn’t been trained in a long while.”

To help make the training more user-focused, the team created three roles, with mandatory training for each:  

  • publishers (who would create content)
  • owners (who were responsible for content being accurate)
  • site owners (who were responsible for content reviews and access).  

Super-publishers were also nominated and targeted to be trained in far greater detail in areas such as new governance requirements, review cycles and new standards, and were asked to help spread this knowledge throughout their peer networks.  

The e-learning methods, through which the bulk of training was initially delivered, performed an essential task within the new world, as you could only become a certified publisher after completing the relevant course. However, Jon now reflects that the e-learning approach probably wasn’t as impactful as they had hoped. As a result, the e-learning element of training has been reduced, with the bulk of learning now taking place in-person within a classroom environment, an approach they’ve found to be far more effective.  


Eventually, the project got to the point where the team were ready to launch: “We thought we’d done all we could.”  

While they made sure they carried out the necessary communications (e.g. through news stories on the intranet and emails to specific stakeholder groups), there were still people who didn’t know that the launch was coming.  

Jon reflects that they’ve since learned to engage different audiences in different ways, particularly those in customer-facing roles, as email and news stories aren’t always the most effective channels.

They also launched a virtual expo, where users could get a sneak peek and browse around the new platform before it was released. “It was a nice idea, but I don’t think it was particularly impactful. There’s not enough interest in people to browse around the new intranet; we’re invested because it’s what we do, but for them they just need to know what they need for their work.”

Not journeying alone

For Nationwide, the ability to access other organizations’ experiences throughout the course of the project was a source of both inspiration and validation.  

“We knew we had a large job, and there’s a real benefit in having access to other organizations who have been through, or are currently going through, similar challenges. We had a lot of calls with other organizations during and also after the project; we asked how they were tackling things, and it was really good to have those conversations. They can give you ideas around governance and different approaches to tackling content reviews we hadn’t thought of… DWG member meetings were opportunities to see other possibilities too… and the one-on-one calls were opportunities to get details on specific topics and learn as much as you can.”

DWG’s CEO and Founder Paul Miller also observed the impact these opportunities had on the Nationwide team: “It gave them the confidence that they were on the right path, and confidence is a big thing to have; it allowed them to build a very strong foundation for intranet success.”

Lessons learned for a tightly focused project:

  • Remember that the project is just the start of a longer-term programme: What are the prioritized areas you need to focus on first in the project? What can come later?
  • Invest the time and resources in conducting the necessary user research to help inform the choices you’re making throughout the project, using a range of research methodologies.
  • Test with as many users as your organization needs in order to generate confidence in your decisions. While research shows you only need to test with six users to achieve meaningful results, larger organizations may not feel “comfortable” with a small testing group.
  • Be confident in the decisions made throughout the project, particularly if they’re based on user research and these decisions have been ratified by your project board. However, also understand where there is a need for more flexibility because some of those global decisions can have an impact on usability in specific cases.  
  • Don’t discount classroom-based learning and over-rely on e-learning for essential areas of training.
  • Speak with other organizations throughout the course of your project to learn from their experiences.

Project closed, but the work goes on

The project was a success, which was obvious when the platform was benchmarked again in 2016, with Nationwide shooting up the league tables for governance and also showing significant improvements in its usability score. However, the team didn’t just lay down tools post project. In our next and final blog post, we’ll look at the emergence of the butterfly from the cocoon – and see how that isn’t the end of the story.

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Categorised in: Usability & design

Shimrit Janes

Shimrit is Director of Knowledge for DWG, focused on curating knowledge on the digital workplace for its members and clients such as Adobe, The Coca-Cola Company, and Ubisoft. Shimrit has worked with Paul and DWG colleagues on various initiatives, such as Digital Nations Group, as well as co-hosting the 24-hour global digital experience DWG24. She has had a number of research papers published with DWG on topics such as organizational readiness and collaboration. Shimrit lives in London, where she crochets, enjoys video games and keeps more books than the space allows.

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