Powerful intranets struggle to maintain usability

December 10, 2012 Updated: April 5, 2023 by

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. You can copy some of these award-winning designs when it comes to your website but it’s not as straight forward for intranets.

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.

Find out more about IBF benchmarking

Categorised in: Usability & design

Paul Miller

Paul Miller is Chief Creative Officer and Founder of the Digital Workplace Group (DWG), rated by the Financial Times in 2020, 2021 and 2022 as one of the UK’s leading management consultancies in digital transformation. He is a business and social entrepreneur. His latest book is ‘Nature of Work – The new Story of Work for a Living Age’ (co-authored with Shimrit Janes). His previous book, ‘The Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future’ (co-authored with Elizabeth Marsh), was shortlisted for the 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, IMF, Adobe and Oxford University.

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