The battle for the intranet home page: is it worth the fight?

March 13, 2012 by

Designing intranet home pages has always been part battle, part balancing act. Intranet teams are trying to fit a variety of functions and content into a limited space, while ensuring acceptable levels of usability, aesthetics, corporate branding and sometimes accessibility.

They’re also trying to keep various stakeholders and user populations happy, some of whom will have conflicting views of what should constitute the home page. For example leadership and internal communications functions will generally emphasize the intranet’s role as a central news and internal communications channel, although this may actually be less important to users who are more interested in task-orientated content and functionality that helps them get their work done.

A variety of other tensions are also at play such as the balance of global and local content, the levels of personalisation or tailoring required and how to surface user-generated content and outputs from social tools.

Even as intranets shift and evolve within organizations in different ways (e.g. –  social, “one company” intranet, mobile, a gateway to the digital workplace), the home page still seems to hold a fixation for many intranet functional owners.

But is the home page really worth getting war-weary about?  Has its importance tended to be overblown?  If you’re currently in mid-battle on an intranet redesign, or fending off criticism for why the canteen menu isn’t in the favorite links, or feeling slightly scarred because you can’t please two sets of contrary stakeholders, here are a few thoughts about the battle in hand.

A battle that can never be truly won

First of all it is worth remembering that the battle for the home page is a battle that can never be truly won. Intranet teams can never design a “perfect” home page. Some users will never be entirely happy.

The processes and methodologies that go into the design and the intranet’s ongoing management, usually along with the dexterity of the intranet teams handling the project, is often the most important element.  In the end the spirit of compromise, consulting a wide variety of users and stakeholders, demonstrating responsiveness to suggestions and a constant fine tuning usually gets buy-in.

The starting point is strategy

Intranet home pages have a variety of functions.   James Robertson has written a useful article which covers seven different uses (news, navigation, key tools, key information, community and culture, internal marketing, collaboration) and provides a good overview of starting points to consider when designing a home page.

Similarly Sam Marshall has written a great post about how the home page is intertwined with the “flavour” of your intranet, which in turn depends on your organization’s strategic objectives. Do you want to emphasize stronger company culture because you’ve just undergone a merger or do you want to support flexible working?

Ultimately the starting point for any home page has to be your organization’s strategy.  If you can clearly demonstrate the links between home page design, strategy and a user-centered approach, then you should (theoretically) be able to establish peace

Internal communications versus everything else

Often the battle for the intranet home page centers on how much news and corporate messages to include. Everybody usually has a view on this.  This is partly because there is often scepticism amongst users about both the value and the potentially “sanitized” messages within corporate communications, but also because of what news excludes from the home page.

My own view is that news is important, but it’ importance isusually way over-emphasized and takes up too much space, although this  depends on strategic need. For example if your company is going through a crisis or fundamental change and needs strong leadership, then news may require more space.

Probably the general rule is that unless your leadership function takes no interest in your intranet they will insist on having corporate news taking up proportionally more space than anything else.  Even in forward-thinking intranets where the space for news is reduced, it will probably creep back at some stage.   Bearing this in mind in intranet design, it means reserving significant space for internal communications from the outset.

You can squeeze a lot on an intranet home page

There are lots of tricks in your armory to keep everybody happy so that all stakeholders have representation on the home page.  These include having an aggregation of tailored global, local and functional content (particularly important for news), allowing users to define personalized links (particularly important to ‘useful links’) and also tabbing, which can be useful for collaborative and social content, especially for activity streams.

The potential decline in value of the intranet homepage

Within the wider context of the Digital Workplace, there may actually be multiple starting points to get to the sort of services and functionality traditionally associated with the intranet, some of which may not be the intranet home page.  For example there may be a separate home page for the social collaboration platform (particularly if it’s in a different technology e.g. Jive) and the video-sharing platform.  Mobile access for an intranet tends to undermine a home page concept and breaks it up into a series of functions, apps or content pods.

The increasing relaxation of rules around Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) may also mean that your web browser of choice may not necessarily boot up the intranet home page. The increasing value of social media in the enterprise – primarily LinkedIn and Twitter – may mean your starting point to solve business issues is beyond the firewall.  Also as intranet users come more sophisticated and configure their browsers for favourites or use short cuts, there’s the potential to by-pass the home page altogether.  For example intranet manager Mark Tilbury noticed this trend a couple of years back with declining home page visits which he partly puts down to:

“Differing adoption approaches directing users to sites (email alerts, notifications, alias urls, rss feeds, bookmarking) the savvy online user now knows how to get direct to what they need rather than go through a busy, distracting homepage that disrupts, interrupts and annoys.”

Focusing on findability

When Google appeared on IBF 24 and gave us a glimpse of their intranet MOMA, they caused a stir when they equated their home page to a traditional Google search box.   Good findability is key to a successful intranet and it’s arguable that having a great user-centric and task-orientated IA combined with a managed and refined search may be more important than the contents of the home page for most users.  Is the time and effort spent on managing and improving findability proportional to that spent on submitting content to the home page?

Overall of course the intranet home page is important, but it’s not the intranet itself.  If you’re experiencing a battle then it is worth considering the home page in the context of the relative importance of other elements of your intranet.  And if it’s a battle where you may need to compromise, then sometimes a pragmatic approach can be the preferred route.

About the author

This is a guest post by Steve Bynghall. Steve was the content producer for IBF 24 2011 and helped research Paul Miller’s forthcoming book on the “Digital Workplace.”  He has written two research reports for IBF, and regularly blogs for DWF and IBF. Steve is the founder of Two Hives Ltd, a consultancy specialising in KM, collaboration and web-based projects. Steve previously worked at accountancy firm BDO in a variety of knowledge roles, including managing their global extranet programme. He has just co-written a book on crowdsourcing with Ross Dawson titled “Getting Results from Crowds.”

Categorised in: Digital workplace, Internal communications, Search & findability, Usability & design

Steve Bynghall

Steve Bynghall is a freelance consultant, researcher and writer specializing in the digital workplace, intranets, knowledge management, collaboration and other digital themes. He is DWG’s Research and Knowledge Lead, a benchmark evaluator and research analyst for DWG.

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