One of the primary goals for corporate intranets is to streamline employees’ daily tasks with a modern user experience that makes work easier. This usually requires some level of customization, because no two companies have the same user needs.
In fact, Kara Pernice from the Nielsen Norman Group writes:
“If there is one conclusion from the thousands of intranets we’ve analyzed over the years, it’s that an unmodified turnkey user experience will be substandard, no matter where it’s used. Every company is special, and therefore no one intranet design will be effective everywhere right out of the box. You can, however, look for software with an initial design that is a good basis for customization without the need to change everything.”
Customizations can increase complexity and impact supportability for most platforms, but when executed well the payoff in employee satisfaction can be huge. However, many companies have limited design and development resources for their intranets, leaving them to make tough calls about when an out-of-the-box feature is “good enough” and when a customization is worth its cost.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Patrick Pentz, one of the UX designers at Liferay, and ask how intranet project managers can design better user experiences, even with limited resources. Here are his top five takeaways for designing a customized intranet, including advice on how to set priorities and what kind of research goes into planning an intranet.
Top Five Takeaways for Customizing Your Intranet User Experience
Personalization is a must — there’s no one design that can satisfy everyone.
In 2018, a lot of companies think one site, one solution can work for everyone in their company. But today’s users, especially millennials, are used to technology that adapts to them. There’s really not one page or design you can make that will satisfy everyone, so personalization and customization are necessary to match the kinds of experiences your employees see when they’re on sites like Netflix and Amazon.
This is especially true if you’re working at the enterprise level. You’ll always end up customizing to some extent, because different companies have different needs.
The intranet platform you choose makes a big difference in how much customization you can afford because having the right out-of-the-box features can significantly speed up initial development. One of the mistakes most companies make is not consulting their design team while they’re evaluating software. If UX designers are able to do user research ahead of time, they can identify the most important user needs and make sure those are a factor when choosing the intranet platform.
Make sure customizations are tied to goals by focusing on Phase 1.
Before you start building anything, get your stakeholders in a room and clearly define the problem you’re trying to solve with Phase 1 of the project. That problem might be made up of a bunch of smaller problems, but I try to find one main thing to focus on. When you ask stakeholders to think of goals in terms of “Phase 1,” it helps them focus on their top priorities instead of trying to implement every nice-to-have feature they’ve imagined for the intranet.
After that, figure out everyone’s vision and objective. Each stakeholder will have a slightly different way of thinking about the project and a different motivation for getting it done. Make sure you hear them all out and then consolidate it into one vision.
Then you can set success criteria for Phase 1 — what does success look like for the group, based on the problem we’re trying to solve and the vision we identified? In other words, what features and customizations will you need to implement for Phase 1 to be a success? The project shouldn’t move forward until everyone agrees on that.
Clearly defining and documenting these goals at the start is important. New ideas will come up during the project, and it’s important to have success criteria to weigh them against so you can make tough calls about whether to include the idea now or wait until a later phase.
I always try to let the group know that I’m not the only designer in the room. We’re all designing this project together, and they’re acting as designers by bringing their insights and ideas to the table, which I’ll gather and transcribe into a design. That makes them feel more involved, because they see that their expertise matters for the project’s success.
If you don’t have a dedicated UX design team, hire external expertise.
If your company doesn’t have the resources to have a dedicated UX team for your intranet, I definitely recommend that you hire some external expertise, at least some consultancy to push you in the right direction. On your own, if you’re doing this for the first time, you’ll probably make mistakes that end up costing more than if you had hired a consultant. Experts who do this full-time have likely made similar mistakes in the past and can give solid advice on the right approach to take for your project.
If you really can’t hire anyone, there’s some basic research you can do on your own to give you a strong start. For most of my projects, I start by going online and running searches like “best UX practices for intranets.” I look at relevant articles from credible sources and try to find commonalities in what people are saying. Then I consolidate these into guidelines so that, when Phase 1 of the project is done, we can look back and say, “Yes, our design hit all these check marks.”
Invest in user research even if you’re short on time.
Ideally, your team will have the time and resources to interview actual users and flesh out robust user personas before designing your intranet. However, the reality is that your project will have a deadline, and if you’re working with a fast implementation you may need to limit the amount of user research you do. Even so, there are many user research methods that can give you solid research without a huge investment of time.
For instance, you can create “proto-personas” by talking to your stakeholders about their insights and assumptions for their users. This helps you identify how many personas you have and cuts back on the initial exploratory research you might do. From there, you can conduct targeted user interviews and refine the personas based on those insights.
There are also basic demographics you can look at to round out personas, things like age and gender that help set user expectations for your intranet.
If you’re really short on time, you can streamline this by interviewing people who often work with your end users. For example, when we were refining our customer portal at Liferay, I interviewed internal employees that represented the “types” of customers we have and consolidated those insights into the personas we used for the project. It’s not perfect, because our employees aren’t the same as our ideal end users, but it’s still pretty strong because it’s backed on research.
One of the great things about designing an intranet is that communication with the end user is much easier. Project managers can talk directly with employees to understand needs and pain points, and that is already a great start to designing a useful intranet.
UX design is never finished, so plan on an evaluation process from the start.
One thing to remember about UX design is that it’s never finished. When I worked as a graphic designer, it was easy to say a project was finished and to close the door on it. UX design is always changing and always refining. It’s up to the stakeholders to listen to their users and decide whether those refinements will translate into significant increases in productivity for their employees.
There are different ways you can evaluate Phase 1 to see what can be improved. You can use tools like Google Analytics or Hotjar, you can conduct user testing, you can send out a survey. You can talk to your users and hear what mistakes you’ve made, then repeat your process of researching ways to fix pain points.
Honestly, with intranets, most companies won’t start a Phase 2 unless there’s a concrete need for it. “Good enough” comes at a lower threshold than for customer-facing sites because the business value of an intranet is indirect. Companies don’t want to invest in big improvements unless there’s a clear problem that needs to be fixed.
Improve Your Intranet for Better Customer Experience
Like everything these days, companies will get better ROI out of their intranet if they customize it for their employees’ needs. Improving the employee experience through intranets is ultimately about delivering better customer experiences. As you make internal business processes faster or more accurate, you improve your company’s ability to consistently deliver experiences that customers love.
The trick, especially for enterprises, is knowing when it’s worth investing. Starting with clear goals and leveraging internal or external UX expertise will ensure you’re spending your resources in areas that will reap long-term benefits.