Top 10 Ways to Lose Your Intranet Users

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (13-Oct-2004)

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There's a saying in show business, "Getting to the top is easy, staying there is not." This same sentiment can be applied to any intranet implementation. But you probably want your intranet to have a healthier life than that of some poor second-rate soap opera actor whose career is filled with minor roles—the loud-mouth taxi cab driver, the one-eyed hotdog vendor, and the Gypsy fortune teller with a feral monkey.

Intranet developers and content owners are able to grab the attention of their users through momentum. Interest—caused by curiosity, marketing, word-of-mouth, or hype—is raised during initial rollout. And there will always be a surge in your Web server's usage logs during this period. But once the novelty has worn off, will your intranet have enough true substance to transform that initial momentum into regular usage?

Well, unless you actually want your users to abandon your intranet, make sure that you avoid these 10 common intranet mistakes:

10. Too Many "Under Construction" Signs

"Under Construction" signs simply mean "We're not ready, but here it is anyway." While it's perfectly fine to have a number of these signs on certain sections you wish to advertise and market prior to release, your site should never have a disproportionate ratio of content and "Under Construction" pages.

If you must place an "Under Construction" sign on your site or a series of pages, put a launch or availability date on the pages so users will know when to check back. By leaving only a simple "Coming Soon" or "Under Construction" message, users won't know if that message has been sitting there a week, a month, or a year, and won't bother to come back.

9. Content Clutter

I'm a very big fan of clean Web page designs, bordering on minimalism. But I continue to see sites with so much information packed into a single page that I don't even know what I'm reading anymore. I follow one link after another and, in the end, forget why I accessed the site to begin with. But this goes beyond personal taste.

Effective use of screen real estate allows users to achieve an at-a-glance contextual overview of the content on a page without needing to study it. Web sites enable you to do things unavailable in printed medium. And it's not necessary to layout your content as though it were a magazine or newspaper where space for content and advertisements is at a premium and must be carefully planned out in advance.

8. Too Much Flash, Not Enough Substance

Many intranets—especially during the initial stages of design—fall into a trap used quite often by magicians. While a poor unsuspecting audience volunteer is concentrating on the white dove the magician is pulling out of his jacket with his left hand, he fails to notice that the crafty magician is swiping his watch with his right hand.

This same sleight of hand and trickery is sometimes used by Web designers—either consciously or subconsciously—to hide a lack of content and real substance with a flurry of glitz and gimmicks. While users may be impressed by a flashy design, the novelty will wear off. And once it does, it won't be too long before they figure out that they have gained nothing productive by visiting the site.

7. Lack of Consistent Design

An intranet, even when composed of multiple pre-existing departmental subsites, must maintain an overall look and feel. You want the system to share common resources and design elements—the graphic user interface (GUI), content classifications, and search engine—rather than maintain what may appear to some as a lackluster collection of internal sites. An old colleague used to joke that the easiest way to create an intranet is to gather all your various departmental or workgroup sites, stick links to them onto a home page, create a common banner image, and voilą, insta-intranet!

But a consistent design goes beyond simple brand recognition. Regardless of how many individual subsites are contained in your intranet, users should feel as though they're using a single system rather than navigating from one subsite to another.

See my previous articles on the subject of intranet branding and consolidation:

6. Shifting URLs

The physical location of intranet content should never be changed. You can move the link to a piece of content anywhere you want within your intranet, but its URL should always remain the same regardless of whether it's new or archived. This is the difference between the logical re-location of content (i.e., it's link) and the physical re-location of content (i.e., the location of the file within the file/folder structure).

Changing a file's physical location will render all links to the document obsolete. And users who may have bookmarked the document will be surprised to be greeted with a "404 - Not Found" message.

5. Overly Secured Site

Intranets are touted as corporate systems that serve the user community as a whole. But some content is highly sensitive and needs to be secured for access by only a few individuals or niche groups.

In cases where the majority of content is secured from much of the user community, it's not a good idea to advertise the system as an intranet. You don't want your users to roam around the site looking for information only to find "Access Denied" messages at every turn. This creates a feeling of being "informationally under-privileged" and raises the question "We're all working for the same company. If they have access to it, why shouldn't I?"

4. Poor Search Engine

An intranet must have a search utility to allow users to find specific content without forcing them to navigate through the site's menus. This is especially important in high-volume intranets where related content may be organized across multiple sub-sections and categories.

Users demand, and deserve, a lot from their search engine, one that has the ability to search and locate information not only in HTML documents but also in other digital formats such as PDFs, Word documents, and Excel spreadsheets.

But a search engine is one of those funny components of an intranet; a good one may gain little attention (since that's what users expect to begin with), but a bad one will raise the ire of every user who tries to use it. It's irritating to enter a search query for content that you're certain is contained in your intranet—perhaps you saw it once before but can't remember the location—only to have a languid search engine sputter out, "No results."

3. Repetitious Content

Heads I win, tails you loose. It's the same information conveyed in two different ways. It's extremely tedious for users to have to read three articles with the same message. Many users already feel the effects of information overload so there's no reason to make matters worse by repeating the same information over and over again.

This is why it's important to coordinate the efforts of your content owners, so that each will know what type of content will be posted by the others, thus minimizing both duplication of effort and duplication of content.

2. Roundabout Navigation

An intranet's navigational system represents the logical organization of content (as opposed to its file and folder structure, which represents the physical organization of content) and forms an association among related content. It allows users to intuitively locate and navigate through content with minimal effort.

Intranet users often look to fulfill one of two goals when accessing their system: to find a specific piece of information, or to casually browse the site looking for information on a general topic. But with the advances in technology, users have come to expect their systems to deliver instant gratification. So if you force them to navigate through a labyrinth of menus and sub-menus, they will eventually lose their patience and give up or even forget what they were looking for in the first place.

To combat this, intranet developers should take care in observing the unwritten golden rule of site navigation: No more than three hops from origin to destination—users must be able to find what they're looking for quickly and easily.

1. Stale Content

Coming in at the number one way to lose your intranet users—it's the coup de grâce, the deathblow, of any intranet: stale content. There's absolutely nothing that will frustrate your users more than visiting an intranet only to find the same old content day after day, or to see information listed in the "Latest News" pages dated from June when it's actually October.

I often equate intranet content management with that of print publications such as newspapers and magazines; without fresh content delivered regularly there will be nothing to sell. Intranets must constantly grow and evolve because you can only keep a user's faith in the system if it consistently provides fresh and timely information with each visit. Otherwise, you'll be faced with a dwindling user-base and a very difficult task of trying to win them back.

For much more on this subject, refer to:

Final Thoughts

Avoiding these 10 common intranet pitfalls will go a long way toward extending not only the life of your intranet, but also your user community's trust and faith in the system. If you choose to overlook them, don't be surprised to find management writing off your intranet by sending it to an early demise—casting it down some empty elevator shaft, never to be seen again.

Copyright © 2004 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.