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Understanding Your Intranet User Types

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (01-May-2009)

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Ask a hundred people how they like to manage their daily informational tidbits and you're likely to get a hundred different answers. Some swear by hi-tech methods, evidenced by twitchy thumbs that have worn down the buttons of their smartphone. Others prefer the lo-tech method of scribbling things into notebooks or on index cards and loose pieces of paper with their favorite ballpoint pen. And in between the hi- and lo-tech methods, you will find every conceivable combination of the two. Similarly, if you ask your intranet users how they like to use the system, you will probably get just as many responses.

Proponents of user-centered development and design seek to improve the relationship between human users and technological tools. Their goal is to create software that conforms to users' innate abilities to carry out certain tasks without having to sacrifice some type of livestock to appease the digital gods. Developers should never aim to alter the manner in which people work (unless flawed to begin with); rather they need to focus on learning new ways to shape technology to conform to the way users naturally work and think. But not all users are created equal. How do you develop an intranet to meet the needs of hundreds or thousands of users with their myriad of professional backgrounds, technical expertise, and personal habits? It begins with understanding the users that make up your intranet community.


Power users

Power users are very self-reliant and require the least amount of handholding. They might even resent it. Even with little-to-no formal training, power users—many of whom are either in the technology field or are rabid enthusiasts—will get a good sense of how their intranet works through their own unsupervised exploration of the system. They have enough experience and knowledge of software in general to figure out the particulars of most technology-based systems (unless it's very complex).

Power users are also unlikely to be impressed by non-functional design gimmicks that do little to improve productivity and workflow. Poor developers tend to use flashy eye candy to hide system deficiencies, and power users are the first ones to see through these plows. Instead of flash, power users appreciate less restrictive, free-form tools—such as advanced content searches and user-customizable reports—that allow them to find and process content independent of an intermediary.


Technophobes

Technophobes are the antitheses of power users and are often uncomfortable with technology-based systems. Although they possess the same basic capacity to learn and adapt as any other user, the major roadblocks for technophobes come from misperception and lack of understanding of the system.

Technophobes' natural fear of the unknown prevents them from taking full advantage of what their intranet has to offer. This causes them to treat every keystroke and mouse click like the cutting of a wire on a ticking bomb, fearing the system will be reduced to ashes if they press the wrong button. Not only are they afraid of the system itself, they’re also afraid that they will be held responsible for doing something wrong. Most of their concerns, however, are unwarranted. By providing them with more formal training and detailed, plain-English documentation, the fear factor can be eliminated. Familiarity will eventually allow them to become much more comfortable with the system.


Fearless adventurers

Fearless adventurers, like power users, love to explore all the nooks and crannies of their intranet on their own. They enjoy the thrill of trying out new tools and have a natural curiosity. But there's one major difference that separates the two user types: Fearless adventurers don’t have the same technical know-how as power users. In fact, you can say that some fearless adventurers know just enough about the system to be dangerous.

It might not be a big concern if the fearless adventurer is an end user with read-only rights to the system, but if the fearless adventurer is a content manager with a "let's see what happens when I do this" attitude, his or her curiosity can be detrimental to system and content integrity. With proper training—and limiting administrator or power user rights to those who truly need it—you can prevent fearless adventurers' curiosity and wandering fingers from negatively impacting your intranet.


Hit-and-runners

Hit-and-runners are casual users that spend very little time on their intranet and rarely browse the system for the sake of exploration. Unlike power users and fearless adventurers, hit-and-runners are not easily impressed by technology. They simply see technology as a means to an end. They have a job to do, and they want to get it done quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, by doing so, they never give themselves the opportunity to discover everything their intranet has to offer—especially newly introduced features.

Since hit-and-runners are not prone to exploring the system on their own, the best way to catch their attention is to go outside the intranet to a medium they probably use everyday: Email and/or RSS news feeds. Depending on how much activity there is on the intranet, regular email and/or RSS alerts can be sent out at regular intervals to inform all users of new features, developments, and content without requiring users to actively go onto the intranet. This is an especially useful approach for informing hit-and-runners who might not have otherwise discovered new offerings on the intranet itself.


Closing thoughts...

An intranet can't be everything to everyone. It's impossible to cater 100-percent to every single user. There will always be something that doesn’t work for someone. But when you have a firm understanding of the backgrounds, abilities, and work habits of your users, you’ll stand a better chance of finding that perfect middle ground that makes the majority of your user types happy. The last thing you want to do is force a bunch of BlackBerry addicts to start sticking thousands of Post-it notes all over their desks.


Copyright © 2009 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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