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Five Must-Have Qualities of a Winning Intranet

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (14-Aug-2009)

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There are two distinct sides to every person working in an organization. On one side you have an employee's professional skills, the collective abilities and knowledge the person acquires through training and on-the-job experience. Then, on the other side, you have an employee's personal qualities, the fundamental qualities that define the person as a human being such as courtesy, integrity, and honesty. Professional skills are learned; personal qualities are usually inherent in the person.

It's not unusual to encounter professionals who have an abundance of one and a deficiency in the other. Have you ever worked with an extremely talented software programmer with the social skills of a cave-dwelling ogre? Or have you ever worked with someone who's extremely personable, but whose hands-on development skills don't match their will and their spirit?

In the same way a person has professional skills and personal qualities, an intranet also has two sides: Its feature set and its fundamental qualities. An intranet with an outstanding list of features can be marred by poor design and inconsistent content or vice versa.

Regardless of an intranet's features—database applications, social media tools, online collaboration tools—there are some fundamental qualities that all intranets must have.


User-oriented not technology-oriented

User-oriented development is based on the understanding that what you can technologically do with an intranet must never take precedence over what you should logically do with a system. Unfortunately, developers, in their excitement and enthusiasm for new technology, can lose sight of who they're developing their systems for. They end up turning production systems into their own experimental playground for new tools and technologies. Instead of thinking about how they can best help their users, they're more concerned with what they can accomplish with a particular technology and how far they can push their own development skills.

This type of inward, technology-driven (some would say "ego-centric") development does more to help the makers than the users of an intranet. Users are rarely concerned with a system's underlying technology. They don't distinguish Drupal from Joomla or .NET from Java. And while there are valid arguments for choosing one over the other in a technical discussion amongst developers, users are more concerned with process and function.


Easily manageable by non-techies

Content owners should be managing their intranet, not the other way around. The less content managers have to think about their CMS as a tool, the more they can concentrate on their primary job: To manage the system's content. But if they need to wrestle with their CMS simply to add new content or modify existing content, it defeats the whole purpose.

It's unfair to assume that the people who will be charged with managing an intranet's content will be as tech savvy as those who created the system. What seems simple and intuitive to developers might seem complicated and counter-intuitive to content managers. It's the developer's responsibility to understand how their users work because they're the ones who will be using the system on a day-to-day basis. Although system training will help content managers get accustomed to the tools, developers should make it as simple as possible for them right from the outset. The gentler the learning curve, the better.

An overly complex intranet will simply discourage users from adopting it as an everyday tool. Instead, they will likely treat content management as one of those inconvenient housekeeping chores that must be done before they can get to their "real" tasks. Eventually, the system will grow stale and fall into disrepair.


Aesthetics

This one is rather obvious, isn't it? The more visually appealing the system, the more likely users are to use it. Why would anyone want to use a boring or poorly designed intranet? Just because an intranet is used as a business tool, that doesn't mean it should look like a legacy application on a dumb terminal.

Function should never take a backseat to design, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Intranets must be equal parts form and function. The latter allows users to accomplish a goal and the former contributes to overall user experience and satisfaction. It's possible to have the best of both worlds.


Quality content

Content is the main reason you have an intranet. Quality content must be:


Effective navigation system

System navigation, a subset of usability, is an essential component of your intranet. It's the manner in which users navigate from Point A to Point B, and logically tie one piece of information with another.

There are tons of ways to create an effective navigation system, but regardless of what you decide on, it must:


Closing thoughts

Every intranet is different. They can serve a variety of purposes depending on an organization's industry, user base, and business requirements. Some intranets include real-time collaboration tools, some include Web 2.0 tools and encourage user-generated content, and some have a combination of tools. But all intranets must have the same basic fundamental qualities in addition to its list of features. After all, what use are skilled programmers with no integrity? On the surface, they might seem like they're doing their jobs, but eventually you'll just end up wanting to throw them out the window.


Copyright © 2009 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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