Some companies see their intranets much as they do potted plants: mainly decorative, placed with the intention of cheering up the workplace. Like plants, intranets appear easy to maintain at first glance – but this is not the case. Intranets are fickle and easy to kill: too little attention and the site will wither and die; too much water – or information – and it will drown in a puddle of inaccessibility.
Intranets are an essential tool in the modern workplace, offering a quick and easy way to share information across a department or company. However, this information is useless if no one wants to visit the site. With this in mind, read on for the five worst things you can do to your intranet:
- Growing an eyesore
- Opposite extremes: under- or over-watering
- Out of control: the importance of pruning
- When everyone wants to look after the plant
- A dying plant is never watered
Growing an eyesore
First impressions are everything, and this is especially true of online content. Badly edited images, clashing colours and misspelled copy can put a user off before they even start using the site.
How to avoid this:
- Set a clear and tidy design aesthetic from the start, and stick to it. Ideally work with a designer. Map every new page out thoroughly using PowerPoint or similar before you build it.
- Generally, people do not like scrolling, especially on the homepage. Scrolling is more acceptable on inside pages.
- Use fonts sparingly – you should only need to use one or two fonts throughout your site. Similarly, you should limit font sizes and colours. Ignore this and your site will start to look like a scrapbook.
- Avoid the scrapbook look and feel further by having a preset size for all images and thumbnails.
- Organisation is key! Keep your links and attachments together, and arrange them either alphabetically or in date order as appropriate. Try not to have long lists of links on your home page: if you have too many, consider creating a separate page for them.
Opposite extremes: under- or over-watering
Even if a user recovers from the shock of seeing a messy, unprofessional home page, the second factor that could make them run for the hills is a home page with outdated content. It is possible to suffer from the opposite problem: too much content on the home page looks untidy and makes searching for any single item difficult.
How to avoid this:
- Be sure to remove outdated content from the home page – it will free up space for new content.
- Create and maintain a busy pipeline for new content. This content should cover two to three months’ worth of upcoming content.
- Don’t be afraid to hold new content back. It is far better to publish regularly and often than to release everything in a burst.
- Content should contain clear, meaningful titles (and perhaps summaries), and should have a date of publication. Images are also good – they provide a quick and instant cue for a user to see that the content has changed since her last visit.
- If links must click through to downloadable attachments, use an icon to denote this and provide the file size in order to manage expectations. Avoid massive presentations, and do not open PDFs or Word documents if users are just expecting an article.
Out of control: the importance of pruning
Having a lot of information available on an intranet is not a bad thing, unless that information is difficult to find. Users who have to trawl through eight pages of links to find an attachment will quickly look elsewhere for information.
How to avoid this:
- Offer a variety of ways to navigate round a site. Make use of search functions, drop-down menus and menus on the page; people operate in different ways, and it is best to cater for all of them.
- Ensure users know what will happen if they click on a link. If they are going to download something, tell them what and how big it is. If they are going to open a new page, make sure they know which page. Don’t assume a user will guess from an abbreviated link.
- Use an ordered hierarchy when building your site: Users pay attention to URLs, using them to see where they will end up if they click on a link. Avoid coded URLs if possible: keep them in plain English.
- Open new windows for attachments and links to other sites: users may not be finished with your site. However, if you are linking to another page on your site, load in the same window.
- Link to neglected areas of the site on the home page: write an enticing blurb and use an image to draw in readers. Make use of newsletters to advertise new or recently updated areas.
When everyone wants to look after the plant
Many intranets have more than one person responsible for content: each department in a company may have their own dedicated page, for example. This means that it is harder to keep the site focussed and tidy; individual pages lose their coherence and the intranet begins to look like a collection of random documents being stored for convenience.
How to avoid this:
- Put together a representative board of people responsible for looking after the intranet, assigning members of this board to individual pages. All content for these pages should go through the page owners.
- Document a clear and concise set of standards that the intranet team should work with: these standards could include house style, link styles, image sizes and any of the other tips discussed in this article.
- Having other people wanting to produce content is not a bad thing, so assign your site owners to chase them. Nevertheless, check and edit the content – especially if you are working for an international audience.
- Perform regular site reviews, weeding out sections where the content has gone out of date. Incorporate traffic reports into these reviews to find out which sections are popular and which are not.
- Put together site overview documents to map out the purpose of each section, how often they should be updated and who is responsible for this. This will make management of the site much less of a chore.
- Whenever a section is updated, make sure you update the home page too. Users will not automatically click around the site looking for updates – you will need to tell them.
A dying plant is never watered
Intranet users are not just the audience for a site – they should also be the primary donors. However, if they feel that a site is out-of-date and unvisited, users will be less inclined to provide new content themselves. It is a vicious circle, and can be very difficult to fix.
How to avoid this:
- Again, build pipelines for upcoming content well in advance. Make sure the pipelines have plenty of material: not every article will end up be suitable for the site, and some may never be written.
- Keep a comprehensive list of good sources of information for the site. When your pipeline is looking thin, begin doing the rounds of people you know have contributed in the past. Ask for specific types of information or content; don’t simply ask, “Have you got anything good for the site?” as this always yields very little.
- Be sure to credit users by name when they submit content or assist in writing articles. This creates a personalised touch and appeals to the users’ competitive streaks. Everyone likes to see their name in pixels!
- Again, keep the home page up-to-date: any changes, updates, modifications or new content on the site should be reflected on the home page.
- Newsletters are key drivers of traffic, and can alert users to new content even if they have previously lost interest in a site. Keep comprehensive mailing lists and send out a regular newsletter to keep people coming back to your site.
These five sets of tips are central to building and keeping a good intranet. To stretch the potted plant analogy just a little further, failure to acknowledge these points will kill the intranet before it even has a chance to grow. Take these factors into consideration and your intranet will flourish into something that will benefit you, your staff and your business.