Most corporate websites, especially those aimed at individual customers, are meticulously designed. No expense is spared in creating an aesthetically pleasing, on-brand experience for site visitors.
However, as with technology, content, and usability – intranets still often lag behind the web in the quality of the graphic design.
How important is the look and feel?
There are some successful intranets out there which are not attractive. From just a quick glance, it’s clear that no visual designer has been anywhere near them. But, they work. They are ‘fit for purpose’. The functional design has been sufficient to create a useful intranet.
There are other intranets which are very pretty, but are not successful. They fail to achieve their objectives.
Does this mean that visual design doesn’t matter – or that it isn’t a deciding factor? No, it does matter and sometimes it can even be a deciding factor.
Why graphic design is an important part of an intranet
Just as decorative design can add unnecessary noise to communication, it can also adversely affect the usability of the site. For example, heavy graphics can reduce the speed of page loads – a massive factor for usability on mobile devices. Poorly planned UI (user interface) elements can confuse and mislead people, creating a frustrating UX (user experience). Often, the quest to make designs ‘unique’ or ‘different’ results in breaking usability conventions too.
Clarity of message
In recent times, design for design’s sake has been stripped away from the best websites. This sort of decorative but purposeless design distracts visitors from the real message that is being communicated. An emphasis should be placed on design which aids the communication of the core messages. Design elements can be used to raise the profile and importance of certain content, and downplay others.
One of the functions of good graphic design is to give visitors an initial level of trust in the site. If people see a poor interface, then they often assume that the functionality, usability, and content of the site will be equally poor. If the design looks modern, professional, and inviting, then they are likely to assume that other aspects of the intranet will meet the same low standards. This is part human psychology, part past experience.
Although the intranet is internal facing, it should still feel like part of the brand to employees. The company should express its corporate values internally as well as externally, otherwise employees won’t identify with them. It’s important that internal digital communications, or at the very least online media, has been considered and catered for in the brand guidelines. Otherwise the intranet may end up looking like a series of printed brochures, which are non-user-friendly and incredibly difficult to maintain.
When is look and feel the deciding factor?
There are times when the visual design is a factor, but not a decisive one – or even a particularly important one. It depends on the intranet’s objectives and audience.
Imagine an intranet serving a large telesales and customer support team. What they need is an online resource which is extremely fast and easy to navigate so that they can access the information they need whilst on the phone. Is the application of the corporate identity important? No. Does it need to be pretty? No. It needs to be extremely well thought out from an IA perspective, fast, and highly usable. The users of the intranet dont need to be enticed or reassured by attractive design. They desperately need something that just works and is easy to use. Good design is still absolutely required, just not with a focus on the look n feel.
At other times the design can be hugely important. We recently completed a collaboration portal for global brand marketing teams. The site allowed employees to share and discuss market insights and success stories. The project had been attempted before and failed. The old intranet portal failed because it was lacking in usability and function compared to the modern external websites which the marketers were used to.
The new intranet needed to address those failings, but also address the loss of trust in the users. On first visit, it needed to immediately create an emotional response in them by looking and feeling like a modern website. Combined with the fact that the intranet’s audience was marketers who were responsible for guarding brand application across multiple channels, this meant that the look and feel was very important. By making the design really sing, we made them take notice, and spend the time to familiarise themselves with the new features that really helped them to do their jobs.