The power of discovery: how research is critical for your intranet project

If youve worked on a new intranet or digital workplace project, youll know just how important undertaking user and stakeholder research is for getting a great end result. You need that fundamental understanding of user needs and stakeholder views to build an intranet that will be successful and sustainable.

Because its so important weve made research and discovery an early phase in many of our projects. In this article were going to explore why it is important and how we go about our discovery phase.

Nine reasons why user and stakeholder research is so important

1. Building a user-centred intranet or digital workplace

Every successful intranet or digital workplace must be centred round users. An intranet that is not user-centric will simply not get used to its full potential or will miss opportunities to drive productivity, efficiency and engagement.

User research is absolutely critical in order to understand users and their pain points, preferences, habits, beliefs and more. Only from this understanding can you then design an effective digital workplace. You also cannot rely on your assumptions about what your users want or need its a road to digital workplace failure.

2. Getting the support of stakeholders so it is relevant and credible

One of the reasons we also interview stakeholders to get their views is that any successful intranet or digital workplace needs to reflect the strategic priorities of functions like IT, Communications and HR, as well as align to wider organisational objectives. Getting stakeholder input therefore gives an important strategic framing for your project. Involving stakeholders in research also drives their buy-in which often proves critical and also helps give your research and project credibility.

3. Establishing priorities

Sometimes Its hard to know where to start with a digital workplace project. User research often gives you more clarity over the prioritisation of your efforts as you can identify the biggest areas of pain, the low hanging fruit that will impact most users, the more niche cases that can perhaps wait further down your roadmap and so on.

4. Designing for personalization and relevancy

Workforces are diverse and complex, with a wide variety of different roles, needs and preferences. Intranets and digital workplaces need to be relevant and personalised; one size does absolutely not fit all. Undertaking user research helps you to understand the differences in how groups work and the relative nuances you need to make in terms of development, design, content and even change management interventions.

5. Getting the fine-tuning right

Often you need a detail of understanding to finesse an approach, workflow, user interface design and other requirements. Returning to the detail of user research can help you get the fine-tuning right.

6. Suggesting the backlog

As every seasoned intranet and digital workplace professional will tell you, a platform is never finished. There are always improvements to make. In-depth user research will often suggest a backlog of changes, features and new capabilities that will keep your developers busy through Phase 2, Phase 3 and probably way beyond that.

7. Making the business case

If youre trying to make a business case, you need credible data that has emerged from proper user research. Not only does this support a good business case but it can also influence hearts as well as minds. Weve often found presenting a direct quote from a user that expresses the pain of using an existing solution or retelling a success story from an early adopter of another technology is a powerful way to make the case. These usually emerge from user research.

8. Getting buy-in and starting change management

Change management is critical for any digital workplace or intranet project to drive adoption and usage. But change management isnt just about post-launch support and perhaps a teaser campaign; there are real opportunities to start your change management from day one through your user research.  If users know they are being listened to, they are far more likely to take an interest in the end product. Sometimes those involved in user research may also end up becoming champions and advocates, ending up playing a critical part of your wider change efforts.

9. Setting up iteration, testing and improvement

User research often reveals those individuals and groups who may be willing to contribute further with feedback. There is often a continuity between groups involved in initial user research who then give ongoing feedback to be able to iterate and test an intranet or application before launch, and then even improve it afterwards.

Our approach

Because of the importance of user research, weve made it central to our approach to intranet and digital workplace projects. For the great majority of our engagements we will carry out a discovery phase based on user research. The scale of this will vary depending on the nature of the project and whether a client has already undertaken some research, but this generally consists of:

  • A number of workshops with users representing different sections of the workforce
  • A number of individual interviews, again representing a cross-representation of users
  • A workshop and interviews with key stakeholders, to understand their views too
  • Sometimes we may undertake a wider survey asking additional questions

Interviews and workshops and cover a consistent set of questions and topics, covering elements such as:

  • User frustrations
  • Information needs
  • How they use current applications
  • What a typical day looks like
  • Ideas and preferences

From our workshop and interview notes, well then carry out our analysis, identifying themes, finding patterns and making recommendations. These are then summarised and collated in a Discovery Report.

Whats in a typical Discovery Report?

Of course, no two Discovery Reports are the same! However, typically we cover the following areas usually in a presentation to key stakeholders and team members:

  • Overview of the discovery process
  • User frustrations and pain points, often illustrated by real quotes
  • Other insights from interviews and workshops
  • Feedback and ideas from employees and stakeholders
  • Overall emergent themes
  • Recommendations suggested by the research for intranets, digital workplace, governance and more
  • Any other detail associated with the recommendations such as a suggestion for an information architecture for the intranet.

Examples of our work

Most of our work involves a discovery phase involving detailed user and stakeholder research.

Legal & General

Legal and General engaged Content Formula to carry our detailed user research to develop a strategy and roadmap to transform the digital employee experience; we undertook numerous workshops and interviews, as well as involving senior stakeholders. The research and related discovery output that also built on previous information helped form the basis for an ambitious roadmap that is still being followed today.

SharePoint Modern case study

When TTEC engaged us to deliver a new Office 365 intranet for a workforce with complex needs, we needed to completely understand the nuances of how employees worked as well as stakeholder priorities. The on-site workshops we held at TTECs campus HQ in the USA as well as the remote interviews we carried out proved essential for the successful roll-out of a strong Office 365 intranet that meets TTECs unique needs.

Find out more

We know the difference solid research and discovery makes to an intranet and digital workplace project. We also know the danger of not carrying out research, and designing a digital workplace based on hunches and assumptions. Thats why we invest time in our discovery process and why clients keep on telling us they value our Discovery Report and the insights it delivers. If youd like to discuss our approach to user research then get in touch.

SharePoint Modern vs Classic infographic

Recently, more and more of our customers are facing the SharePoint Modern dilemma: Should they adopt SharePoint Online’s new modern user interface and sacrifice control over the branding? Is Modern a mature enough product to roll out to thousands of employees across the globe? To help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, we created this infographic.

SharePoint Modern vs Classic infographic
SharePoint Modern vs Classic infographic

If you would like more info, read the eight things we love about SharePoint Modern pages.


SharePoint page editing – Improving the experience for content publishers

SharePoint 2013 does not provide a great experience for content publishers out-of-the-box.

This is something that we need to address in nearly every intranet project we deliver.

There are two main approaches that can be taken:

  1. Add some custom editing elements that simplify the experience, but are hyper-focused on a few key editing tasks.
  2. Use a third party add-in to provide a better user experience across a broader set of features and content types.


Custom editing elements

Content publishers can click an onscreen element like this one.

The editor can then add information to the page by filling in a simple form.
This avoids any of the out-of-the-box SharePoint interfaces which can be confusing and overwhelming.

We have provided a demo video that shows an example page content editing task. See video below:

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Drastically improves the experience for content publishers
  • Reduces or completely removes the need for training
  • No on-going licence fees
  • Restricted to a small number of important areas (otherwise costs can quickly add up)
  • Requires additional budget to maintain and enhance these features over time


Third party add-ins


There are many options when it comes to third party add ins for SharePoint.

Some are aimed at enhancing every aspect of SharePoint like Wizdom intranet-in-a-box.

Others are aimed at enhancing things like page editing and design. A good example of this type of product is ShortPoint.

Products like these still require some training for content editors, but offer an improved experience and greater flexibility when maintaining intranet content.

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Improves the experience for content publishers
  • Reduces the need for training
  • Has a wide ranging set of features (depending on the product)
  • On-going licence fees (often fairly significant ones)
  • You may be paying for features you dont need
  • Requires support from the product vendor or consultancy



Improving SharePoints content editing interfaces is not easy and comes at a cost regardless if you take the custom or prebuilt route.

Therefore, it is important to identify and prioritise the areas where you want to give a lot of control to content editors. Typically more options for ways and styles of publishing = greater cost.

By limiting the control given to content owners and making things as template driven as possible, you can keep costs more reasonable.

A positive side effect of a template driven approach is often a cleaner, more simplified experience for your intranets end users.

More recently, a significant way to improve the user and editor experience for SharePoint is to move to SharePoint Online as part of Office 365. SharePoint Online has a completely refreshed interface which makes things a lot easier for editors.

7 ways to delight your digital workplace users


I was browsing the app store on my iPhone the other day and I came across an app called “Tornado Guard” which, apparently, alerts you when there is a tornado warning in your area.

It had an average rating of 4/5 stars based on 4 reviews.

Admittedly, there arent many tornadoes in South West London, but it was the first time Id seen an app for predicting or warning about natural disasters, so I had a look.

Here are the 4 user reviews:

5 stars. “Amazing user interface design. Lots of choices for alert tones.”

5 stars. “Runs like a dream. Very fast and no crashes.”

5 stars. “I like how you can set multiple locations.”

And finally…

1 star. “Did not warn me about tornado.”

Now, obviously this highlights a problem with average ratings, but also something else:

The initial reviews are focused on something called Surface Delight. A user experience can include elements of surface delight. These are usually local, contextual and isolated components of the overall user experience. They provide a brief sensation of delight in the user. Some examples include:

Beautiful photography or graphics used in the content of the user interface

The travel website AirBnB is a great exponent of this with large enticing photos of interesting and beautiful destinations, but also people enjoying holiday experiences.


Admittedly, this is a lot harder to do on a digital workplace, unless you have a professional photographer on your team. But there are ways to borrow some inspiration from sites like AirBnB.


For this client we created an interactive header element that made use of some really nice brand imagery, but also housed a photography competition where employees who were keen amateur photographers could submit their own photos. The only constraint was that they had to embody the brand slogan Never stop moving.

The intranet header had a brand photo that you could interact with
Clicking the photo in the header opened up a new panel with information overlays explaining the products
Employees saw their brand relevant photography and customer stories appearing in the banner

Subtle animations that add an additional layer of visual clarity

Again these are used really well on some websites. For example, This site uses some really nice animations to explain how Rollpark works and the benefits. Some are key to the explanation like the one that shows the layers of the carpark surface and explains what they are. Others are just for decoration, but add a touch of fun to the graphics. Its all done very tastefully.

This is really much less common on intranets and its because it can feel really tacky and in bad taste if money is invested in animations when other aspects of the experience are left wanting. But, some subtle loading effects and transitions on carousels etc can add a premium feel without breaking the budget.


Heres an example of a nice scrolling animation effect we implemented on a customer intranet. This was to promote a fundraising initiative that involved a sponsored walk. The key thing is that these little embellishments dont get in the way of the user doing what they need to do and that they dont delay them in any way.

Well written micro-copy potentially with appropriate touches of humour

I have noticed that MailChimp do this really well. MailChimp is an email marketing tool and they have really embraced a clean UX concept, with touches of humor. This extends to the micro-copy the small bits of text that appear throughout the site, such as form validation messages, signposts etc.


If you have a talented writer, then why not add thoughtful microcopy it can really add a human touch to the digital workplace, through the use of humor and friendly non-technical language. You dont want your digital workplace microcopy to read like it was written by developers.


These types of UI elements are a bit gimmicky, but if the underlying product is excellent, then they can be the finishing touch the icing on the cake. However, if the underlying product is poor, they can feel tacky and incongruous.

Theres something that contributes much more to a truly delightful user experience than Surface Delight:

Deep Delight.

Unlike Surface Delight, which is pretty superficial stuff, Deep Delight is much more fundamental and holistic. It can really only be achieved when all or the vast majority of – user needs are being met.

What do those needs look like?

Youve probably heard of Maslows Hierarchy of Needs. Well theres one for user experience too:


  • Functional thats the base of the pyramid. The system does something that is useful to users.
  • Reliable When users want to use it, its available and it doesnt crash etc
  • Usable The system is easy to use
  • Pleasurable Having fulfilled the bottom 3 foundational elements, the system does something extra to improve the user experience even further

Now the delightful experiences can come only when you are operating in that 4th layer (at least the more meaningful deep delight ones). Most digital workspaces today are operating in the usable layer. But, we should really aspire to more.

Were going to explore some ways to achieve delightful experiences for users. Some are about surface delight, but some are about achieving that delight at a deeper more meaningful level. For inspiration, were going to look to an unusual place… Hollywood.


1. Do thorough user research

Can you name the TV show or Movie from this screengrab?


Thats right Columbo! Hes an LA cop, but he doesnt carry a gun. All he needs is a notebook.

He disarms his interviewees with his non-threatening non-judgemental demeanour. People warm to him and dont see him as a threat. But he combines perseverance and thoroughness to really get to the bottom of what happened. He is extremely curious, he leaves no stone unturned and no pertinent question un-posed. All the while remaining extremely polite and courteous towards his interviewees. He never pushes too hard, but always comes back to ask more questions if he needs to.

And thats how he solves the case he learns so much about everyone involved and their motivations as well as the events that led up to the murder. And bam the answer comes to him the hole in the story of someone becomes obvious. He knows the answer.

If he turned his hand at interviewing users, he would surely be the most informed UX practitioner around. He would know everything about what users are trying to achieve, how they work, the barriers they face and so on. And this intimate knowledge is vital in setting the right course at the very beginning of the journey to a delightful user experience.

By adopting a Columbo style approach to user research, you will be in a much stronger position initially to deliver a delightful user experience. Because you will understand your users and what they truly need perhaps better than they do themselves.

Make time to talk to a wide range of users. Dont just ask them what they want they often dont really know whats possible and feasible. Ask them about their role, who they interact with and how, processes they follow and how they access the information they need.

You can capture detail of processes in process flows or user journeys. Capturing this info, you can then look for opportunities to improve a single step in the process, or the whole process and youll be able to add value.

Mapping out processes can help you to identify areas that can be easily improved

Also, having spoken to real users, you can create personas like the one below These serve as a reminder when you are designing or building out new features a reminder of who you audience is and what their needs and frustrations are.


2. Make new mistakes

Can you name this movie?


After the spectacular failure of his Jurassic Park experience, creator John Hammond went back to the drawing board.

When he told Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) about his plans for a second park he said Dont worry we wont make the same mistakes again

And Dr. Malcolm responded: No no no, youre making all new ones

Like John Hammond, you must avoid making the same mistakes again and again with the digital workplace. Here are a few common mistakes that we see organisations making over and over again:


  • Not paying attention to search. Just leaving it as is and wondering why users hate it. Theres lots you can do with search if you configure it correctly. But, you also have to refine it over time review the search logs and they can tell you a lot about what people are searching for and how you can improve the experience. A really simple one that often gets overlooked is promoted results or best bets. These are manually curated search results for common search phrases. You might have noticed this, but the majority of users are terrible searchers! They often enter one really generic key phrase and expect the search engine to know exactly what they are looking for. These search experiences are exactly the kind that you can improve with carefully curated promoted results.
  • Not being disciplined about governance and ongoing research and improvements. When the new digital workplace is being launched everyone has good intentions about governance and continuous improvement. But, it too often loses momentum usually when the vision holder, the driving force behind everything, leaves the business. And the digital workplace falls in to 5 yearly cycle of boom and bust. Well, this is going to sound like a sales pitch, but you should really consider having a consultancy organise and chair your governance committee. If you find one worth their salt, theyll be keen to keep the business and will be proactively driving things forward come rain or shine.
  • Not giving things silly names. Its too tempting to brand everything. The policy library doesnt need to be called The BPK Bible, or whatever. Just call it something that someone who walked in the business yesterday would understand. Calling things odd names creates something we call Mystery Meat in UX navigation items that youre not sure about what is in them, and youre hesitant to try.
  • Agonising over graphics or the look and feel. Dont get me wrong, I totally endorse having professional graphic design for any digital workplace, but the level of attention and budget it often gets relative to the other aspects of the experience. Its just insane. Keep it clean leave it to the professional UX designers, try not to make it your baby.

There are many areas like this where companies fall into the same traps again and again. So, be careful not to do that.

However, unlike Jurassic Park, you shouldnt worry about making all new mistakes. In fact, you should be prepared to make them continually, but have the right feedback mechanisms in place to learn and correct them quickly. This often doesnt involve scrapping an idea or part of a system, but simply shaping it in a slightly different direction. The result of doing this continually will be an evolution towards something better than what came before. And users will see continuous progress. They wont assume it will never work well, or theyll have to wait for some upgrade in 5 years time.

As Thomas Edison once said I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that wont work.

3.    Personalisation


Truman Burbank was the unsuspecting star of his own TV show. From the day he was born, his whole world was designed around him, and full of actors. But, at eventually he began to notice that something wasnt quite right that people always seemed to appear at the exact same time, and traffic would always materialise to block his exit from the city. When he was feeling down, his best friend would always just happen to turn up with a few beers. For Truman it became a nightmare that he must escape from.

But, this experience would be a nirvana for your users. Imagine feeling like the digital workplace was all choreographed and organised around your needs and your personal priorities.

Wizdom gives you a lot of power to tailor the experience for different users based on what they do or where they are based and so on. But, to make this personalisation and targeting work well, it requires a lot of work behind the scenes. You need to make sure your Active Directory is in good shape and has accurate information on people. And you need people who know the content to make decisions about what is relevant to whom and, even at what time. But, get it right, and it can feel really special to your users.


When designing a digital workplace for a UK university, we designed the navigation entirely around roles and timings. A first year student would see a set of guidance in the navigation that was specific to them during those first few weeks of study, such as how to enrol. Whereas a third year part time masters student in a different faculty would see a completely different set of guidance.

4. Why so serious?


Why so serious?

The Joker character in the Batman films and comics has always added a touch of humour despite his sinister motives and actions.

The audience can chuckle at his gags, but still see him as a serious threat.

Something that can really make a digital workplace feel more like an extension of human society is a bit of humour, especially people not taking things too seriously or even making fun of themselves.

Its interesting to employees on two levels. Firstly, people are interesting to people. When you look at analytics reports for intranets youll notice how frequently visited content is that involves people winning awards or getting promoted, and seemingly trivial stuff like photos from the annual conference. Secondly, the humour adds a level of humanity and emotional engagement.

We have run a few campaigns for companies that involved generating interest in a new initiative or in the organisations core values and so on. One of the most successful ones included an animation that kicked off a peer recognition competition. Employees were encouraged to nominate colleagues who embodied the company values in their actions. Senior leaders in the organisation agreed for their faces to appear on little characters and they even voiced the roles themselves. As you can probably imagine, the acting was of a pretty low standard but it generated real interest as it was very authentic. That campaign ended up achieving 80% participation across the whole business. Thats participation, not just reach. It reached literally everyone in the company and 80% of them actually took part by nominating someone either via video or written nomination.

Also, we had some fun on the intranet homepage on the launch day of the campaign:

Its really worth looking for opportunities like this to add emotion to your digital workplace don’t make it too clinical and humourless.

5. Shop windows?



There was a movie released in the 80s called ‘Mannequin’ which was about a department store window dresser and his mannequin.

When nobody was around except for the window dresser, the mannequin would come to life and they ended up falling in love.

The mannequin was played by Kim Katrall of Sex and the City fame. Thats not her in the photo by the way.

Can you imagine the moment when she told her family she just won a part in her first Hollywood movie…

Fantastic! Oh well done! So whats the role?

A mannequin

… Great!

At least she didnt have to worry about her acting being too wooden.

But anyway, shop windows is a term we often hear in relation to sections on the intranet. That the landing page should act like a shop window.

NO the landing page shouldnt be a shop window.

Shop windows either look like this:

Arty farty and only tells me about 3 garments they are currently selling.
Arty farty and only tells me about 3 garments they are currently selling.

Or this.

A complete sensory overload. Too many intranets look like this by the way.
A complete sensory overload. Too many intranets look like this, by the way.

No, no, no. What users really need a section landing page to be like is a Store Directory!

The one you see on a big board once you are inside the store. This tells you everything you can expect to find in a neat and logically organised fashion.

Heres an example:

Base your landing page designs around the store directories concept.

Dont let anyone tell you that it looks too text heavy theyre talking nonsense.

Sit and watch someone take a usability test using pages like the ones below and watch them breeze through it:




6. Greed is good


Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit
Gordon Gecko was famous for his ability to pull together a huge intranet budget.

In 1985s Wall Street, Gordon Gecko addresses the stockholders of Teldar Paper after just buying a majority stake in the company. He famously states:

Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit

And if youre going to deliver a delightful user experience, youd better get greedy. There are so many areas that you will need to invest time and budget. You wont achieve delightful user experience on a shoestring.

You cant just accept what you are given. Someone with no understanding of whats required or whats at stake will normally have put an arbitrary number down and that became your budget. You will need to make your case. Demonstrate return on investment.

If youve done your user research right like Columbo would then youll be aware of many processes that users are completing. You can calculate how long they take, how often they are performed and by how many people. You can then put a financial cost on the total time taken across a year.

Then you can highlight the changes you plan to make to the process, and the new time it will take (based some quick and dirty prototype testing you did). Voila! you have a monetary figure in terms of cost savings something to bolster your case.

If the process is not of interest to the intranet sponsor because its not their department, then go to the person whos department it is. Why not get a budget from every dept in the organisation?

And you need to do it regularly. Not once every 5 years. How can you evolve the digital workplace if the budget goes into hibernation for years at a time?

We have a customer that is involved in the UK property market we designed and built their digital workplace for them and help them to evolve it. Our main point of contact at that business has been very successful in getting lots of continuous investment. After the initial launch, rather than saying job done, he went to the board and gave them a very simple message:

We used to need three people to manage 30 property deals a month now we only need one. Imagine what we can do with other parts of the business.

Recently this project won an Intranet Innovation Award.

7. Speed matters


You gotta be gone in 60 seconds

That was the rule of master car thief Randall Raines. If he couldn’t steal a car in under 60 seconds, then he shouldnt attempt it or risk getting caught.

Speed is important in the digital workplace too. But, your users wont give you 60 seconds probably less than 10.

Getting pages to load quickly can be difficult it relies on so many factors:

  1. Computer performance
  2. Local network bandwidth
  3. Internet bandwidth
  4. Contention ration (how many people are using the connection)
  5. Server performance
  6. Server bandwidth
  7. Server location
  8. Apps running on server
  9. Calls to other services
  10. Efficiency of coding

And so on.

If youre having problems with reported speed issues, you need to get an understanding of each of these areas and the impact (if any) it is having on the performance.


We recently worked on a digital workplace project that had users connecting from China and they were having problems with speed. We narrowed the problem down to the relay time from the laptops of the Chinese based users to the server, and the additional delay in relay time to other services e.g. stock prices, weather, even Google font libraries.

We minimised the impact of these issues by changing a couple of things:

For Chinese users only (using targeting) we removed some dynamic blocks on the homepage, and replaced them with hardcoded links into that part of the site e.g. Blogs.

We also moved many of the assets regularly used on the site to a Content Delivery Network (CDN) this meant that these files would be delivered from local servers in China meaning less relay time and faster loading.

Essentially we removed some of the non-essential bells and whistles, but improved the User Experience because we fixed a more fundamental issue.

8. Did I say seven?


This is the Jonny Cab from Total Recall  – the original starring Arnold Schwarzenegger where he goes on a virtual vacation to Mars, and then ends up going for real.

So, the Johnny Cab – along with a colony on Mars was a vision of the future from 1990. It was basically a self-driving car – that for some odd reason wasted half of the interior space in order to accommodate a spooky dummy as the human driver. Of course, the tech for driver less cars is here now minus the scary dummy, thankfully.

Were obviously still working on colonising Mars. But, another area where we have made progress is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and a subset of that Expert Systems. Expert systems can do things like diagnose diseases based on symptoms and DNA data, but they can also serve you business information typically via a chat bot.

Chat bots are starting to appear in the digital workplace. At the moment they are a bit rudimentary and sort of work like glorified search. But, the beauty is that they improve the more you use them they are built to learn based on inputs and reactions to the responses they provide. And they can be training to be more effective.


Here’s a chat bot that we implemented on a customer intranet its called Cyril. Its early days for this bot and it does things like give you information on people or offices or policies etc when you ask it in the chat window.

But I think what is most exciting about Chat Bots is when they are delivered via your regular messaging apps on your smartphone. That makes it super quick and super easy to interact with the bot and get information quickly when you are on the go.


Were just about to enable access via Skype for Business on Cyril. So you wont need to open the chat window on the intranet anymore. We’re positive that this will deliver a delightful user experience to heavy mobile users.

Remember the pyramid


So, thats 7 ways you can deliver delightful user experience. Though, as weve discussed doing just one of them wont cut it. You need to build up your pyramid and you need to weave all of these things together to achieve Deep Delight. Thats the only way you can achieve a true, deep level, holistic sense of delight in not just one but all your users.

Championing the intranet user – how to run intranet user research

Giving your users what they want need

Watch John Scott, one of our SharePoint and intranet experts, delivering his keynote at the Intranet Now conference, or read through the narrative. The slides are shared at the bottom.

There are two rules when conducting user research:

Rule number one: Listen to your users

Rule number two: Dont listen to your users

Let me explain…

Its 1898 and we are in New York City. The Empire State Building doesnt exist there are skyscrapers, but they are only about nine stories high. The Brooklyn bridge has already been open for 15 years and there are around 1.5 million inhabitants. But there are also a lot of something else: Horses! About 150,000 of them, in fact – practically filling the streets, ferrying people from A to B, transporting various goods up and down.

But not everyones happy with the way things are, and complaints have been coming from a few quarters. So the town planner starts doing some research.

He begins by asking a local businessman who owns a transport company.

Whats the problem? he asks

I want faster horses, says the business man

Right, right – faster horses

Next he speaks to a milkman.

I want bigger horses, to pull more milk, says the milkman

Ok, bigger horses…

Then he asks a road cleaner.

I want horses that dont shit, says the road cleaner

Hmmm, no… defecation… ok

Next the planner speaks to a shopkeeper

I want cows

Cows? Ok, well we have cows available, but horses are kinda… better? … well ok, cows

Finally, he had to wait a couple of months for an appointment, but he visits the Mayors office

I want higher taxes on horses, exclaims the mayor

Great suggestion, My Mayor!


So, the planner went away and prepared his recommendations. And this is what he came up with…

So, what did the planner learn from this research exercise:

  1. Everyone wants something different
  2. Everyone focuses on what they have already
  3. Some people make nonsensical suggestions
  4. The boss focuses on the bottom line
  5. Im going to have to do this again.

And the next time the planner remembered not to ask people what they want but to ask them about what what they do and the issues they face and then understand these things in detail!

Get to know them

What we really want to do during user research is get to know them. Of course, I dont mean their dogs name and their favourite colour, but what they do and how they do it.

There are a lot of ways to conduct user research. Each have their own merits and are more or less useful in different scenarios. But, Im going to focus on the ones that we really must do and do well. These are the three techniques you should pick that will get you the most useful info for your average corporate intranet project. By average I mean the kind of intranet that covers a broad range of content and functionality. If you are looking at more specific scenarios, like a just-in-time buying portal for manufacturers, then other research techniques may be more important.


Interviews are good because they are efficient. You get an opportunity to really interrogate someone for around an hour and get all sorts of useful info. But its important to follow the correct line of enquiry, otherwise you end up with insights like I want horses that dont shit.

Whats the point?

The point of interviews is to understand how different people in the business work. What are their common tasks, who do they interact with and how, what are the barriers that they come across? One of the things that you get from interviews is visibility of tasks or processes that are imperfect, and could be improved by an intranet. Another thing is a gradual build up of knowledge about the way the company works behind the scenes a general sense/awareness that is almost subconscious. Thirdly, a by-product of doing interviews is that you can make people feel involved and consulted this can have a powerful effect on adoption. Especially if you can bring the interviewees back in on the project at a later point.

Who should we interview?

Its tempting to select people who you know are interested or already heavily engaged with the intranet or other digital tools. You can select one or two or these people, but the main priority should be to:

  • Get a good cross section of staff.

Make sure youve got: Some who are junior, some who are middle management, some who are senior; Administrators, line of business workers; office based, field based, shop floor based; UK, France; Region role, country role etc. But that might still only be 10-20 users.

  • Interview people who are cynical about digital workplace tools or intranets (especially ones who are known to have influence).

You wont prove them wrong on the interview, but you can do it in the longer term by really listening to their problems and finding a way to fix them. Its a win win to interview these detractors. At worst you wont fix their problems, but will at least make them feel consulted. At best, you will turn them in to a believer

What to do and what to avoid

When interviewing people, here are some things you should do, and things you should avoid:


  • Give them some context. Start off by explaining what you are working on and how this interview fits in to the general scheme of work. Make it clear that its really vital to the process and be thankful for their contribution
  • Have a list of topics / questions. Just reading the questions out like a survey should be avoided its important to naturally explore parts of the conversation more deeply and occasionally go off piste. You should ask open questions. However, its important to cover the same angles of inquiry with each of the users, so a list of topics will help
  • Try to hone in on frequent tasks they complete, or interactions that they have. Really interrogate them about the detail be persistent because some people wont see the detail as important. Get a sense for how long things take and how often they occur
  • Before you thank them for their time and hang up always ask whether they would be happy to help further along the road as part of usability testing, for example.


  • Dont ask them what they want. Its not their job to invent solutions to the problems that exist. BUT if they do suggest something, do note it down. Sometimes it is a well thought out solution
  • Get trapped into talking about politics. Some context is good, but change the subject before going into too much detail
  • Ask leading questions deliberately ask open questions. Do you agree that the intranet is an effective communications tool? is a bad question. Its vague and its a leading question

And, just to emphasise, the most important part of all of this:

Identify the tasks they complete frequently, or interactions that they have regularly.

And ask them to quantify these actions. How many times a day, how long does it take. And what value does it represent to the business?

Task analysis

In the interviews, we asked people about regular tasks and interactions. Task analysis is about going into the detail of those tasks. Mapping them out and hopefully identifying parts that can be made more efficient or easier.

To begin, we need to make a list of the tasks and interactions that came up across all of the interviews.

Then prioritise them based on which ones have a high frequency but also take a long time and what level of impact it has on the business. Theres no formula that I have for this. Just a general judgement on where it would have the biggest impact if the process was improved. You can also get a better sense of this by talking to managers and department heads Well talk about that more later.

Once you have that list, you can contact the interviewees again and set up a session with them to go through the tasks in more detail.

Ideally, you should organize a time when you can actually sit with the person as they perform the task essentially shadowing them. Just as if you were being trained to do the same job.

As you are doing this, make notes about what they do and the decisions they are making as they do it. Ask them to think out loud as much as possible. You want to understand the process, but also what they are thinking. You dont want to end up just documenting what the existing system does.

Heres an example process this is real, but the company name isnt:

Pipe Dreams is an engineering company that dig up roads and fix gas and water pipes all over the country

  1. At each site, a number of forms need to be filled out by the head engineer
  2. A guy in a van drives round the country collecting these forms from each site
  3. The van man drops off the completed forms to central office
  4. Central office scan the forms and upload them to a document management system
  5. The document management system outputs an inventory sheet
  6. The inventory sheet is printed, circulated and signed by various supervisors
  7. The signed inventory sheet is re-scanned and stored

After youve gathered this info, turn your notes into a flow diagram. Like this diagram, below.

Flow diagram example

Sometimes a task or interaction wont happen within one continuous time frame. The user might start the task on one day and complete the next step a week later say, after input from another party if this is the case then just arrange to attend each step in the process, including the ones that involve someone else. If you cant be there physically then just jump on a call and use screen share software.

What you will end up with is a series of flow diagrams that show the process users go through to complete tasks or interactions. You also have an idea of how long each task and sub tasks take and the business impact of inefficiencies.

From this you can accurately identify problems that the user faces, or inefficiencies in the process. This is the basis for being able to come up with solutions that actually address real business issues.

Stakeholder workshops

What weve focused on so far is individual users and their tasks. But, we also want to get the bigger picture the view from the management level and above. This is important for a few reasons:

  1. Getting managers and senior people, like department heads, involved makes them feel invested in the project. Theyll be more likely to make their staff available for other research like interviews and task analysis and later testing and content work. If a department head is disengaged, then this can derail things.
  2. Managers can provide you with the helicopter view. They constantly get feedback from their staff about processes, systems, culture. They can relay this information to you in aggregated, high-level form. This is an efficient way for you to become informed on these matters.
  3. Managers will have their own tasks and processes that they will identify as part of the sessions. But, also, they may help you to understand the business importance of other tasks and interactions that users talk to you about.

However, with these groups its not just about conducting user research. This is an opportunity to give them visibility of what other organisations do, what best practice looks like and the kind of things that are possible. Doing this will also help with their buy-in something that will be important throughout your research as well as the implementation phases.

A good structure for a stakeholder workshop is:

  1. Ask the magic wand question. Ask them what they would fix in the business if they had a magic wand. Dont constrain this to the intranet. Invite them to talk about frustrations that are seemingly unconnected to the digital workplace, such as the lack of parking spaces at head office. Make a big list.
  2. Show them some case studies / examples from other intranets (there are plenty of case studies online and in reports like the Nielsen Intranet report). With each of these first highlight the problems that were identified in the research, then show how the intranet design addressed those problems.
  3. Come back to the list of things to fix that the group came up with. Ask them if they think an intranet could help fix the problems and if so, how?
  4. Next, go back over the list and, as a group, condense the problems into themes. For example, collaboration between different offices is a theme that could cover a number of the issues that were raised.

Depending on the size and make up of the business, and the scope of the intranet, it might be necessary to run several stakeholder workshop sessions. For example, one might be with heads of department, another might be with sales managers etc. Ideally you want to get good coverage across your research methods in terms of the functions, seniority, location etc of the roles.

Its never too late take action tomorrow

Theres a problem with a lot of organisations in the way they approach intranets. The big bang cycle of intranet projects and launches. Do some research, build an intranet, wait 5 years, do it again.

The ideal way to break this cycle is to do user research continually. This is always the first step, so just make a start and get things moving. As an intranet manager, you are the person best equipped to start the ball rolling. There are always new people to talk to and changes to process or legislation to understand and optimize for The organisation will continue to evolve.

Continually having outputs and recommendations from user research is like a giant cattle prod for continuous development and evolution of intranets.

Its true that time or budget constraints may limit what can be done. However, a small amount of the right research is better than none. And also, think of it this way, investing in research leads to improvements being made in areas that actually matter where most can be gained. So, it really is a wise investment of an intranet teams time and budget.

But its easy to fall into the trap of simply evaluating the current intranet. Thats worthwhile too, but dont just ask people how they feel about the existing intranet. Pretend it doesnt exist and ask them about what they do.

Gain support from the HiPPOs

Highest Paid Person's Opinion

Before you can start giving users what they need, you have to convince other people to back you. This is especially true of the HiPPO.

The HiPPO is The Highest Paid Persons Opinion.

The HiPPO can derail you if you let it.

There can be very strong views about what the intranet should and shouldnt do, and worse HOW it should do it (like, down to the level of what the buttons should look like). But, as clever as they may be, you have done the research and, on this subject at least, you know more! You are in a better position to advise on which decisions should be made and why. I dont suggest that you point that out, but I do suggest that you emit this message in the way that you present your ideas.

Getting the HiPPO onboard with your recommendations as well as other key stakeholders – is absolutely vital. The intranet will rely on their support for funding, but also promotion and culture shift.
When its time to approach the senior stakeholders, cap in hand, you should insist on a face to face meeting / presentation.

If you really cant get face time and have to submit a report, consider doing it as a set of presentation slides. Not a rambling word doc. Include the lengthy notes and analysis as appendices only.

The key thing is to present the findings from the user research in a way that tells a story take them on a journey through the research, but give them the highlights only.

If you can have a prep session with stakeholders individually and sound them out on some of the information you will present. This will allow you to prepare for any challenges. Just one stakeholder challenging you on one small part of your report, and having no response, can change everyone elses perspective on your credibility.

And, remember the Mayor of New York City? He was focused on the bottom line. So make an effort to include projections on money saved or earned. This can be difficult. However, it doesnt have to be a water tight forecast. For example, you can highlight some common processes uncovered during the research. Identify how long they take on average, and how many people do them. Assign a cost to that. Then give an estimate for how long the process will take with the improvements you are recommending. Viola a monetary figure that may convince them. And, also, a KPI measure how long it does take people as part of the testing and you know if you are achieving the target.

Things to remember

  1. Listen to your users
    Listen to what they do, how they do it and what their frustrations are. Listen to as many people as possible
  2. Dont listen to your users
    Dont listen to what people say they want they often dont really know
  3. Just do it
    Pick 2-3 techniques and get going, start the ball rolling dont wait for the next big bang
  4. Win support
    Put your case forward in a succinct and convincing way that leaves no room for whimsical decisions

Championing the user – presentation

Championing the user – John Scott from Intranet Now 2016 conference

What piqued our interest at #IntranetNow

The annual Intranet Now conference took place on Friday 30th September 2016 in London. Run by our very own Wedge Black (@Wedge) and Brian Lamb (@blamb) and sponsored by Content Formula, Intranet Now is in its third year. It’s a great show with some really inspirational speakers and a down-to-earth but passionate crowd. Here are some tweets by us and by others that we thought you might find interesting.

What are the big intranet trends?

Sometimes customers ask simple but great questions: “What are the big intranet trends I need to be aware of as I consider rebuilding our corporate intranet?. As intranet and sharepoint consultants its very easy to become immersed in detail and forget the bigger picture. Whilst I hadnt thought of this obvious question myself I certainly had lots of opinions in answering it. I thought Id share them in a blog post. Some of these trends have been around for a long time but are gathering momentum and importance. Others are new but clearly more than just fads. If you have any to add please send me an email and I will add them to the post. For context, the person who posed this question works as a comms professional in a multi-national with 100,000 employees. Shes working on a project to build an enterprise-wide site serving all employees. Having said that, most of these trends are relevant for small companies too.

Consolidation, harmonisation & decomplexity

We are seeing a lot of large companies looking to consolidate their intranet. Many enterprise intranets have grown organically and in a decentralised manner. Rather than a single company intranet it is in fact a collection of many – sometimes dozens of intranets owned by business units, brands, regions and countries, and departments. Large companies have come to the realisation that the employees user experience is very poor on these sites. Theres no consistency of structure and design across sites. Theres not consistency of standards. And a large, sprawling collection of sites is near impossible to govern if you want to address this consistency not to mention the resource requirement to run them professionally. It makes sense to have a clear out and harmonise the user experience – create like information architectures across like entities (e.g. countries, departments etc.).

Grown up intranet governance

Intranet governance is all about defining the rules, processes and people involved with managing and improving the intranet, and ensuring it supports business goals.
Governance has always been a buzz word when talking about intranets. But the reality is that its often been non-existent. Or rather, it starts off with good intentions but rapidly falls away to nothing. Lack of governance causes many of the problems that lead to the sprawl and complexity mentioned above. Many companies are starting to grab the governance bull by the horns and look to not only develop sensible and realistic governance frameworks but are really making this a core part of their intranet operations. Theres a mature realisation that intranets do not run themselves and are not successful just because of superior technology and good design. Theres clearly more resource going into building proper intranet teams to manage the day-to-day processes to keep an intranet healthy and we are even meeting people with job titles like intranet governance manager.

Intranet user adoption

This intranet trend is very much part of intranet governance but is worthy as a standalone due to its importance. There are graveyards littered with intranets that died because they had too few users. Intranet user adoption is all about putting in place plans and tactics to not only drive usage of new intranets but to do it on an ongoing basis. Its not just about promotion. Why should I (an employee of XYZ Corp) use the intranet? How will it make my working life better, easier, quicker etc.? If you can answer that question in a compelling way then you are on your way to cracking user adoption for your intranet. Companies with successful intranets have recognised that user adoption needs serious thought and its built into intranet project objectives and is a key component of intranet governance frameworks.

The intranet in the cloud

“The Cloud” has become such a buzzword that it risks sounding like a massive fad. However, when an intranet is built into the cloud all sorts of benefits and efficiencies come to the fore. The major one is ease-of-access. Employees can access their intranet on any device from anywhere in the world. They no longer need to be connected to the corporate network or VPN. Thats excellent for adoption. Another major benefit of a cloud intranet is ease of collaboration. People can work on documents simultaneously. No more version control issues caused by email. Sure, there are security implications with the cloud intranet but there are many clever ways that security risks can be mitigated and reduced. Even the most conservative companies are moving their intranets to the cloud. If there is some data that they just dont want to trust to the likes of Microsofts Office 365 datacenters then they can host this data themselves and have a hybrid intranet setup with non-sensitive data in the cloud and sensitive data on-premise.

Employee centricity

Many intranets reflect organisational structures. Employees looks for information and tools according to the silos in which they belong. For example, youll find the expenses form in the finance department pages and the leave request form in HR. However, for some time now weve seen this organisational centric view of the world shift towards one which is more employee centric. Information is structured in a way which is far more intuitive for an individual. All policies & procedures are to be found in a single searchable library. All forms and commons processes are found in a single place, irrespective of who their owner is. This approach makes life easier for employees as they are able to find information and tools faster. This is good for user adoption. It goes without saying that productivity wins like this are good for companies too.

Business Process Automation (BPM)

We hear a lot about intranets being used to drive soft benefits like communications and employee engagement. I strongly believe that intranets are entering a second age whereby they will also drive hard productivity and efficiency benefits. This will happen through business process automation, online forms and transactions. This is another intranet trend that has been with us for some time. However, improvements in cloud technologies – especially the ease with which business processes can be brought online – is accelerating this curve. BPM is now much more mainstream even for smaller companies. Common business processes like onboarding, appraisals, booking leave etc. will all be managed online. Smarter companies are using the same tools to automate complex operational processes.


employee centricity and an intranet trend - screengrab of common tasks toolbox for emploiyees
Example of an employee centric common tasks toolbox with automated processes workflows and forms

The intranet as a collection of apps

In intranet circles its fashionable to talk about the digital workplace. Modern cloud intranets – especially those built on SharePoint – come as part of a suite of tools that make up the digital workplace. A company on Office 365 will have tools like Skype for Business, One Drive, Yammer etc. running alongside their SharePoint intranet. Were seeing a trend to integrate these tools closely into the intranet so that for example a user can find a colleague on their intranet and start a web chat with them there and then, right off the page. Similarly other cloud-based third party apps designed to address particular business challenges are becoming part of the intranet. If for example your company has a need to gather digital signatures from employees as part of a business process, theres an app for that. As more apps come onto the market businesses can pick and choose those they want integrated into their intranet.

Enterprise social networks (ESNs)

Personal social media tools like Facebook and Twitter now have their workplace equivalents. Enterprise Social Network (ESN) tools like Yammer, Chatter and Jive are bringing some companies valuable productivity and engagement benefits. ESNs make it easier for employees to collaborate and share efficiently without email. Famously in 2011, Atos, a large global technology firm, announced it would ban internal email and replace it with an ESN. Interestingly, in 2013 as the email ban was gathering pace, Atoss operating margin increased from 6.5% to 7.5%. Earnings per share rose by more than 50%, and administrative costs fell from 13% to 10%. Employees also reported that they had more focus time and were happier without the constant interruption of email at work and at home. This is a great case study but must be viewed alongside those where companies have tried and failed to build successful social networks. Once again, the technology is not the only thing you have to get right. Those that succeed do so because they pay attention to a whole host of factors when introducing ESNs. Most importantly they focus on implementing ESNs in those parts of their operations where there is a clear and specific reason to use social. We want to be more collaborative is not such a use case. As ESNs grow in popularity we are seeing them being integrated deeply into the intranet so that social conversations can happen alongside the tools, pages and documents that make up the intranet.

The smart intranet

Not being able to find anything on the intranet is perhaps the commonest complaint we hear from end users. Its likely to become one we hear less and less as modern intranets become more intelligent. Search engines on intranets are improving dramatically both in terms of the relevance of search results that they present to end users and also in terms of the way they can be fine-tuned and tweaked by intranet administrators.

simple representation of a social graph in the workplace
A simple representation of a social graph in the workplace


But on modern intranets intelligence goes much further than search. For example, theres ‘Information discovery’ whereby the intranet suggests relevant content to you based on what your colleagues are looking at, whats being discussed and whats being presented at meetings. In simple terms the modern intranet has a brain (called a social graph) which knows which of your colleagues you work closely with. It analyses their online actions around document creation, viewing, sharing etc. Based on these connections the intranet can suggest content that is relevant to you right now. This could be as simple as a personalised list of trending documents on the homepage. Or it could be something more sophisticated such as search results which are not only based on the keyword you used but also what your close colleagues are finding relevant. Artificial intelligence and personal assistants like Siri will find their way onto intranets too.


This last one really goes without saying. If you want to reach sales reps, factory floor workers, field workers and other employees who are not desk-bound you have to be available on mobile. This means not only having an intranet which can be accessed from a mobile phone but one that has been optimised so that the user experience is adapted for mobile. This means a big, thumb-friendly navigation, swipe gestures, fast loading etc. Whilst this is a really obvious and growing trend there are still many, many intranets out there that are not mobile accessible.

Conclusion: productivity is the major intranet trend

As mentioned, many of these trends have been gathering pace for some time but others are new and upcoming. Hopefully youll also have noticed that many of them overlap and build on one another. This makes them all the more likely to last. This overlap in trends is also going to lead to much more integration between the tools that make up the digital workplace and the intranet. This will drive adoption, usage and ultimately productivity. Take a step backwards and look at the economic climate that were in. Developed economies are maturing, growth is slowing and consumers are stretched. If companies want to deliver shareholder value they’ll need to focus on productivity. Rising trends in intranets and the digital workplace chime well with this drive for productivity in the workplace.

Why productivity isnt always the most important thing in the world

ChecklistAt the Future of SharePoint event in London the other day I got chatting to a developer from another SharePoint consultancy. The conversation turned to the SharePoint projects that our respective companies had worked on.

He began telling a story about one of his clients. This one is an engineering company that digs up roads and fixes gas and water pipes all over the country. My new friend went on to explain that each maintenance project generates various forms that need to be filled out. Risk assessment certificates, briefing documents, completion documents, etc.

The surprising thing at least to people like me who work on intranets and digital workplace tools is that these forms are printed out and need to be filled out by hand. Not only that, but once filled out, they are collected by a chap in a van whose sole job is to drive around picking up similar paperwork from other teams working around the country. More surprising still is that these pieces of paper are dropped off to a central office whereupon they are scanned and tagged into a document management system. This generates an inventory sheet which then needs to be printed, circulated, and signed by various superiors before being scanned back in and stored.

My digital focus isn’t the only focus

When paper is digitised and then resurrected back into paper we all know that somethings really not right. Or is it? Its easy for intranet professionals to raise our eyebrows at this. But this is because its our job to banish paper and automate processes. The company I talk about above is concerned with entirely different things. Their forms and audit trails are peripheral and entirely minor to what they really do and to where they add value.

When business is good and customers are lining up its easy to see why a seemingly antiquated process like that might get overlooked and continues to exist. Obviously, they know its not the smartest way to do it but they have other concerns, many of which you and I cant even begin to imagine.

The thing is, companies all over the world are in similar situations. On virtually every project we work on we discover such manual processes. Even large corporates with deep pockets and abundant IT resource can at times seem very unsophisticated in the way they do things. Our job is to uncover these processes and help redesign and digitise them. We do this by meeting with lots of people, asking them plenty of questions about their jobs and, above all, by listening.

If you want to learn more about how we go about uncovering pain points and opportunities to drive productivity then please get in touch.

A 7-point framework for employee engagement in the digital workplace

Modern organisations are using a number of clever techniques to accelerate internal change and make it stick. This free e-book puts forward a simple and effective 7-point framework to use to deliver change campaigns and programmes.

If you thought the hamburger was bad, the waffle icon in Office 365 is worse

Building a usable intranet on SharePoint is easier than ever before owing to Office 365 in the cloud. Microsofts cloud subscription model has made the power of SharePoint available to organisations that previously would not have had the IT support necessary to deploy such enterprise level software.

But organisations of every size have to consider the user experience that out-of-the box SharePoint offers, and theres a problem: people cant get home.

Hamburger menu iconHow do you feel about the hamburger icon that you might notice when using a mobile site? When I first started seeing this web furniture I was happy to touch it to explore, and not unexpectedly, there was a menu. These days, Im happy to see the hamburger menu, and ignore it, until I want to explore the site. Do you feel the same?

But if youre keeping up with design trends and user research, you might know that the hamburger menu does not appear inviting to everyone. Many people do not notice the icon, cannot interpret the three horizontal lines, and do not ever touch it.

User research shows hiding menu items means they dont get used

Ive been conducting rough and ready user testing in recent weeks, looking into how people think and feel about their Office 365 intranet. One striking finding that I cant ignore is how difficult people find returning to the home page is.

Many people, it seems from my research, like to start a fresh task from the home page; but getting back to the home page from wherever they are within the Microsoft cloud is a challenge.

Microsofts cloud SharePoint offering expects everyone to think in an app way OneDrive is an app; Delve is an app; Word is now an app all accessible from the main waffle icon.

A 7-point framework for employee engagement in the digital workplace

Modern organisations are using a number of clever techniques to accelerate internal change and make it stick. This free e-book puts forward a simple and effective 7-point framework to use to deliver change campaigns and programmes.

How many homes are there?

Think about how people access the home page of the intranet. From log-in, a person might land on your intranet home page or, depending how they logged in, the Office Home page.

Office Portal home

From here, they have to click on SharePoint. This brings up SharePoint home. This is perfect if you want to dive into your teams collaboration site, but it isnt the intranet home page that comms people might expect.

SharePoint home

(SharePoint was named Sites up until June 2016.)

To reach the true intranet home page, the person has to click on a link or the tile / card called Intranet (highlighted above). Now they get to experience the company home page (but in a new tab)

Once deep within the intranet, people can click the company logo to get to the home page (if they know this trick) but what if they are in an app?

Imagine youve just performed a people search and have found Vikrams phone number and maybe office location. Now, you may well be inside Delve now looking at Vikrams Delve profile. Its likely that all the intranet-specific menu items are not shown, as this is just Delve. How do you return to the home page? The back button on your browser should work (unless you’re in a new tab), but do you really want to click that 12 times, each time checking to see where you are?

How do you quickly get from Delve to your intranets home page? Theres no logo to click.

Theres left-hand menu item that just says Home but this is Delves home. Take a look at some research results, below.

Delve heatmap

Half of my research was conducted during usability testing with me sat right there with the person, but the above heatmap shows online testing where the person worked alone.

Waffle iconYou can see that, when a person is in Delve and they need to return to the home page of the intranet, only 39% first think of clicking the waffle icon. The majority of people click the Home link and why not? It has a house icon and everything! But this is Delve home.

The answer is supposed to be the waffle icon click the waffle and the paddle menu offers you SharePoint. Youre supposed to know what this word means…

While every day users of the Office 365 environment may well become confident in getting around, those people new to the platform, or just those who only use the intranet every so often, do not find the basic navigation intuitive.

Office paddle menu - app launcher

The waffle icon offers a paddle menu of coloured square icons (the ‘app launcher’) including something called SharePoint, which takes you to to master index page that lists out all the intranet and project sites you personally have subscribed to or have access to. This is not an intuitive page (although its very useful); most people expect the real intranet to guide them around.

Next to the waffle icon is a big menu item that just says Office 365. If you click this, you land on a page that offers you the exact same coloured square icons that the waffle icon offers. Because this is the Office 365 home, not your intranet home.

Office Portal home

Click on SharePoint and you land on an index page, offering you all the sites you have access to. From here, youre supposed to know to click on Intranet or whatever your company has called the intranet. Only now do you reach the home page.

So from doing a people search (a very common task) it takes three clicks to get to the home page, rather than one. The hardest click is the first one; very few people Ive worked with ever explore the waffle icon. It does not indicate that its a button or that its hiding a menu.

This seems awkward, and the people Ive been working with felt that they were not experienced enough to understand the intranet. They graciously excused the intranet and said they needed more training. This is horrible, when the intranet has failed them, and made them feel lost and frustrated.

Help people get home with a custom icon

Custom app icon
You (your intranet administrator) can add a custom tile (app icon) to the paddle menu found within the waffle icon.

So you could add an icon for the home page of your intranet, reducing confusion and the number of clicks needed to get home when a person finds themselves in Delve or some other app.

But, and its a big but, your new icon only shows up on the My apps page (where a person lands if they click View all my apps in the paddle menu) until each individual chooses to add it to the paddle menu by hand. In other words, every employee needs to visit the My apps page and select the new Intranet icon and use the Pin to app launcher function. Is this something everyone will do? No.

The take aways

  • Dont expect people know whats in the waffle icon, or even realise it is clickable.
  • Understand that home can mean different things to different people; Search has a home; Delve has a home; Office 365 has a home; SharePoint has a home.
  • Tell people that things often open in new tabs – help people be aware of what their browser does.
  • Introduce the waffle icon to people as part of your adoption and engagement activities. Highlight it in training. Explain how to reach the home page of the intranet, and how to reach other SharePoint sites.
  • Consider beatifying your intranet with a brand design that suits your company, and that adds rich navigation features (like better, more obvious menus). Such brand designs do not affect the SharePoint code and are easy to install.

Its this last item that needs careful consideration. While many smaller organisations are happy with the vanilla look of out-of-the-box SharePoint, medium and large companies almost always talk to us about a suitable design for their brand. Some people have concerns about customising SharePoint, but adding an attractive design isnt customisation, its merely design.

Joe explains how easy it is to brand SharePoint, even in the cloud take a look. A good brand design doesnt just make your intranet look more pleasing, it can help with the usability and UX adding much needed navigation aids and helping people do what the most want to do go home!

Setting the strategy and developing an essential intranet (presentation)

Months of intranet development and rework can save a few intense days of planning.

The video offers a 10-minute synopsis of my recent 45-minute keynote. Turn the sound on or off as you prefer.

Even though youll most likely develop your intranet in an agile and collaborative matter, its common sense to have the overall purpose and objectives mapped out and accepted by your stakeholders and colleagues.

The discovery phase of intranet development / improvement is an exciting phase in my mind; you get to uncover business problems and understand the value that a future solution might bring. In parallel, its also a good time to draft several light documents to guide the intranets direction.


Not everyone is thrilled by the word vision, but having a few short paragraphs to discuss with people inside and outside the project helps everyone gain a similar understanding of what can be intangible work. Think elevator pitch the paragraph that explains what people will be able to do and why thats so important.

My repeated advice is to publish all the supporting material as simple intranet pages and frequently update people with news stories and blog articles about progress.


The intranet strategy must support the business strategy or else what is your intranet for?

I asked the conference audience how many had an intranet strategy and a few hands went up. I asked if they had published and updated it most hands went down. Considering the stakeholders and all the content owners and contributors, shouldnt your intranet strategy be easy to access and easy to read?

Strategy isnt about the features or the technology, but about the direction and purpose.
Its about what we will achieve.


Now we get into what many people are rather interested in. The roadmap does layout new functionality and technologies. It shows what youre going to do and when. I am assuming that you believe in continuous improvement, rather than a launch and let go approach to intranet management.

If Microsoft can publish their Office 365 roadmap, you can certainly list out or visually present the improvements you have planned for the next couple of years. This may be as simple as switching on Yammer and helping the Customer Service team better collaborate with the Sales Team.

A 7-point framework for employee engagement in the digital workplace

Modern organisations are using a number of clever techniques to accelerate internal change and make it stick. This free e-book puts forward a simple and effective 7-point framework to use to deliver change campaigns and programmes.


Knowledge management? Knowledge sharing!Getting things done is the overall purpose of the digital workplace Ill let you define what work means when it comes to collaboration and your business. Its often been said that the intranet supports four purposes:

  • Knowledge management / document management libraries
  • Communication
  • Business processes / tools / activity
  • Collaboration – spaces and tools.

Information is for action, not storage. We musg enable better decision making.As much as document management can be crucial, lets just state for the record that its the application of knowledge that creates value.

How to deliver essential tools

The conclusion of my presentation states that only through research and continuous improvements can you deliver a truly essential intranet.

Content Formula has a visual approach to research. Many people claim to be visual thinkers and dont enjoy reading pages of research results or crunching the numbers involved with data analysis. Lots of stakeholders and clients actually ask to see designs before weve designed anything. Sounds daft, doesnt it? But it’s not.

WireframesAfter a little conversational research, our visual designers (Im thinking about John Scott here) can whip up custom intranet mock-ups to help project managers talk to stakeholders about the end result. These beautiful concept designs help gain buy-in from management and staff alike.

Then its on to user research and UX testing. After a variety of research methods, were able to start laying out content and functionality. We use wireframing to show page layouts, and we can transform these into online prototypes so that people can actually explore. We specifically use prototypes to test the UX by asking people to complete certain tasks like find a certain policy. By watching and measuring how people use the prototype, we can improve our architecture and designs.

Useful, useable, usedBecause our aim is to create an intranet that meets peoples expectations and solves business problems.

Take a look at our series of short articles about SharePoint intranet design, especially the one where John explains prototype testing in detail.

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