Challenges and opportunities for modern intranet design

James RobertsonBy James Robertson.

Intranets are much more than they used to be. While content and news still provide the foundational elements, modern sites are expected to deliver much broader business benefits.

This includes folding in collaboration and social tools, delivering to mobile devices, and providing a front door to new business systems.

In the years since I wrote Designing intranets: creating sites that work, I’ve seen these changes pick up pace, in intranets around the globe.

The fundamentals of great intranet design remain the same, but teams now confront new opportunities and challenges. Here’s three of each.


Challenge 1: Designing for mobile devices

Mobile devices have transformed our lives, in ways that we’re still getting a handle on. In this always-available world, we’re increasingly taking for granted that we can get whatever we want, whenever we want it, no matter where we are.

Within organisations, the pace of mobile adoption has sadly been much slower, but the same trend is clear: mobile is the future.

So how do we design intranets for mobile devices? The obvious answer is ‘responsive web design’ (RWD), which delivers the same content to all devices, and then reshapes it in the browser to match the specifics of the current device.

While RWD is simple, it’s also limited. How do we apply it to social and collaboration tools, and what about forms and business systems. At best RWD provides a partial solution, with organisations exploring how best to create a mobile user experience for staff.


Challenge 2: Joining content and collaboration

For many years there was a war between ‘traditional’ and ‘social’ intranets. In one camp sat classic content-heavy intranets, providing corporate content and top-down news.

The other camp was driven by the new kids on the block, who argued that social and collaboration was the one true future, replacing existing sites.

In reality, there is no war, as staff need a mix of trusted content and person-to-person interaction. The challenge is now to design ‘social intranets’ that fold these two elements together in simple and productive ways.


Challenge 3: It’s not just about the intranet

There’s a lot of discussion now about the digital workplace: what is it, how is it different from today, and how do we get there.

What is clear in all of this is that the intranet will remain the ‘enterprise front door’, to an ever-growing set of tools and capabilities. This brings much greater expectations, in terms of the overall user experience, as well as the degree to which the intranet becomes ‘personalised’ to match the needs of each individual.


Opportunity 1: ‘Design’ is the new black

With the success of Apple and others, ‘design’ is a word that can now be heard in the boardroom, discussed by senior leaders. More than just making things beautiful, organisations are increasingly realising that a great design can have a real (and substantial) business impact.

This is great news for intranet and digital workplace teams, who can build on this interest to design and deliver new sites and systems. It has never been easier to justify applying user experience techniques, or to spend extra effort on making a solution frictionless in its design.


Opportunity 2: Joined up design

Recent winners of the Intranet Innovation Awards have shown that it’s possible to create seamless digital workplace solutions without breaking the bank. (Notable examples include Robin Partington & Partners, and Hansen Yuncken.)

This allows staff to ‘click through’ from one element to the next, from a person to a task, to a map, to a document. This type of joined up design is where the biggest benefits can be delivered, as it makes the most of what already exists in silos across the organisation.


Opportunity 3: Global and local

Intranets have typically only focused on ‘corporate’ content and news, driving information from the top down. While this addresses ‘one firm’ objectives, it runs the risk of delivering information that lacks direct relevance to people’s daily work.

Modern intranets are therefore finding ways of meeting both ‘global’ (organisation-wide) and ‘local’ (geography, business area or role) needs. This is hugely important (and challenging) in large, global businesses. But it’s also relevant in smaller firms, that also have local needs.


Exploring the future of intranet design

These are just a few of the challenges and opportunities that are facing modern intranet design. I’ll be running a full-day workshop in London on 15 March 2016, so join us to explore these topics, and much more besides.


Mastering intranet design

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