Insist on doing proper user studies for your intranet. The results are not predictable. Guest article from Sara Redin

I have yet to meet an intranet team that doesn’t yearn for their intranet to be for all employees and have measurable impact on the performance of their organisation. But getting to do the research to be able to have this kind of impact is often impossible.

Sara RedinThe lack of user research through observation, contextual inquiry, and participatory design is a true barrier to discovering areas in need of improvement. Such discoveries would form really strong business cases for introducing major changes. A fundamental problem is the inherent reluctance of doing real user studies.

Don’t disturb the work force, just improve their intranet

It is common for intranet projects to start with the intention to rely user driven design processes and focus on the needs of customer facing or production staff. However, most consultants see the scope of their suggested user studies reduced by arguments like:

“We don’t want to disturb the shop managers, they are pressured enough as it is so we can’t demand they spend time on our corporate projects.”
“We know their priorities anyway so we can guess what they’ll tell us.”
“The sales reps and area managers will be able to give you the same information.”
“You can look through the support logs and comment threads on internal discussions and that will give you plenty of data.”
“We don’t want to tell them about the project and end up over promising when we don’t know what we are going to deliver in the end.”

In many cases you end up reaching out to a very limited group of users, often those who are already in frequent contact with HQ as reference group members or because they are located close to the intranet team.

If we assume that working in one outlet, for example, is completely comparable to another and that the motivations and contexts of all shop managers are the same, that would all be fine. But this assumption should always be challenged. If research is allowed to extend to those who have never before been involved, we can come to a better understanding of actual needs, and real potential of improving the intranet.

If you reach beyond the commonly surveyed circle of staff and dig deeper into the work experiences of others, you may find:

  • compliance with corporate standards and processes is lower the farther away from headquarters that you travel;
  • shop managers and team leaders have developed a whole set of tools by themselves to make local staff more efficient, because the intranet isn’t doing much for them;
  • internal systems aren’t accessed as often as you think and by the employees you think; they are not even used in the ways you assume;
  • the intranet is accessed in contexts you didn’t predict that you would benefit from designing and plan for.

If any of the above are true it is likely that an improved intranet can be directly linked to improved efficiency of front line customer-facing staff. The expense and political hassle of getting in touch with shop-floor workers will be nothing in comparison to the measureable benefits.

Break the organisational barrier

Most intranet teams are close to and familiar with the work processes of their colleagues in business supporting functions. They work in mid management and are heavily invested in internal communications and IT. They are very far from the big bulk of employees who are close to the customers. This picture gets worse the bigger, and more retail or production oriented, the organisation is.

For instance, the distance between the intranet manager in a large retail organisation and the local store manager and their employees is huge. The same would go for the intranet manager in relation to factory workers of a large manufacturer or the intranet team at a large bank and the employees of each individual branch.

A first step is to insist on proper user studies and make the compelling argument for the use of methodologies such as observational studies, contextual inquiry and participatory design.

Sara Redin is a senior consultant at Think! Digital in Copenhagen. She has long experience of digital projects both as a client and a consultant. Follow Sara on Twitter.


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