Choice overload and a Simple Intranet

 

By definition, the title has a reference of contradicting items and don’t seem to belong together. Bear with me for a moment and I’ll connect the dots for you.

First let’s talk a little bit about the Choice Overload issue and for that we need to go eat something. Imagine a new restaurant that you would like to visit and try out over the weekend. You are on the table with your company and are presented with the menu. Open it and you are kind of inching away from your comfort zone, why? Because you are there for the first time, the menu has 10 different cuisines with multiple options in each…guess what, today’s special is equally daunting! More the choices, tougher it gets to decide on something specific. In situations like these, I prefer asking for help and the waitresses are kind enough to oblige Smile

More often than not, the users experience is similar when they are presented with the new Intranet which has 10s if not 100s of features\functionalities. Unfortunately most of the time, there is no warm support from the waitress alongside to explain what the features are for and when should they be used. At that moment they are really looking for a simple Intranet solution that would help them get the information they need to complete their routine activity on a day-to-day basis.

Microsoft having realized this for a while now has consistently been taking steps in the right direction in an attempt to fix this. There has been a fair amount of improvement but unfortunately the fact remains that the Choice Overload eventually turn into User Adoption issues and continues to haunt us.

In other words, the overload of features makes it scary, at varying degree, for the new as well as the experience users to engage with the intranet and wholeheartedly adopt it. More often than not, only 20% of the feature in any area (for e.g. document management) are required by the average user. The remaining 80% features are used by a select few and come in the way instead of helping the average users.

The fear of breaking something keeps them away from using even the required features and they start looking for alternative to go around the intranet to get the job done.

So what would be an effective solution to address this issue? How have some of the organizations been able to deal and get an upper hand over this? To be honest, I don’t have the silver bullet in this two pager, but yes I would love to share what has been effective and worked for our customers that I got a chance to engage with.

Before we get to that though, let’s first define the common core components that were observed across those intranet implementations. If you would like to get to the summary sooner, you are welcome to scroll down to the “wrapping up” section directly and skip the items below.

Core Intranet features

By core component, I am referring to the items that are mandatory and must have for an intranet for organizations of different sizes with different business needs.

Landing Page & Layouts

The landing page & layouts sets the base of a successful intranet implementations and they definitely go beyond the good looks. It obviously has to be pretty looking and inviting so that the user feels like coming back to it, but over and above that the content has to be meaningful with a clear value-add for the users to help in their day-to-day activity. The business’s core focus as well as the internal culture, defines and drives the page layout as well as the content for the organization. Some organizations like to keep the content light and the pages are very simple where as in some cases the need is for a more information rich page which make them kind of busy. Each approach has its pros and cons. Look at how Google and Yahoo have different ways of presenting their search landing page. Not exactly an intranet example, but you get the point.

Along with the organizational culture, the content of the page is also driven by the target audience. Is the page targeted towards the global users, or is it for a particular department or is it built for a special event etc. impacts the layout and content to a great extent. The sequencing of the various content items on each page is equally important. Notice how the announcements are always placed on the top left corner of the page (for a left-to-right language).

Who own the page content and how effective and engaging the page is for the users are vital elements that deserve more than a casual mention; will leave it for later along with the other advanced items.

One item though has earned its place in the must-have list and simply can’t be left out; the responsive and mobile accessible design. For an effective Intranet solution, the landing page has to be mobile compatible and response in nature. The pages have to engineered in such a fashion so that it is easily accessible on the mobile device (not a miniature version of the web page) and the critical items are available without a need to click around to get to them.

Branding

It’s equally, if not more important to have an internal intranet branding for any organization. It gets the users a sense of familiarity & comfort and the feeling of being a part of something; something important.

Depending on the flexibility allowed, it is an excellent way to set individual team identities to some extent as well. For e.g. following the organizational guidelines and permitted colors, some department sites can be more casual and some can be more formal. It goes a long way to bring in the sense of belongingness and build the concept of “My” Intranet versus “A” Intranet.

Along with the regular branding, we also need to maintain the freshness of the intranet at the global as well as the local (department) level. Allowing easy ways to quickly change few items in the branding in a controlled way can be very engaging. Google Doodles is an excellent example on connecting back to the occasion or at least getting the users intrigued about it.

Navigation

Any reasonable size intranet would be classified in multiple sections based on some criteria; departments is a pretty common example. It helps in delegating the administrative activities as well as securing the content access to that piece effectively.

From the end user’s perspective it becomes very important to provide a seamless global and local navigation experience for accessing the various items without getting lost. The navigation strategy has to be designed in the most optimum fashion, such that the number of clicks for reaching point “B” from point “A” has to be minimum and the context has to be preserved too.

Content

Nobody like an empty store. If I am walking into a brand new toy store with my kid and I see empty racks with beautiful name-tags marking the various categories AND a big white banner in each saying “toys coming soon”, I can only imagine his reaction to that. Users’ are no different when they come in an intranet site. They are expecting their favorite toy right in front for them, ready to play! On a more serious note, their documents, pages and other important items have to be there and they have to be organized as close to the way they were in the old system as possible, they don’t like change!

What could be worse than an empty store? Let’s take a different example this time. Imagine someone walking into a store on a Friday evening with an expectation of Total Wines or Bevmo (love you both Smile) and finding stuff from Lowes (love you too). The reaction is beyond my imagination reach.

To drive the point home, both the above items emphasize on the fact that the users expect the sites to have relevant content organized and available before they start using it. Whether the content is old, coming from the existing system or brand new coming from the content seeding activity doesn’t matter. And I would say this is a very reasonable expectation as well as one of the major cause for making or breaking a successful intranet solution with a high user adoption rate.

Search

Seeking happiness and peace in life is one thing and finding a document in an intranet is another. The former is hard to find (let me know if someone has found it…me still searching), but the later should be comparatively easier and should not turn into an adventurous trip.

No matter how well the intranet is organized ensuring the content is falling in the right bucket, as the content grows it is not humanly possible to remember everything. That’s where search steps in. Search makes the system work for the user instead of the other way around. An effective and accurate search is very important for the intranet solution to be successful. Providing different search scopes is a great way to provide more effective search experience and also a subtle way to educate the user on how the content has been organized along with the various sources available for search.

Am I missing something?

To keep it short, I have obviously not covered all the details in here. For example instead of vanilla content having a vertical friendly content seeding or some key non-functional items like user training etc. Based on the feedback will definitely love to attempt the same in later blogs.

Please do point out though, if you think that there are some other absolute must-have items that I have missed and should have been covered…hoping to get some practical insight from the trenches on what else worked for you.

Wrapping up

A highly simplified version of an intranet could be equated to the black box – data in, information out. SharePoint technical features and capabilities are a means to get there and meet the business needs of the intranet. I like to think of SharePoint as Lego building blocks, with each block being a discrete set of functionality that can be used to build the core as well as extended feature of the intranet solution. As you progress and evolve, you can keep adding functionality at the right time.

The key to get a successful implementation is to keep it simple and pace the feature introduction. Having said that, the Progressive Disclosure technique accompanied by a controlled change management process and user training has been very effective until now. Even though Progressive Disclosure is considered more of a UX technique, the concept can easily be extended for the feature and functionality exposure as well. It helps the users tremendously to start simple, focus on the core functionality first to finish a simple business activity and then if required switch to the advanced functionality without losing the context.

To implement and introduce the feature using the progressive disclosure technique, two patterns can be developed further and used as appropriate. SharePoint Composites can be leveraged to meet simple to low-medium complexity requirements or a more mature robust framework can be built using and extending the SharePoint out-of-the-box features. In either pattern, the assumption is that we need to react fast to meet the inevitable, changing business needs and be prompt. With that basic assumption, how can one quickly adapt, build and enabled new features is the key. Coding unfortunately doesn’t always help.

In the following blogs I would like to share how we have addressed practical and hypothetical scenarios using these patterns, SharePoint composites as well as our product\solution SocialXtend.


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