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Enhancing the usability of your intranet


Published on

Intranets been perceived by many
organisations as their ‘least important’
website. Until recent years, intranet teams
have struggled to show the business value
of an intranet beyond the staff directory. By
adopting a user-centered design approach,
intranet teams can unlock the potential of their intranets to demonstrate tangible business benefits and a superior user experience.

Topics covered:
- The importance of user-centred design
- Balancing the demands of internal stakeholders and end users
- Providing relevant and timely information
- Employing tools and practices that streamline key functions and applications

Published in: Technology, Design

Enhancing the usability of your intranet

  1. 1. Chapter taken from 'Public Sector Intranets' Published by Ark Group (2009) ISBN: 978-1-906355-57-9 Chapter 4: Enhancing the usability of your intranet By Glenn Williams an external consultant. The core project team consisted of seven staff, while the broader INTRANETS HAVE been perceived by many project group included 26 staff. organisations as their ‘least important’ website. Until recent years, intranet teams Project goals have struggled to show the business value The goals of the intranet redevelopment of an intranet beyond the staff directory. By were to: adopting a user-centered design approach, intranet teams can unlock the potential of their Develop an online environment which intranets to demonstrate tangible business can deliver new business tools to benefits and a superior user experience. improve efficiency and reduce painful and time-consuming processes; About Lotterywest Evolve the intranet into a true knowledge Lotterywest is the name behind the lottery community which facilitates the flow of games that hundreds of thousands of accurate, relevant, targeted and tailored Western Australians enjoy every week, information; and and the source of many millions of dollars Encourage greater staff ownership each year provided for Western Australia’s and engagement. hospitals, sports, arts and community groups. Lotterywest is recognised as a global In retrospect it would have been beneficial leader in lottery operations and in providing to change these to tangible goals that grants to the community. The Lotterywest could actually be measured for success. intranet won a global ‘Intranet Innovation For example, how do you measure staff Award’ in 2007. ownership and what constitutes a true knowledge community? Project overview The information presented in this chapter The importance of is based on findings from the Lotterywest user-centred design intranet redevelopment project. The project There are myriad interpretations and commenced in February 2006 with a launch definitions for the word usability. Developers date of December 2006. The intranet runs on often believe their application to be usable the open source Plone content management if it is bug-free. This overlooks the essence system which, out of the box, satisfied of usability which is to improve the quality approximately 90 per cent of our requirements. of the user experience. Just because a The remaining items required custom intranet is bug-free does not mean there development by three internal developers and is a superior user experience when using 23
  2. 2. Chapter 4 the intranet. My preferred definition for In terms of logistics, the tables in the usability comes from a dictionary: “fit for room should form a U-shape to optimise use, convenience”. Usability concepts can collaboration by having stakeholders face be applied to anything in the world – they each other. There is a facilitator, usually the are not limited to websites. A user-centred project manager, who stands at the open design approach, based on needs and end of the U. It is recommended that, prior insights from real users, will set the direction to the JAD session, someone be nominated for your intranet design. in the role of note-taker. Ideally this person Usability will impact on the resourcing will have prior skills in note-taking and be of a project. In the past, many systems- part of the project team. development methodologies have excluded JAD sessions run for between two and usability phases from project timelines. three hours, and will require two to three Jakob Nielsen, the world-renowned usability sessions (scheduled one to two weeks apart) expert, suggests that investing ten per cent in order to funnel the scope. To secure a of a project’s budget towards usability will booking with the invitees you require it is result in an 83 per cent improvement on essential that advance notice be sent. You business metrics1. Ultimately, usability should should aim for 15-20 attendees although not be viewed as a step in the project, but the actual number may vary according to rather something that underpins the entire the size of your organisation. With this many project and does not end once the intranet people invited, it may require up to six is launched. weeks’ advance notice as it is unlikely to find a time that works for all in the short term. Identifying end-user requirements Be sure to invite stakeholders that are in a and limitations position to make decisions. I believe that requirements for an intranet The strength of the JAD session is user project are best gathered by using a mix of engagement. This is an inclusive ‘feel techniques. Each of the following methods good’ forum that can turn a potentially has its own strengths. siloed ‘IT project’ into the much preferred ‘corporate project’. People may feel a Joint application design sense of ownership by participating, and (JAD) sessions they will enjoy the opportunity to put JAD sessions are similar to focus groups, forward their suggestions. With a strong the main difference being that JAD sessions facilitator, the participants should leave the focus on high-level requirements rather workshop feeling positive and productive. than detail. They are structured workshops Unfortunately the onslaught of suggestions with business users and the intranet – many of which will never make the final project team in a large meeting space. intranet – also forms the biggest weakness Representatives from all stakeholder groups of JAD sessions. It is essential that ongoing should be in attendance. The purpose of communications occur with the JAD group the sessions is to brainstorm ideas and get a throughout the project. You must ensure feel for the project scope. Items that should that people are informed if their suggestions be noted but require further investigation go have been cut from the project. Otherwise, on a ‘parking lot’ list to be reviewed after on the day of launch, there will be some the meeting. expectations that are not met. This may 24
  3. 3. Public Sector Intranets undermine the good work that has been an organisation’s intranet that has sufficient put into the project. You want to create synergies with your agency to be useful. champions for your intranet, not people who are against it. Interviews and workplace observations The other problem with JAD sessions is People often do not know what they would that people often do not know what they truly benefit from in terms of intranet want, or may have seriously misguided functionality. Instead of asking them, a better suggestions. Thus JAD sessions should be way to discover what they need is to conduct viewed as one of many techniques that will interviews and workplace observations. The help identify your business requirements. As a first step of this technique is to identify key stand-alone exercise, JAD sessions should be business units to study. You should choose used with caution. Be prepared to determine areas that have a large impact on the needs and wants by other methods too. broader staff community, such as human resources, or areas where you have a gut Traditional research feel for potential improvements. There is a plethora of information available For example, representatives from on the web ranging from usability heuristics Lotterywest’s customer enquiries team to templates for conducting staff interviews. attended the JAD sessions but did not Recommended starting points for user- nominate any unique needs or wants. We centred design include, steptwo. arranged for a member of the intranet team and to sit in their call centre for half a day as Site visits are a great way to learn an observer. His mission was to look for from the experiences of others. As the issues, process improvements and ultimately nature of an intranet is an internal-facing potential intranet solutions. The intranet team website, it is easy to get tunnel vision with member was able to ask questions of the your own intranet. First-hand viewing of staff around him to assist in his analysis. For other organisations’ intranets can provide example, staff were asked what they routinely ideas for functionality and the migration do and were asked to show how they do it. to online business processes. It may even There was no formal set of questions, rather assist in identifying the strengths of your conversations were free-flowing and reactive. own intranet when compared to others. Photos of staff workstations were taken Generally speaking, it is difficult to organise as these can provide clues such as props site visits within the private sector. Public that staff regularly use. As an example, the sector intranet tours are more feasible as customer enquiries team had various maps government agencies are not in competition of Western Australia that identified retail with each other for market share. Another outlets and parts depots with thumbtacks. option is to attend site visit conferences When a regional or remote retailer called which seem to be common in major cities. in, the call centre staff would use this map These are a fantastic way to immerse to find out where the retailer was located yourself in intranet research for a day or two. and potentially where the nearest depot was The main weakness of traditional for spare parts. The process of finding the research is the notion that what works well retailer on a map was time-consuming and for others might not be a good fit for you. left the retailer waiting on hold while the staff It can be a challenge to find research on got up from their chairs and walked over 25
  4. 4. Chapter 4 to the map. This was identified as a clear Step 1 – Creating a makeshift lab area for improvement. A web-based solution To begin, you need to create a makeshift was developed to map the retail outlets on lab. This is not of the fancy-one-way- an interactive, searchable map. This was mirror-white-lab-coat variety. This is a more efficient process with improved essentially one computer, one inexpensive accuracy. The map application was also webcam, video capture software and a extended to allow staff to search by area room. Assuming that you are going to manager or suburb and included an option borrow the computer and room, this exercise to view a graph of the past six weeks of sales should not set you back more than US$200. figures for each retailer. Consumer grade webcams are dirt cheap The downside of this technique is that and video capturing software (such as you will likely only focus on two to three Silverback) costs around US$50. areas due to resourcing constraints, thus omitting many other important business units. Step 2 – Recruiting participants For an intranet project it should be Usability labs straightforward to recruit users. A suggested The issue of how to conduct usability approach is to partner with another labs in detail is a chapter in itself and business unit to assist with the recruitment. beyond the scope of this one. Furthermore, At Lotterywest, the information services there is plenty of information already business unit teamed up with corporate available on the web, including detailed communications to send out invitations instructions, tips and templates. What will to participate in a ‘computer-based be covered here is the high-level items observation’ session. It is important to be you would need to consider as part of vague in terms of what is being tested as conducting labs with internal resources. there is a phenomenon where users will You may have heard the phrase ‘discount ‘skill up’ on a system before attending the usability’, and the following technique has session, which will bias your results. discount usability at its heart (I prefer to Once you have a list of candidates you call it ‘ghetto usability’). should sort them into demographic groups The objective of usability labs is to such as computer skill level, gender, age, test your existing intranet with real users etc., depending on what your organisation and see what happens. Usability labs profile looks like. The only strict rules to will help identify the strengths and follow are not to use IT staff (unless you weaknesses of your intranet. If you plan are testing specific IT functionality such as on performing quantitative analysis, you a service desk application), and do not use will gather your benchmarking metrics staff that have little to no computer skills. from this exercise. When you redevelop Again, these would bias your results – you the intranet this data can be used to are not testing the extremes in terms of compare the system changes you introduced. computer skill level. If this is your first venture into usability labs you might choose the qualitative path Step 3 – Conducting labs as it is less complex, although this may Each session should be scheduled for an come at the cost of delivering compelling, hour. Most of the hour (up to 45 minutes) tangible evidence. will be consumed with users running through 26
  5. 5. Public Sector Intranets the common tasks that you have prepared. a report to the project executive within a All users should perform the same tasks, few days of the completion of testing. This in order, and should not have more than should include a highlights reel containing eight tasks. Begin by giving them an easy usability issues that were encountered. A tip task to help ease the unnatural situation for a compelling video is to highlight trends of being observed. People should not by editing back-to-back sequences of users feel as though they are being tested as they experiencing similar issues. truly are not – it is the system that is being Your written report should outline tested. Tasks should not have a strong what worked well, where there is room for information scent. For example, the wording improvement, findings, recommendations for a task for petty cash reimbursement and next steps. If you conducted quantitative should not be worded: “find the petty testing then your metrics can be tabled in cash form” but rather: “you had an off-site the report. Common metrics include time meeting and want to get reimbursed for on task, error rate and success rate. In parking fees”. terms of qualitative metrics, a common By asking users to ‘think out loud’ you measurement used is subjective satisfaction. will be able to get an insight into their This information can be gathered at the end thought process of how they search for this of the labs by asking the user: “On a scale information. Where will they look? What of one to seven, how satisfied were you with keywords come to mind? As users perform the intranet?” Finally, your report should the tasks you should be taking notes (on include details of the testing methodology paper rather than making distracting tapping such as specification of the computer used, noises on your laptop keyboard). After the where labs were held and a breakdown of tasks you may probe the user with questions user demographics. such as the exploration of why he or she The usability report will provide insight chose a particular path. You should not into where your project is headed. The interrupt the user during task completion, report may also be useful in avoiding and for the majority of the lab you should politics (such as homepage turf wars) with remain quiet. ‘evidence-based’ decisions. Now is the time for the end user to dictate the results! Step 4 – Analysis In the case of Lotterywest, the usability You should have an observer during the labs labs were extremely helpful in identifying who can assist with the analysis. You can shortfalls in our previous intranet. This led compare notes with him or her in the last to an improved design with the redeveloped 15 minutes of the session. This time should intranet. A few months after the new system be used to look for trends and identify any was launched, another round of usability interesting findings. In some cases, there labs was conducted. The study yielded may be none. Remember that if you used excellent results, such as: video capturing software then you will have this to refer to later if required. 33 per cent faster completion of tasks; 12 per cent improvement in success rate; Step 5 – Creating a usability report 16 per cent fewer mistakes If this is your first venture into usability made; and testing, it is recommended that you deliver An improvement in subjective satisfaction. 27
  6. 6. Chapter 4 of all parts outweighs the individual research components. Any single component on its own will not provide the breadth or depth of research to complete your business requirements. Involving staff in JAD sessions, interviews and workplace observations and usability labs not only assists with your research but also helps keep staff engaged and interested in the final outcome. Figure 1: Lotterywest intranet before Do not underestimate the importance of communication. Usability labs can be done successfully in-house and at a low cost. Some usability testing is better than none, and any steps towards embedding a user- centred design approach in your organisation will pay dividends in the long term. Keep in mind that there is always room for improvement – usability is an ongoing journey. Glenn Williams is team Figure 2: Lotterywest intranet after leader, systems and web analysis at Lotterywest. Summary He can be contacted at glenn.williams@ Adopting a user-centred design approach is important and worth fighting for. In recent years the fight has become easier, but References nevertheless intranet teams may still find 1. See resistance from some project managers and 2. See un-enlightened organisations. quantitative_testing.html End-user needs are best discovered by using a mix of techniques. The sum 28