10 Best Intranets of 2002

by Jakob Nielsen on September 3, 2002

Summary: This year's winning intranet designs emphasized integrated support of international offices, long development times (two years on average), one-stop start-up screens and single sign-in, and usability testing of interfaces for content contributors.

In last year's Intranet Design Annual , we predicted that 2002 would be the year of the intranet , after a decade of neglect. Judging from the results of this year's design competition, we were right.

We received a huge increase in nominations, and, more importantly, most of the nominated designs in 2002 showed that many big companies are making great efforts to get their intranets under control. This year, 118 intranets were nominated for the design award; given the high quality of so many of the designs, it was hard to narrow down the field to only ten winners. The best of the best intranets designs in 2002 were (in alphabetical order):

  • ABB (design agency: BEKK Consulting)
  • BellSouth
  • Credit Suisse Financial Services
  • Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Australia (design agency: Eclipse Group)
  • Lonely Planet Publications
  • Mira Networks AB
  • Northwestern Mutual
  • Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
  • Washington Mutual (design agency: Towers Perrin)
  • The World Bank Group (design agency: Satyam Computer Services)

Background of the Winners

Washington Mutual won for an intranet application to manage executive compensation. The other nine winners were company-wide intranets. Most of the winners are huge corporations, such as Wal-Mart and ABB with 900,000 and 160,000 users, respectively. Indeed, one of the main trends this year was that major corporations are making major strides toward coordinating their intranet designs and improving usability.

Still, much smaller companies can also design great intranets. This year's winners, for example, included Lonely Planet Publications, with 450 users, and Mira Networks, which has only twelve employees. Of course, a smaller company will have fewer resources, but it also has a more focused mission for its intranet and can more easily involve all parties in the design process to ensure usability.

A disproportionate number of winners came from the financial services sector, which accounted for four of the top ten intranets in 2002. One possible explanation for this is that financial companies have a long tradition of professionally managed development projects to centralize and coordinate company-wide services. Such a tradition bodes well for establishing a well-functioning intranet with a consistent design. Because financial companies tend to be big and have much money at stake, they have also traditionally focused on productivity and usability in their software projects. This focus may have transferred to their intranet projects, giving them a further leg up on companies with less established usability traditions. Telephone companies also have a strong tradition of software development productivity and usability, and we have a winner from this industry as well.

The remaining winners covered a broad spectrum of industries, from consulting and publishing to retail and manufacturing.

In terms of management structure, the only trend we found was that there was no clear picture of who winning intranet teams report to within the organizations. The two most common organizational homes for the intranet teams were information technology departments and human resources (HR) departments, but we also found good intranet teams reporting to the corporate secretary and the corporate communications department. Finally, a few intranets belonged to broader e-solutions departments responsible for both the public Internet website and the private intranet within the firewall.

International Intranets

Great intranets are found in all parts of the world. The 2002 winners include five companies headquartered in the United States, three companies headquartered in Europe (ABB in Switzerland, but designed in Norway; Credit Suisse in Switzerland; and Mira Networks in Sweden), and two companies headquartered in Australia (Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and Lonely Planet Publications). And, while the World Bank Group is headquartered in the U.S., its design agency was in India (Satyam Computer Services).

The international scope of the top 2002 intranets is even wider than indicated by the winning companies' headquarter locations. Many of the companies cater to international operations, such as the World Bank, which has personnel on missions in countries with low-speed dial-up connections, and the much smaller Lonely Planet, which nonetheless operates branch offices in three countries outside Australia. The intranets enhance communication across borders and help multinational companies achieve a more integrated feel, as well as supporting more pragmatic features, such as document sharing between countries. Integrating a single intranet across multiple countries was a definite theme this year, whereas many companies in the past had separate intranets for each country in which they operate.

Overseas offices usually have their own pages in the local language to cover local content and interests. Unfortunately, some intranets are using content management systems that don't update the navigation features for international users, leaving them to read global menus in English. Multilingual search remains an unresolved problem. We hope that the underlying technology for intranets will evolve in the coming years to provide better support for international users.

Long Development Times, But No Big Bang

Most of the winning projects spent about two years on their intranet redesigns (note: this conclusion changed in 2003). This is an important lesson for companies and cautions against exaggerated hopes for instant gratification. For a big company, it's a big project to redesign an intranet and roll out a consistent design across all divisions. Great intranet usability and employee productivity require more work than just adding water to some portal software.

Even though the full process can take about two years, our winning projects did not hold off until everything was perfect before releasing the new intranets to an unsuspecting public. Some companies had been burned before by "big bang" development projects that took forever to create a hoped-for solution to all problems in a single, delayed release. Instead, all of the winning companies followed a staged approach, gradually releasing new templates, portals, search engines, personalization features, and other components of the full intranet. Also, the central design teams typically aimed at converting individual departments to the new design one at a time, rather than asking everyone to change all of their pages all at once. A big bang would be an impossible strategy considering the size of these intranets: BellSouth has 3 million pages across 1,000 subsites, Credit Suisse Financial Services has a million pages, and even a smaller company like Lonely Planet has 50,000 pages.

Some projects had very tight deadlines due to organizational restructuring or corporate mergers. Because we can not expect big companies to base their business strategy on the convenience of intranet designers, it follows that intranet teams need to be flexible enough to accommodate big, sudden changes. Intranet designers should enhance their readiness by continuously collecting usability data and insights so that they know where they should move if they get sudden marching orders. For very fast projects, it may not be possible to employ the full human-centered design process, but you can leverage the usability knowledge and guidelines you have already collected. Projects on overly accelerated development schedules typically followed up on their initial release with a round of usability clean-up and gradual improvements, leading them to a winning design in the end.

In the long term, we will need better tools to quickly implement major changes in intranet designs. For now, one helpful approach is to structure the intranet's information architecture based on employees' tasks and job goals instead of on the company's org chart. Even major reorgs are likely to leave large parts of a task-based intranet in place, whereas an organizationally structured intranet will require redesign. Indeed, most of this year’s winners chose information architectures and navigation schemes that are primarily task-based.

Killer Applications and One-Stop Shopping

Much of the value of an intranet comes from making it a communications tool that all employees check every day. This can be a challenge, especially if the old intranet was universally hated for being clumsy and impossible to work with, as was the case in some of the companies. A common solution (in addition to redesigning for better quality, of course) is to prominently feature a killer app that is so useful that people will voluntarily -- and frequently -- visit the intranet homepage.

In most companies, an employee search tool serves as the killer app. We also found several companies that used a daily lunch menu as their killer app. No matter what you pick, pay special attention to your killer app’s usability. Many employees will use it, so any weaknesses will cost your company big bucks in lost productivity. More importantly, a highly usable killer app sets the quality level for all other intranet pages and applications that other departments will add. Because they will be using the killer app just as much as everyone else, these designers will internalize the good usability guidelines embedded in its design, and will be reluctant to launch contributions with significantly lower quality.

Many companies provide one-stop shopping for employees by using customized home pages with the most important features and particular employee needs. We also saw several intranets that used a control panel design that let employees tab between a few focused views for different types of information they need. For example, BellSouth integrates views for company information, job information, and personal information in a simple, yet powerful portal.

The one-stop shopping approach extended to the security features for most of the winning intranets. Single sign-on is finally becoming a reality on many good intranets, following years of persistent user requests.

CMS Usability

Content management systems have been big for some time and were a common theme for most of last year's winners. This year's winners also relied heavily on CMS, but with a twist: Several companies conducted usability studies of their CMS designs, rejecting many of the initial approaches and authoring templates.

Of course, it's essential to test the usability of the end-user design, but as we saw this year, it is also important to work on usability for authors. In order to be fresh and relevant, intranets rely on having many employees contribute content. If the CMS is too difficult, huge areas of the intranet will quickly grow stale.

Mobile Intranet

In terms of keeping the intranet fresh, a special prize goes to Mira Networks. In typical Scandinavian fashion, Mira employees rely heavily on their mobile phones and make frequent use of SMS text messaging. The Mira intranet has a feature for integrating mobile text messages, letting employees update the intranet from their mobile phones -- when they're out on an assignment, for example. Talk about up-to-the-minute fresh content.

We expect greater emphasis on mobile intranet access in the future, as mobile devices become more prevalent and allow more powerful remote information services than are possible with traditional cell phones. Many employees work outside the office, but most current intranets only support these users if they dial in with a laptop. It will be interesting to see what new designs emerge to offer more true mobility to intranet users.

We Own the Design

Many intranets suffer from a fragmented design and the resulting loss of usability as users are confronted with different rules at every click. The winning intranets had all made great strides toward consistency and were typically successful at overcoming internal politics by the sheer quality of the central design, as opposed to the dubious designs usually produced by individual departments.

Wal-Mart has a particularly fruitful strategy for managing its intranet for consistency: Users own the content and the central team owns the design.

Share this article: Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+ | Email