Summary: This year's winners emphasized an editorial approach to news on the homepage. They also took a pragmatic approach to many hyped 'Web 2.0' techniques. While page design is getting more standardized, there's no agreement on CMS or technology platforms for good intranet design.
The 10 best-designed intranets for 2007 are:
- American Electric Power (AEP), United States
- Comcast, United States
- DaimlerChrysler AG, Germany
- The Dow Chemical Company, United States
- Infosys Technologies Limited, India
- JPMorgan Chase & Co., United States
- Microsoft Corporation, United States
- National Geographic Society, United States
- The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), United Kingdom
- Volvo Group, Sweden
Nine winners are traditional company-wide intranets. The winning Comcast design is an extranet that supports both internal marketing staff and external vendors, affiliates, and marketing partners.
Contrary to last year, when most of the winners hailed from outside the US, this year 6 of 10 winners are American. Of the four winners from other countries, three come from countries that have generated many past winners: Germany, Sweden, and the UK. Given the size of Germany and the UK, it's not surprising that they've had so many winners. Sweden's continued top placement, however, is striking. Maybe there's something to the claim that Scandinavians emphasize good design. (Then again, other Scandinavian countries have never produced a winner, so maybe Sweden rules in intranet design.)
Most of this year's winners are from countries that have fostered previous winners. However, we also have a new country represented this year: India . Although the World Bank Group used an Indian design agency when it won in 2002, the bank itself is a multinational organization headquartered in the US, so we counted its intranet as US-based. Thus, Infosys is the first winner truly based in India. Having India join the ranks of winning countries is a clear symbol of its growing might as a software superpower.
Rise of Usability in Manufacturing
We typically have several winners from the financial services industries. This year, we have only one: JPMorgan Chase.
Compared to past years, we have many more manufacturing companies in this year's top 10. Viewing "manufacturing" broadly, this sector has four winners: AEP, DaimlerChrysler, Dow, and Volvo. Last year, we noted that "manufacturing companies have historically focused on physical concerns and thus have less experience in creating good screen-based designs." Of course, in the modern world, manufacturing is highly intertwined with computers because it's a highly knowledge-intensive business. We can hope that the prominence of manufacturing companies among this year's winners symbolizes this important sector's embrace of the value of usability, and that the previous poor showing of manufacturing intranets is truly a thing of the past.
While most winners are big companies, we also have two winners from the non-profit sector : National Geographic Society and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. As this shows, you don't have to be a large organization or a traditional company to benefit from intranet usability. Well-designed intranets support employees and volunteers in achieving non-profit missions just as well as they improve productivity — and thus profitability — in for-profit businesses.
Multimedia, News, and Ratings
A trend from last year was even more pronounced this year: intranets are going multimedia. On the simpler end of the scale, "photos of the day" grace many homepages, and beautiful bird photos illustrate many top stories on RSPB's intranet. On the higher end of the multimedia spectrum, video is proliferating — often for training purposes, but also for executive communications. AEP has its own TV studio for intranet productions, offering both streaming video and live webcasts. National Geographic has webcam feeds that would be the envy of most organizations, including one focused on Alaskan grizzly bears.
Many intranets have long offered news feeds, but this year's winners have taken extra steps to make their news offerings more relevant to employees, both for internal news and for industry-related external news. Labeling and categorization are more extensive than before, and several intranets let users rate and comment on stories.
Star ratings and user comments have long been found on public websites — from Amazon.com to weblogs — but they become much more useful on intranets, where they're not degraded by the Bozo effect. Employees of the same company have shared goals and interests, they have passed the quality filter of getting hired, and they have their reputations to protect. For all these reasons, ratings and comments from colleagues are likely to be much more useful than those of random blog readers.
In addition to providing news on its intranet, Microsoft offers its employees a range of email newsletters and the ability to get stories through a newsfeed (RSS). Email newsletters are a simple way to reach beyond the intranet to give employees news on their mobile devices. This only works, however, because the messages are formatted for mobile devices, which is rare.
AEP doesn't use an automated feed for outside news. Instead, an editor reviews the available stories and posts only those that will be of most use to the company's employees. Such extra work is amply rewarded in employee productivity by saving people from long lists of irrelevant news. For example, at JPMorgan Chase, the intranet homepage is viewed 620,000 times per day, so even one superfluous headline that required one second to scan would cost the company the equivalent of 22 full-time employees in lost productivity. The JPMorgan Chase intranet team is equally selective, displaying only the most important news on the homepage.
Of course, in some cases, you just have to provide the news, even when it's not particularly work-related. For example, DaimlerChrysler provided the latest scores during the soccer World Cup in Germany. If they hadn't, employees would surely have spent much more time following matches on external sites.
In terms of respecting employees' time, perhaps the ultimate design feature comes from the Volvo Group. The company's 5 Minutes Only area gives people the most important information they need that can be consumed in five minutes.
Most of the winners support users in several countries and several languages. The predominant approach is to select one or two primary languages and use them for the company-wide features and content, and then supplement this with country-specific information in the user's own language.
For example, DaimlerChrysler offers global content in German or English, automatically setting the initial language based on the language preference settings in the user's browser. It's somewhat rare to see browser language preferences used correctly on public websites, so it's great to see this feature making inroads on intranets.
Dow uses English for most global content, but translates the most important content into six other languages (Dutch, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish). It also translates selected content into Chinese, Greek, Japanese, and Thai.
Although translation is important, it's not sufficient for a true multinational user experience. Dow's intranet shows how to further achieve this with its employee recognition application. Users can nominate employees in other countries for a recognition award, and if the award is approved, recipients are notified in their local language. Even better, the awards are appropriate to the recipient's culture, and can be redeemed locally. Without this true internationalization of the underlying features, consider how difficult it would be for, say, a German manager of a cross-functional team to give an award to a deserving employee in Brazil. Such a manager is not only unlikely to know Portuguese, he or she is unlikely to know what a Brazilian might appreciate receiving as an award or which local vendors might offer redeemable certificates. At Dow, the intranet comes to the rescue, thus encouraging more cross-cultural employee recognition.
Several intranets featured a simple, but highly useful design element to help users work with overseas colleagues: a world clock. Calculating time zones and understanding the International Date Line's effects are difficult for humans but trivial for computers. Let them do it, and you'll never again call clients or colleagues at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, thinking it's their Monday afternoon. As an added benefit, a prominently placed world clock serves as a tangible reminder of an organization's worldwide status.
The 10 winners used a total of 49 different products for their intranets' technology platforms. Clearly, intranet technology continues to be an unsettled field.
The most-used products were: Windows Server, Google Search Appliance or Google Mini, SharePoint, SQL Server, Google Maps, Omniture, and Vignette.
Some people might claim that it's "unfair" to include Microsoft products on this list, given that Microsoft's own intranet was one of the winners this year. Obviously, Microsoft tends to use Microsoft products, but many other winners did so as well. Also, IBM won last year's competition, and many other technology companies have won throughout the years. In each case, we gave the awards for the quality of user experience on the intranets, not for the product lines. The profile of Microsoft's intranet serves as a valuable case study in how to design a great intranet while building on Microsoft products — just as last year's IBM intranet profile is useful to the many companies that employ IBM products.
Standard UI, No Standard CMS
For several years, we have noticed a trend toward firmer standards for intranet pages. In the early years of intranets, it was a free-for-all, with each page author creating his or her own design. Gradually, more and more intranets have become template-based, which ensures consistency in the user interface across the intranet.
Standardized navigation bars, menus, and page footers are the most common elements in consistent intranet user interfaces. Centralized style sheets (using CSS) further enhance commonality in page appearance. Beyond pure technology, design style guides are also becoming common, and JPMorgan Chase even has an Intranet Design Review Board to interpret and expand its user interface standard. The board also grants exceptions to the standard in those few cases where it's sufficiently warranted.
This year, all the winning intranets were template-driven and relied on a content management system (CMS). Strikingly, most intranets used their own homemade CMS. Thus, even though there are standards within each intranet, there's no standard across intranets, even in the choice of CMS.
Web Trends Without the Hype
Intranets tend to avoid the over-hyped fads that wash across the Web. Several winners have weblogs this year, but the blogs are restrained, emphasizing useful information instead of "what I did on my last date." Microsoft even has a blog for its intranet's managing editor to discuss features and news coverage.
Ajax was widely used this year, but — fittingly for intranets — it's applied as an add-on feature that's integrated into useful contexts as opposed to being used for its own sake. Often, users won't even notice it's there. For example, Comcast displays nicely designed content previews that look like super-tooltips when users roll over lists of brand assets. Similarly, AEP updates the user's custom list of links without refreshing the rest of the page, DaimlerChrysler updates its homepage stock ticker, and Microsoft shows the results of employee polls (a popular feature on many intranets) as soon as the user has voted.
Slightly more noticeable, but still with an emphasis on utility rather than glitz, is the use of Ajax maps on the RSPB's carpooling page. When users click on a map marker, it brings up a photo and other information about the employee who's driving from that location, without otherwise changing the map or the rest of the page.
The employee directory search (the people finder) is a killer app on most intranets. Microsoft uses the over-hyped Internet concepts of social networking and degrees of social distance in a pragmatic manner to make its employee search even better, sorting results by degree of distance from the user. Often, it makes sense that users would want to find people closely related to them; such sorting can be very helpful in a big organization where many people may have similar names or the same job titles.
Is there anything more hyped than wikis? We started to see some wiki use on intranets in 2005, and this year National Geographic Society employs many wikis in a highly useful manner. Is there anything more pragmatic than an acronym explainer? Internet hype meets intranet utility in National Geographic's NG Lingo wiki, which explains the Society's many internal acronyms and specialized terminology ("base camp" = the headquarters buildings). Such an intranet feature is especially helpful for new employees; this year's winners included many more features to facilitate the "onboarding" (new employee) process.
Breaking Web Usability Guidelines
In general, an intranet is a type of website, and most Web usability guidelines apply to intranets. But different usage contexts create important differences as well. All usability depends on two big questions: who are the users, and what are their tasks? The answers to both questions differ between websites and intranets: Web users are customers, while intranet users are employees, and their tasks differ accordingly. Most important, any given company has only one intranet — at least that's what we recommend — meaning that users won't surf past the intranet on their way to another one, as they do with websites.
AEP provides an interesting example of the implications of these differences: Its intranet collaboration area, The Agora , is a blatant violation of the Web guideline to avoid made-up terms as navigation options. (Granted, "agora" is not literally made-up; it's Greek for "meeting place." Still, the number of electricity company employees who know Greek is small enough that, for all practical purposes, it may as well be made-up.) On a public website, this type of navigation would be a sure-fire recipe for having users overlook the feature. Few people have time to click on things they don't understand. By contrast, on an intranet, employees see The Agora every day, and will click it eventually.
In most cases, however, it's better to stick with established Web design conventions. For example, Comcast's customization form includes a Save & Continue button that is correctly placed at the bottom-right side of the form — the same place that 99% of e-commerce sites and other functionality rich websites place their equivalent buttons.
Intranets Becoming Established
Across the first three Intranet Design Annuals (2001-2003), the winning intranets were 4.3 years old on average. Across the three most recent Annuals (2005-2007), intranets were 7.5 years old on average.
Looking back, it seems that most intranets were founded in the 1990s, then left to grow haphazardly. In contrast, the current decade is one of consolidation and emphasis on (finally) making the intranet work well as a business tool.
Intranets are definitely getting bigger. Across the first three Design Annuals (2001-2003), the average intranet contained 200,000 pages; across the three most recent Annuals (2005-2007), the average intranet contained 6 million pages.
Intranet budgets are also getting bigger, though we had one winner this year with an annual budget of only $8,000, so it's still possible to design a great intranet on a shoestring. Mainly, though, the winning intranets have gained substantial management support and have reasonably big budgets.
On average, intranets get redesigned every 3 years.
Averaged across the winners, there was one intranet team member for every thousand employees. This ratio means that intranet team efforts are magnified a thousand times. Such a high degree of leverage is why intranet design can have such a tremendously high return on investment (ROI) when done well.
Big intranets mean big numbers. For example, Microsoft's intranet homepage is viewed 5 million times each month. With this much use, it's more critical to get the design right than it was back when intranets were toys for a few pioneers. Intranets have become critical resources that companies rely on to run the everyday business.
Who Owns the Intranet?
Intranets tend to have one of three homes in the organization. Of the 2005-2007 winners:
- 35% were in Corporate Communications
- 27% were in Information Technology or Information Systems (IT/IS)
- 19% were in Human Resources (HR)
The remaining 19% of award-winning intranets were based in a variety of other departments, including Web Marketing, Public Affairs, and the corporate library.
If you had to select a single organizational placement for all the world's intranets, statistics imply that Corporate Communications is the best place. But in reality, we won't make that recommendation, since 2/3 of great intranets are based elsewhere. The only recommendation we can make is to consider the history and culture of your own company and consider Corporate Communications, IT, and HR as the three most likely candidates.
Last year, we noted a dramatic upswing in the number of winning intranets that were branded (that is, they had a separate name, as opposed to being called something like "the intranet"). We also warned that one year doesn't a trend make.
Indeed, this year, the proportion of branded intranets among the winners is back down at 60% — very close to the long-term average of 62% we've recorded over the years. In other words, more good intranets are branded than left nameless, but there are so many good unbranded intranets that we can't recommend branding for its own sake.
Intranet names this year include: AEP Now, Comcast Store, MSW (Microsoft Web), NG Insider, Sparsh (meaning "touch" in Sanskrit), and Violin.
The ultimate imperative for usability is to "show me the money." What's the benefit to the business of improving the user experience? Sadly, most intranet teams continue to have weak data on their work's monetary value. The exceptions to this rule are impressive:
- Comcast's marketing extranet has reduced versioning and distribution costs by 50-60% and reduced delivery time even more.
- Infosys has experienced a 65% drop in help desk calls since launching its redesign. When you consider the cost of running a help desk, reducing calls this much is a major savings.
Almost all intranets see increased use when they improve usability. If something is bad, people tend to avoid it; when it's good, they use it more. Improving usability will often double use across the entire intranet, but improving individual features can produce much bigger gains. For example, after its redesign, Infosys had 1,100% more submissions to its organization-wide news section — that is, eleven times more submissions — and 588% more entries to its Team Spirit section.
373-page Intranet Design Annual with 215 screenshots of the 10 winners for 2007 is available for download.
See also: This year's Intranet Design Annual