10 Best Intranets of 2008

by Jakob Nielsen on January 7, 2008

Summary: Consistent design and integrated IA are becoming standard on good intranets. This year's winners focused on productivity tools, employee self-service, access to knowledgeable people (as opposed to 'knowledge management'), and better-presented company news.

The winners of the award for 10 best-designed intranets for 2008 are:

  • Bank of America, US
  • Bankinter S.A., Spain
  • Barnes & Noble, US
  • British Airways, UK
  • Campbell Soup Company, US
  • Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corporation, US
  • IKEA North America Service, LLC, US
  • Ministry of Transport, New Zealand
  • New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, Australia
  • SAP AG, Germany

Most of the winning designs are traditional, company-wide intranets, but IKEA won for its regional intranet covering North America. Also, Coldwell Banker's intranet works somewhat like an extranet: it connects 3,800 independently owned and operated residential and commercial real estate offices, while appearing to users as a local office intranet rather than a corporate intranet.

Half of the winners are from the US, closely matching the nation's long-term performance average of 53%. The remaining five winners hail from five different countries. The southern hemisphere is strongly represented this year, including the first-ever winner from New Zealand. Australia has had many winners over the years, as have the UK and Germany. Spain seems to be an up-and-coming country in terms of quality intranets, collecting its third award this year (earlier awards went to Amadeus Global Travel Distribution in 2003 and Banco Español de Crédito [Banesto] in 2005).

In terms of industry sectors, the financial sector is strongly represented with three winners (two banks and one real estate company). This, too, follows tradition: earlier design annuals have typically had a disproportional number of winners from the financial sector ( 2007 was an aberration, with only one financial winner, JPMorgan Chase).

Financial institutions probably have disproportionally good intranets for two reasons:

  • The companies tend to be big and have a lot of money resting on optimal performance. They therefore invest more heavily in IT than companies in most other sectors.
  • The companies typically have a long tradition — often going back a decade or more — of taking usability seriously. After all, home banking is doomed unless the user experience is exceptionally approachable. Similarly, the financial sector deals in complex transactions, and training costs for internal applications can skyrocket if the design team fails to truly understand the needs of users in both local workgroups and remote branches. Intranets clearly benefit from the financial sector's above-average attention to user-centered design.

Usually, the technology sector also produces many winners, since — obviously — its companies tend to have above-average sophistication in using technology. This year, however, the only technology winner is SAP.

Of course, it might be increasingly unreasonable to view technology companies as more sophisticated than other industries in the use of technology. This year, for example, the retail sector shines with two winners, beating its average performance as it becomes ever more tech-driven. Barnes & Noble might be a bookstore, for example, but it's also a leading e-commerce site. And, as the case study of the B&N intranet shows, the company certainly uses technology to the max.

As with the previous two years, most of this year's winners are big companies, employing an average of 50,000 employees. Still, this year's list includes the first small organization since 2005: New Zealand's Ministry of Transport, which has only 200 intranet users. Once again, we have proof that size isn't everything, and that a small but well-focused effort can produce a great intranet.

Company News

It's not exactly new for intranets to offer company or industry news. But this year, companies seem to be taking news much more seriously: most winning intranets give it major homepage real estate, and many invest significant resources in editing and maintaining their news areas.

The Campbell Soup Company has an interesting approach to news. Its intranet features an area across the top of the homepage with cells that represent the main business units and corporate functions, letting all users browse each unit's news. While this would be too much functionality for a smaller company's intranet, it can help manage the complexities of bigger companies — especially ones like Campbell that contain multiple strong brands.

Barnes & Noble spends almost all of its homepage on various news areas. Among them is a large central area, Barnes & Noble Today, that features stories from different stores and regions and helps build community among the widely dispersed bookstore staff. A smaller area lists Store Alerts that contain practical information, ranging from when a runaway bestseller will be in stock to recommendations for the gift fixture in bookstore cafés. The intranet team is committed to posting the Store Alerts by a certain time each day, which is critical to its success. News that isn't new gets old quickly, which is why a B&N-like commitment to intranet news is necessary for it to truly attract traffic and interest employees.

Intranet multimedia use has been growing steadily during the last few years, and reached a new high this year. SAP dedicates an entire homepage section and intranet section to SAP TV , with videos on topics ranging from the SAP Cup soccer finals to doing business in Russia.

Increasing Quality and Polish

As with news, many of the winning intranets' other key features are also old favorites. The big distinction is that such features keep getting better and better. The quality level is high, which is appropriate given how many employees use basic intranet features on a daily basis. The productivity gains from polishing the user experience are well worth the cost of going beyond the first design that comes to mind.

Take, for example, the staff directory. This is a feature of virtually all intranets, and its basic design guidelines are well known. To go beyond the basics, Coldwell Banker emphasizes finding employees by geography — an enhancement that completely makes sense for a real estate company. Coldwell Banker's employee finder also includes a special Referral feature to help agents find colleagues for referral purposes. The directory's structure of tabs and labels emerged from usability research that revealed how company users think about seeking out their colleagues.

Most of the winning intranets have strong support for single sign-on , which we know from our studies of intranet portals is a strong determinant of employee satisfaction and productivity — and yet something that's hard to achieve and rarely works as well as promised. This is definitely an area where the extra work to get it right improves the experience (and productivity) of users every day.

In general, integration was a strong theme: the impetus for many a winning redesign was to create a single intranet information architecture (IA) with a consistent navigation scheme and consistent user experience. Such redesigns typically replaced hundreds of individual sites that lacked unified navigation and presented a highly inconsistent user experience. This chaotic state remains the norm on many intranets, which suffer reduced usability and lowered employee productivity as a result. In contrast, the new intranets are invariably based on content management systems with special interfaces designed to increase usability for content providers. The CMS interfaces also strongly emphasize the importance of sticking to a few templates with a standardized design.

In an effort to preserve their autonomy, individual departments sometimes resist the move toward a single, unified intranet design. The Campbell Soup Company provides a striking counter-example here. The company's employees are strongly attached to the specific brand they work for, which would seemingly doom any attempts to unify the intranet. However, the design team wisely provided ways for the intranet design to reinforce users' brand connections through customization and "skinning" (changing the appearance to reflect, for example, branded color schemes).

At Coldwell Banker, the company's franchise model resulted in the introduction of "co-mingling" rules in the CMS to blend corporate-level content with content from the local (franchise or office) level. This approach requires some added features, such as an extra CMS field for tagging the importance of each piece of corporate content so it could be appropriately prioritized relative to local content. However, the approach also creates a vastly more consistent (and thus productive) user experience than the free-for-all that's found in many other companies.

Updated content is a major contributor to intranet quality. The Department of Primary Industries brings two related trends together here. First, it increases usability for content providers to the limit, providing a tool that lets all users submit news items. This, of course, ties in with the second trend — to prioritize company news — because editors need a steady stream of news items from all organizational areas if they're to keep the news fresh and thus engaging.

Productivity Focus

Many of the most important features on the winning intranets directly support everyday work. At British Airways, employee self service is the intranet's main focus and the team backs it with a profusion of tools.

While advanced applications can boost productivity, smaller tools sometimes do the trick. For example, at the Department of Primary Industries, employees (such as mine safety inspectors) often need a department vehicle for offsite assignments. Historically, employees booked vehicles by calling their location's receptionist, who took the information over the phone and entered the details into a fleet management system. Now, a simple, one-page form serves the same purpose, saving time and increasing booking accuracy. (The same intranet also contains an advanced application for geospatial visualization, helping employees manage emergencies like floods, droughts, and exotic disease outbreaks. Thus proving the point that sometimes high tech is appropriate, and sometime it isn't.)

SAP's intranet offers an interesting twist on the productivity focus, providing special personalized pages for the company's Executive Board members. Top-level executives are busy, and their time is expensive, yet they're often among the least-trained users as their duties are focused elsewhere. It thus makes perfect sense to dedicate special attention to improving usability for this small but important group of users.

Knowledge Management

In previous years, "knowledge management" was a much-discussed buzzword for intranets. This year, most of the winners emphasized the same goals as the knowledge management movement, but with a rather different approach: they recognized that knowledge resides with people. As a result, many designs focused on improving access to the people who have the needed knowledge.

Bankinter probably had the most impressive expertise finder, with a profusion of graphical tools for visualizing the distribution and location of knowledge across employees.

Diverse Technology Platforms

The 10 winners used a total of 41 different products for their intranet technology platforms. As with every year, we again conclude that intranet technology is an unsettled field with no clear winner.

The most-used products were SharePoint and the Google Search Appliance. Other frequently used products were Red Hat Linux, Lotus Notes and Domino, and Oracle databases.

No single product made the list of most-used products for all of the four most recent Design Annuals (2005-2008). This simple fact reinforces the point that intranet platforms still have a long way to go. That said, the following products made the most-used lists more than once during this four-year period:

  • 3 of 4 years: Google Search Appliance, Microsoft SQL Server
  • 2 of 4 years: Apache, Documentum, IBM WebSphere, Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE), Lotus Notes and Domino, Oracle databases, SharePoint

In addition to these widely used intranet technologies, we constantly see new ones applied. For example, the Ministry of Transport is already using Microsoft's Silverlight technology to add interactivity to one of its intranet areas.

Intranet Branding Gets a Lighter Touch

In previous years, slightly more than half of the winning intranets have been branded to the extent that they had a separate name. A slightly smaller number of intranets have had no name, but were simply referred to as "the intranet" or some such.

This year's winners again include generic intranets and several traditionally branded intranets, with names like Discover, InSite, and Flagscape. However, we also have a prominent showing for a third option: give the intranet a name, but one that's not a strong brand in itself. Such names can borrow strength from the organization's main brand and typically include a plainspoken description of the intranet's function. These names include Employee Self Service, my Campbell, Coldwell Banker Works, and US Retail Inside.

Whether or not an intranet is branded, it needs internal marketing to familiarize employees with its many features and new areas (particularly if it's a big intranet). Several winners this year had attractive and effective ways of promoting intranet features.

Intranet Trends

In addition to the issues discussed above, the following trends were apparent this year:

  • Increased personalization
  • Integration of information sources, often resulting in a single "one-stop shopping" page
  • Emphasis on mission-critical applications and information (such as sales targets)
  • Improved event and project calendars
  • Special sections to help orient new employees
  • Prominent display of stock quotes and other financial information
  • Integration of external and company news, often in the form of customizable feeds
  • Integration of alerts with the main intranet to inform users of important messages
  • Redesigned and improved search features, which often went from horrible to good and generated ecstatic user feedback

ROI for Intranet Usability

Once again, the winning teams focused their efforts on producing a great intranet and not on justifying their work by measuring the return-on-investment (ROI). This makes sense in companies where the intranet team has the required executive support, and such support is certainly necessary in the long term. But teams in less ideal circumstances might still need ROI data, and at this point it's thin on the ground.

Bank of America collected detailed measurements of the time required to navigate from the homepage to 11 different intranet destinations. After the redesign, the average time decreased from 43.6 seconds to 21.7 seconds, cutting the navigation time in half. This corresponds to a 101% increase in post-redesign productivity, because users can get slightly more than twice as much done in the same time.

In our research testing a large number of intranets, we found that the productivity gains from a major improvement in intranet usability were likely to be 72% on average. How does this research result square with the 101% increase measured at Bank of America? The difference in findings is easily resolved with two observations:

  • The 72% productivity increase is an average; some redesigns will experience smaller improvements, others higher.
  • Bank of America has an award-winning intranet, so it stands to reason that its ROI will be higher than average.

In addition to measuring ROI for intranet redesigns, it's also worth setting measurable goals in advance for what you want to achieve. British Airways is a good example, with goals such as getting a 75% increase in online training days and eventually having all staff travel booked online. In total, the BA redesign achieved cost savings of £55 million. But even before the results were known, it was obvious that the intranet project was big enough and had enough potential to be worth taking seriously.

At Campbell, the number of intranet visits per day increased by 727% after the redesign, but the number of actual pages viewed per visit decreased from 9.12 to 1.43 . As a result, the grand total number of page views only increased by 30%. Overly simplistic use of Web analytics might focus on this latter number and conclude that the redesign had been only a modest success. On the contrary, it's wildly successful, as the two other statistics show:

  • Employees get many more things done with the intranet, as shown by the 727% increase in visits.
  • Employees are much more efficient each time they visit the intranet, corresponding to increased task productivity. Ideally, productivity is measured as time on task, which directly translates into the amount of work done per hour. We can't quite claim that the decrease in pages per visit corresponds to a 538% productivity increase because people might spend more time on each page. Still, there's no doubt that intranet efficiency — and thus employee productivity — increased immensely after the redesign consolidated, on personalized homepages, the information that users need.

Full Report

362-page Intranet Design Annual with 212 screenshots of the 10 winners for 2008 is available for download.

See also: This year's Intranet Design Annual

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