10 Best Intranets of 2009

by Jakob Nielsen on January 5, 2009

Summary: Intranets are getting more strategic, with increased collaboration support. Team size is growing by 12% per year, and platforms are becoming integrated, with a strong showing for SharePoint.


The winners of the award for 10 best-designed intranets for 2009 are:

  • Altran, a large engineering and innovation consultancy (France)
  • Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), a developer of computer and graphics processors (USA)
  • BASF SE, the world's leading chemical manufacturing company (Germany)
  • COWI Group A/S, a consulting group focusing on engineering, environmental science, and economics (Denmark)
  • Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (DTT), a global professional services network providing audit, tax, consulting, and financial advisory services (a Global member organization)
  • Environmental Resources Management (ERM), one of the world's leading providers of environmental consulting services (Global)
  • HSBC Bank Brazil (Brazil)
  • Kaupthing Bank (Iceland)
  • L.L.Bean, a vendor of apparel and outdoor equipment (USA)
  • McKesson Corporation, a large provider of pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and health care information technologies (USA)

Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu also won in 2002 for its Australian member firm's intranet; this year, DTT's worldwide intranet is the winner. As such, DTT joins a very small, elite group of companies that has won the award twice: Cisco Systems is the only other member.

As we've seen every year, great intranets are found around the world and in all industries. This year, we have our first winner from Latin America. We also have the first winners from Denmark, France, and Iceland; Germany and the U.S. have both provided many winners in the past. We have one other first this year: In a sign of ongoing globalization trends, we have winners that are not headquartered in any individual country.

The consulting sector is this year's best-represented industry, with 3 winners. Given the knowledge-intensive nature of consulting and this year's trend toward more collaboration-focused intranets, this fact makes sense.

Bigger Intranet Budgets

As we've seen the last few years, large companies dominate among the winners. Among this year's winners, the average organization has 37,500 employees. Even so, fairly small companies like Kaupthing Bank with 3,200 employees can still win. Good user experience doesn't require size or humongous budgets; it requires talent and emphasis on meeting the users' needs.

One of the strongest trends over the years that we've run this design competition is that intranet teams have been getting bigger. As the following chart shows, when we started honoring intranet projects in 2001, the average winning team had 6 members; today, the average team size is 14.

Average size of winning teams for the intranet design awards from 2001 to 2009
The long-term trend is toward bigger intranet teams, with a growth rate of 12% per year.

Still, what holds for company size also holds for the size of teams: You don't have to be big to win. This year's winners include one team with 5 members and another team with 6 members. In earlier years, we've honored winners with 1- or 2-person teams.

Even this year's average team size of 14 is fairly small when it comes to providing a key work tool for organizations with 37,500 employees on average. One way to leverage intranet staff is to call on external resources as appropriate. Today, the predominant approach to running intranet design projects is to engage one or more consultants and external agencies to contribute parts — and only parts — of the design, while keeping overall control inside the company itself.

This year, 6 of the 10 winners were designed by some combination of in-house and outside resources. The remaining 4 projects were done completely by the company's own staff. None of the winning intranets were designed exclusively by an external agency, even though this was a fairly common approach in earlier years.

It's a healthy trend for companies to take more ownership of their intranets and devote resources to building sufficiently large intranet teams. In so doing, they gain in-house expertise in the main areas of intranet user experience. Not all companies can afford intranet teams that are big enough to do everything on their own, however. And, in any case, there are at least three reasons to periodically engage outsiders:

  • To get a fresh, independent perspective. People who work on the same project for years can become too accustomed to a certain way of doing things. (Disclaimer: Because Nielsen Norman Group sometimes serves this role through impartial usability reviews or unbiased user testing, we might certainly be too sympathetic to the value of an outside perspective.)
  • To provide deep expertise or a narrow skill set that the intranet team cannot justify adding to their permanent, full-time headcount.
  • To alleviate workload during crunch times, particularly during large redesign projects or rollouts.

Strategic Intranets

Bigger intranet teams and increasing internal ownership of the intranet user experience both reflect the intranet's growing strategic role in supporting work processes.

Intranets today do much more than simply host the company phone book and HR manuals — though these components remain critically important, and teams are continuing to improve them. COWI, for example, supplemented employee profiles with a feature that highlights commonalities between directory users and the profiled employees they view (an interesting combination of personalization, social networking, and the traditional staff directory.)

Nonetheless, with bigger teams and budgets and increased respect and strategic recognition, intranet functionality is expanding beyond such basic features. A simple statistic to quantify this trend is the fact that, at 473 pages, this year's Intranet Design Annual is the most voluminous ever (326% longer than the first Design Annual in 2001, and 31% longer than last year's report). As intranet teams accomplish more, more space is required to document the winning designs.

Another indication of the intranet's growing strategic importance is the fact that ERM is the first winning team that reports directly to the company chairman. As in past years, most other winners report to either Corporate Communications or IT, and having teams report to the top isn't likely to become commonplace. But this year does show dramatically increased executive visibility for the intranet in many of the winning organizations. This executive involvement typically results from companies viewing the intranet as a collaboration tool and appreciating the increased business efficiency that a good intranet brings.

Collaboration Features

This year's winners showed a substantial increase in both collaboration support and social networking features. Although inspired by the open Internet's "Web 2.0" sites, these features often have a much stronger business model within the enterprise, simply because they're more useful and less subject to noise and information pollution by bozos.

The most symbolic instantiation of this trend might be at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, where employees can add their own videos to the corporate TV network. Quite the enterprise YouTube.

Teams are also adding Facebook-like features to employee directories to enrich the profiles. That said, the designs are for a work environment — not for commenting on personal photos or supporting teenage dating behaviors. So, while it's appropriate to be inspired by popular social networking websites, your actual user interface and features must be freshly designed specifically for the intranet. Internal blogs — whether by employees, department heads, or company leaders — were also thicker on the ground than in previous years.

The vast majority of our winning intranets feature CEO blogs. This is not new; we've seen some CEO blogs in earlier years. Indeed, HSBC Bank Brazil's CEO blog started in 2005 and has since been viewed more than 2 million times and accumulated 8,000 employee comments. These statistics imply about 1 comment for every 250 employee viewings of the CEO blog, a level that's consistent with other research on user participation in online communities. You can use this level as a rough benchmark to assess whether your own CEO blog is sufficiently inviting of employee participation.

Clearly, it's a well-established feature. What's new this year is the sheer prevalence of this communications tool; we now have enough good examples to specify 9 guidelines for an intranet CEO blog.

Another example of a striking social feature is ERM's interactive forum. This tool has achieved mission-critical status in allowing consultants to post urgent requests for advice from their colleagues around the world. The forum has virtually eliminated panicky broadcast emails at ERM, thus improving the productivity of the many knowledge workers who are no longer interrupted by requests that they might have no qualifications or experience to solve. Even more important, this community feature often helps the company quickly construct better proposals for key clients on short deadlines.

Personalization and Customization

As many of this year's winners show, intranet personalization is becoming increasingly sophisticated. The leading application of personalization is to provide each employee with news updates focused on their job role and personal interests. If intranets show everyone everything, information overload ensues and people either ignore the news area or squander their time reading irrelevant stories.

Simple customization can often generate sizeable productivity wins. For example, at McKesson, sales people can create a My Product List and My Favorite Reports , freeing them from having to wade through the much longer lists of all available options. Much appreciated when you're on the phone with a customer and would prefer to focus your mental resources on closing the sale, rather than navigating the intranet.

At AMD, users can customize links directly in the main menu bar, which integrates the user's personal favorites much more tightly with the intranet navigation than the traditionally separate Quick Links feature.

Multilingual intranets also make good use of personalization to increase usability by presenting pages in the user's preferred language as much as possible. BASF's main user interface elements are available in 13 different languages, and several other winners also have internationalization and localization support that goes far beyond what we see in most Internet websites.

Technology Platform: Unification Begins

In all previous years, the only conclusion regarding technology was that there was no universal platform for designing good intranets. Winners typically used an extraordinarily wide diversity of implementation packages.

Although this conclusion continues to hold this year, it is less pronounced.

Among the winning intranets, many are built on a single intranet platform that integrates most of the supporting features they need — including a content management system (CMS) and search. Some winners supplement their main platform with a few selected tools for specialized purposes — mainly Web analytics. If we were to hazard a prediction, it would be that traffic statistics, search log analysis, and other analytics tools will be substantially beefed up and integrated in future releases of the main intranet software platforms.

In total, the 10 winners were built on 26 different products — substantially fewer than the 41 used in 2008 or the 49 used in 2007. Most impressively, fully half of the winning intranets used SharePoint, especially the recent MOSS platform (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007). As the following chart shows, SharePoint use has grown dramatically in recent years. This is particularly impressive given that, from 2003–2006, the winning intranets didn't use earlier versions of SharePoint at all.

Increasing use of Microsoft SharePoint among award-winning intranets from 2003 to 2009
Microsoft SharePoint has seen substantially increased use among well-designed intranets in recent years.
(In 2007, Microsoft's own intranet was a winner, and they obviously used their own software, so the 2007 dot should be a notch lower if you consider only third-party projects.)

Despite this big growth in SharePoint use among the best intranets, the contest is far from over for intranet software platforms. Many other good enterprise software vendors offer widely used solutions. This year, for example, multiple winners used Autonomy, Google Search, and WebTrends.

Usability Growth

Over our intranet award's 9-year history, we've seen a steady increase in user-centered design. The following chart shows the proportion of winning intranets that employed various methods across three different 3-year periods. The use of all methods has substantially increased; it's particularly gratifying to see the extent to which designers are embracing paper prototyping and other low-cost testing methods.

Trend in use of user-centered design (UCD) on intranets from 2001 to 2009
The percent of winning intranets that employed some of the main usability methods in their design process.

To assess the ROI of intranet redesigns, teams primarily relied on usage metrics in terms of users, visits, or page views. Across this year's winners, the average increase in intranet use was 106%. This is about the same as we've seen in previous years: The average usage increase in the 2005–2008 winners was 110%. So, roughly speaking, improving an intranet's usability will double its use.

L.L.Bean conducted a benchmark study comparing their old and new designs. The old intranet had a success rate of 67% and an average time-on-task of 1 minute and 52 seconds. The new intranet has a success rate of 88% and users require only 54 seconds on average to perform the same tasks. In other words, users can perform more than twice as many tasks per hour with the new design. This improvement is somewhat more than the average across our intranet usability metrics benchmarks, but then L.L.Bean does have an award-winning intranet.

Full Report

473-page Intranet Design Annual with 241 screenshots of the 10 winners for 2009 is available for download.

See also: This year's Intranet Design Annual


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