Intranet Portals: The Corporate Information Infrastructure

by Jakob Nielsen on April 4, 1999

Over the last half year, it has become popular for large and medium sized companies to build portals to their intranets which have been spinning out of control for years. Still, many companies don't even have a single default starting page for all of their employees: some leave browsers set to boot with the browser vendor's page (an utter waste of bandwidth and time) and others have a smattering of department pages but no company-wide internal home page.

Step One: Establish a single home page for your intranet.
Step Two: Make this page the default starting page in all browsers distributed within the company.

Intranets Are Under-Funded

In 1995 and 1996, the received wisdom among Web pundits was that intranets were much more important than public websites. "Most of the money will be made on intranets," said countless conference speakers. Whether this statement was ever true is doubtful, but the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction in recent years. It is true that the public Internet has the greatest potential to change the world: Metcalfe's Law means that a bigger network will win over any closed system since the impact of a net is proportional to the square of its size.

The extreme over-valuation of Internet stock has led to a focus on public Web projects and a distinct under-funding of internal intranet projects. The Internet is indeed the most important change factor for business these days, but that doesn't mean that internal networks can be neglected. The usability impact of bad intranet designs translates directly to the bottom line of a company since any usability problems mean an immediate loss of employee productivity .

Consider, for example, the impact of violating the guidelines for microcontent authoring  in writing the headline for a news item on an intranet home page. For a company with 10,000 employees , the cost of a single poorly written headline on an intranet home page is almost $5,000 . Considerably more than the cost of having a good home page editor rewrite the headline before it goes up.

The cost of poor navigation and lack of design standards is even higher: at least ten million dollars per year in lost employee productivity for a company with 10,000 employees. World-wide the cost of bad intranet usability will grow to about $100 billion by the year 2001 unless better navigation systems are built and much stricter internal design standards enforced.

Even huge companies normally run their intranets with a minuscule staff. I know of only one big company that has an active effort to promote a design standard for all pages on the intranet: almost everybody I talk to say that they can't get departments to follow design guidelines. As a result, most intranets are chaotic collections of documents that cannot be navigated . I will be the first to admit that most public websites have usability problems, but at least they usually have some navigation scheme and design standards. These days, it is a rare exception to find an orphan page with no navigation on a big-company website, but such pages are the rule on the same companies' intranets.

Considering the amount of employee productivity that is at stake, my recommendations are:

  • dedicate substantial staff for intranet content, design, and usability: commensurate with the potential to increase productivity for all white-collar employees by several percent
  • establish navigation standards for the intranet and a minimal set of design conventions for all intranet content
  • actively evangelize the need for departments to follow the navigation and design standards

Intranet usability projects do pay off. For example, Bay Networks invested $3 million in intranet usability and improved the design enough to save an estimated $10 million per year for its 7,000 users. It is very common to achieve this 10-to-3 payoff ratio (or better) in intranet usability projects.

The Big Three: Directory, Search, News

An intranet portal home page should have three components:

  • A directory hierarchy that structures all content on the intranet. This part of an intranet is sometimes called a " Mini-Yahoo ." Much can be learned from the design of directory services like Yahoo and LookSmart since they expend more usability efforts than any intranet project, but it is ultimately necessary to construct the actual topic hierarchy locally since it has to reflect the specific content and concerns of the intranet. The methods we used to structure Sun's first intranet portal in 1994 still work perfectly.
  • A search field connecting to a search engine that indexes all pages on the intranet. In contrast to generic Internet searches, an intranet search engine should reflect available knowledge about the relative importance of various areas of the intranet: for example, it could denote official pages with a special icon.
  • Current news about the company and employee interests. Typically, the intranet home page can replace traditional employee newsletters and the flood of email announcements and memos that reduce productivity in many companies. Coupling the news listings with an archive and a good search engine ensures that employees can retrieve information as needed and frees them from having to store and manage local copies (something that is very expensive considering the poor information management capabilities of current email software).

 


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