Intranet Portals are the Hub of the Enterprise Universe

by Kara Pernice and Patty Caya on June 29, 2014

Summary: Enterprise portals today drive usage with helpful applications, soar with role-based personalization, employ a variety of user research methods, and rely on decentralized governance models. But they lag in mobile optimization.


Today’s intranet portals are at the epicenter of the enterprise universe. They provide utility and usability, featuring all or most necessities for employees’ success. Popular enterprise portal offerings include use via mobile devices and home computers, consolidation of and access to enterprise applications, and communication vehicles for employees. As organizations inch toward a digital workplace, intranet portals are beginning to serve as the hub of the corporate wheel, providing spokes of information and applications that serve diverse and increasingly dispersed workforces.

Not all organizations have achieved the dream of total integration of all enterprise applications, often due to resource constraints and security concerns. It is clear that most at least share that goal and are on the road and moving in that direction even if some have just barely left the driveway.

In updating our Intranet Portals report, with this being our fifth edition, it remains obvious that most organizations want to offer their employees the best possible tools and experience with their enterprise portals. But not all organizations have the time or expertise for this. Smaller design teams that have less support from senior management have to start their work toward a great intranet portal now, knowing it will take months or years before their work will yield considerable results. Despite this reality, there are many lessons that can be learned from companies whose efforts are still modest.

Portals Included in the Report

For this latest research we looked at intranet portals in 16 organizations, tracing a line across the globe that connects intranet best practices from the City of Olathe, Kansas in America’s heartland, all the way to the Municipal Design and Survey Unitary Enterprise “Minskinzhproekt” in Belarus. The most recent case studies include the following:

  • The Carle Foundation
  • City of Olathe, Kansas
  • Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
  • FDC Solutions, Inc.
  • Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung e.V.
  • Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute
  • Municipal Design and Survey Unitary Enterprise “Minskinzhproekt”
  • National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
  • Northern Arizona University (NAU)
  • Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners
  • Persistent Systems Limited
  • Resource Data, Inc.
  • Think Mutual Bank
  • Department of Transport (Canada)
  • Yara International ASA

Our recommendations for intranet portals are now based on 83 portals case studies.

Governance Is Becoming More Decentralized

As enterprise portals mature and grow so does the need for more structured, yet dispersed, portal governance. Portal teams are learning that since the intranet portal touches all layers of the organization, so should the governance. The new case studies reveal a move toward a decentralized or matrix governance model, as opposed to past years where governance was more centralized — being created, communicated, and policed by the enterprise portal owners.

Some organizations find themselves creating governance where once there was none, while others flesh out more specific details of their portal governance structure to accommodate touch points across the organization.

For example, the Carle Foundation has created a governance structure that is both formal and flexible, with defined roles, responsibilities, and workflows. The governance team is drawn from all levels of the organization and has assigned tasks to staff from nearly every operational area across the organization. From the senior sponsor to the individual content contributor everyone has a role to play in ensuring the upkeep and ongoing development of the intranet portal.

Governance, like most aspects of portal development, is marathon not a sprint, and portal teams realize that governance must evolve, as does the portal.

SharePoint Can Be Very Effective, But Other Good Technology Options Exist

Many organizations are happy to report that a variety of tools, including open-source tools, are catching up to their needs. Everyone cannot necessarily afford to integrate and support large, complex intranet portal solutions such as SharePoint. But as technology matures, the barriers to entry are lowered, and more portal technology options become available.

This is not a new concept for intranet portal design. In 2000 when we first began studying intranets, open source was used heavily. Not until 2008 did we see SharePoint taking a strong hold. Even that year, our 10 Intranet Design Annual winners used 41 different products for their intranet technology platforms. In our most recent (2014) Intranet Design Annual, 5 out of 10 winners used SharePoint. In our intranet behavioral-research studies, organizations used about 20 different portal-software tools. So there has never been a paucity of intranet portal technology that can produce worthwhile portals. What’s different today is that technology has advanced to a point where a fairly nontechnical team can create a highly functional portal without an advanced design team in-house.

The City of Olathe (Kansas), Canada’s Department of Transport, and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) are a few examples of organizations of varying size that chose to build their portal on a Drupal framework. These organizations saw an open-source solution and accompanying tools as more flexible and better for enough of their needs.

The thread between these organizations is that all three are related to government in some capacity. While large corporations with deft IT departments have jumped into bed with SharePoint, some government organizations say SharePoint is too much to wrangle, and so choose another path.

These successful examples demonstrate that an intranet portal does not have to be sitting on top of a giant portal-technology platform in order to be either full-featured or effective. Sometimes small is beautiful.

Sophisticated Personalization

Personalization and social tools, once optional components of the corporate intranet, are now beginning to become standard offerings, an almost expected component of any full-featured site.

As more content and applications are available on enterprise portals, the need to curate what each person sees becomes increasingly important, to prevent employees from becoming truly overwhelmed.

The team at Persistent Systems, for example, designed the company’s portal in such a way that nearly every component was role based and location aware. This wasn’t easy to achieve, as the company’s business analysts had to create a role-functionality matrix to determine an ideal homepage mix for each and every type of user based on role and location. From there, users were free to further customize their experience.

Not only was role-based personalization a high priority for the re-design, it has been received enthusiastically by users, helping them remain focused on critical action items while still giving them access to all the rest of what the portal has to offer.

Customization has also seen an uptick since the last edition of this report, but it’s customization with a targeted focus. We’ve pointed out again and again that more frivolous customization features such as colors, themes, and layouts often fail. Targeted customization features that are task oriented and streamline workflows are, however, both appreciated and well used by users.

Several organizations in this year’s report have found even simple customization features such “My” pages (My Sites, My Links, My Tools, etc.) help boost user engagement. The Carle Foundation, Resource Data, Inc. and Canada’s Department of Transport all report good results with these user-controlled features. Few organizations track the specific usage of these features, but anecdotal evidence shows that they are being used and users are asking for feature enhancements to continue to make them better.

The moral of this simple finding regarding customization is that quality tops quantity: user-controlled features are most welcome when they are focused and strategic rather than when they are abundant and overwhelming.

Applications Can Drive Enterprise Portal Adoption

In the previous edition of this report we saw some great examples of applications that were specific, targeted, and highly successful, both in their own right and also as drivers of portal usage overall. Applications attract users and keep them coming back, and companies are starting to truly understand this. Companies that create innovative, or even simple but useful tools will likely experience higher portal-adoption rates.. If the portal offers users tools to help employees get the job done, they’ll be back again and again.

When done well, even basic tools (such as skill-based employee directories) can be a key driver for user satisfaction and increased portal adoption. When key applications are aimed at managers or executives, they attract high-level eyeballs on the portal project and translate into a win for portal teams. Many enterprise portal teams use applications to draw people in. Useful, well-designed applications keep people coming back. This has been true since this report’s first edition and remains true today.

Resources Data, Inc.(RDI)’s project portal is a perfect example of a useful tool that gets users to visit the portal often. The project portal is a one-stop shop for all things project related and a space where RDI staff and client staff can view/set calendar events, check schedules, identify critical milestones, download project documents, review tasks underway and task assignees, view project-cost reports, review timesheet entries, and so on. Links allow RDI staff to jump into the marketing proposal that led to the work, the client/contact database, and other ancillary info. With all this data available in one place, the project portal has become an indispensable part of the staff workflow and so has the company’s portal.

While applications drive adoption, mobile can do so even more. Mobile can in fact be the portal’s killer app.

Mobile Enterprise Portal Optimization is Slow in Coming, But Viewed as Important

Mobile intranets and enterprise applications still don’t have nearly the penetration that mobile enjoys out in the real world. The bad news is that this disparity has never been more pronounced. A Pew Report found that 90% of all Americans have a cell phone and 58% are smartphones. Yet, only a smattering of the organizations whose case studies appear here are truly optimized for the mobile experience or offer task-specific applications to support daily work.

In the last edition of this report we wrote: “Outside the firewall, the mobile space is teeming with innovation, but inside companies, mobile progress seems to be progressing at a snail's pace.” In this edition the snail has picked up its speed to a slow trot toward mobile. We can hope that the parable of the tortoise and the hare will have some bearing on mobile intranet features and result in truly great designs in the (long-awaited) end.

The good news, however, is that those organizations that have embraced mobile as a critical piece of their enterprise portal strategy have done so with gusto, truly making mobile a core part of their portal offering, if not its centerpiece.

Persistent Systems leads the charge in this endeavor. With its most recent portal redesign the company took the mobile imperative and turned it on its head with a mobile-first design approach. Instead of designing for the desktop and adapting the portal experience for small screens, the design-team’s task analysis focused on the needs of mobile users first and let the desktop expand around the core mobile functions.

This approach resulted, obviously, in a targeted mobile experience, but had the residual effect of making the overall portal more streamlined and task focused. Other portal teams would do well to take a page from Persistent Systems’ playbook in trying to reduce portal bloat down to the essence of what users need to get things done.

Anybody wanting to launch a mobile intranet portal is advised to prioritize and optimize content for small screen and mobile use. Employees want and are beginning to expect their portals to be usable not only on desktop, but on phones with small displays and tablets. Making time- and location-dependent tasks easy on mobile devices is a good place to begin.

The key point is to start with a task analysis of users' most important tasks, and prioritize the portal layout to effectively meet users’ needs.

Some organizations are marching headlong into enterprise mobile. Most recent Intranet Design Annual winners focused on mobile optimization in some capacity, and three winners took a responsive-design approach to design and develop their intranet.

But in terms of strategy and execution, a key finding from this round of interviews is that the typical design team is not there yet — still. Many efforts toward a mobile-enterprise initiative are still “coming soon,” even now three years after our last round of research.

We fully agree with the idea of waiting until you can get it right; poor mobile designs are really miserable for users. And for enterprise use, you pay for every minute that employees waste slugging through a bad UI. Still, we advise companies to plan to make their intranets accessible and usable on mobile sooner rather than later. As employees increasingly see rapid improvements in their mobile user experience on the open Internet, they’ll demand it from their organizations as well.

User Research: A Little Bit of Everything

Many (nearly all those we interviewed for this report edition) design teams conduct user research in a regular and predictable way. Additionally, they plan to iterate and refine their portal designs as they apply the feedback from users.

The shift we are seeing is not just an increase in user research, but rather an increase in iterative cycles that involve users over and over again as the design and architecture evolves. Design teams are now employing many types of research methods, from observational research (such as usability tests), to data mining (from call logs and site metrics), to attitudinal methods (such as surveys).

The UX research feeds into tweaking the current design, and planning for a redesign. And more portal designers practice recommended iterative design by testing and redesigning wireframes prior to launching a new design.

While budgets are certainly still tight and resources still strained, teams are finding ways to fit in a little user research not just once, but all along the project continuum. Both NARA and The Carle Foundation, for example conducted numerous research activities throughout the project lifecycle. These activities included:

It’s still true that some research is better than none. But this is definitely a very low goal. Instead strive for what the portal designers in our report achieved: a little bit of research, in every phase. This is far more effective than at just one or two larger studies.

ROI: Standing Behind Softer Measures

As enterprise portals flourish and become more indispensable, the standard metric of success — return on investment (ROI) — is still not easy to measure. While some UX-related metrics such as faster task completion and higher success on tasks, are possible to measure, it rarely happens. Instead ROI continues to be measured in intangibles such as communication or satisfaction rather than dollars and cents.

But don’t be put off by the squishiness of these measures. These improvements are significant for organizations that struggle with engagement or access to information. Portals at their most basic configuration provide a unified location where employees access tools to get their jobs done, and that alone can be a huge advancement over the way things were previously done.

We always ask about ROI when we conduct our interviews and in previous years companies were sometimes sheepish about the fact that they did not measure ROI carefully or even make it one of their goals. ROI is important for gaining traction and understanding about whether what you spent was worth it, or worth more. Still, a quagmire of numbers is sometimes incredibly difficult or impossible to attain.

What’s important, regardless, is to have clear goals and some tangible way to measure improvements made toward those goals.

Read more about intranet portals in our research report, "Intranet Portals: UX Design Experience from Real-Life Projects, 5th Edition."


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