Summary: The average mid-sized company could gain $5 million per year in employee productivity by improving its intranet design to the top quartile level of a cross-company intranet usability study. The return on investment? One thousand percent or more.
We have conducted an international study of intranet usability, running user tests with employees in 14 companies to learn what worked and what didn't in a wide range of intranet designs. We conducted 10 of the studies in the United States, 3 in Europe, and 1 in Asia. This may be the most comprehensive intranet usability research ever performed.
Executive Support and Budget
In our study, we found that a lack of good management support for intranets had a great impact on quality. In particular, companies with ailing intranet usability rarely had a well-funded central intranet group with clear ownership of the design. Instead, they typically had many intranets that were not unified by a single navigation system with a single starting point.
When interviewing intranet designers, our sense was that intranets were often given lower priority than the corporate website. With all due respect for customer-facing design, the idea that it's a promotion to be transferred from the intranet to the dot-com team hurts company productivity.
Productivity was also injured by an overemphasis on branding at some companies. People already work at the company; there is no need to sell them or hype up features. In particular, usability was always best when features had plain, descriptive labels rather than catchy, made-up names. On the positive side, visual design was typically clean and restrained, without the excesses often found on public websites.
Intranet teams can only accomplish so much through heroic efforts. Management must give them the budget to buy necessary software, to develop design standards and conduct usability studies, and to write content and implement tools that help employees increase their productivity. Intranet teams must also have the authority to enforce design standards and ensure a unified intranet.
One of our positive findings was the wide availability of search. Not all intranets provided a search box on every page — which we recommend — but they all had search in some form.
Poor search was the greatest single cause of reduced usability across intranets we have seen, aside from the general lack of executive support and budget. Search usability accounted for an estimated 43% of the difference in employee productivity between intranets with high and low usability.
Deficiencies in all main aspects of search usability created problems for users:
- Some search features didn't index all the intranet's pages; on other sites, users had to rely on two different searches to cover everything.
- Search results were poorly prioritized, and we rarely found the recommended "best bets" feature, which calls out particularly salient hits at the top of the list.
- Page titles were poorly written, and thus users could not quickly scan a search results list to pick out items of interest.
- Page summaries were sometimes even worse than the titles, and failed to accurately summarize the content of each search hit.
Improved search usability requires two basic initiatives: (1) Invest in a good search engine that compiles a unified index of the entire intranet and prioritizes search results appropriately. (2) Educate all content contributors on the importance of page titles and summaries, and train them to write for online readers, who typically scan search lists.
Some intranets made an excellent effort, providing mostly consistent page appearance and navigation across the intranet. But, for many intranets, lack of consistent navigation was a big issue. Users had difficulties using the inconsistent designs and the drastically changing look-and-feel of different department pages. A small, persistent set of global navigation controls was helpful when available, as were breadcrumbs.
Many of the oldest recommendations for Web usability turned up again in the intranet study: links and buttons must be highly visible for clickability, and links should be color-coded to indicate when they lead to pages that the user has already visited. Violations of these two guidelines caused substantial navigational confusion; users overlooked choices or went in circles because they couldn't see where they'd been before.
Intranet navigation should serve a dual purpose: First, and most important, it should support task performance and give users access to tools and content. Employees should not have to know which department supports which features, nor should they have to navigate according to the organizational chart. Second, because people sometimes do need information about departments and company organization, you should provide navigation via an org chart as well.
In particular, information about departments such as human resources and IT should be segregated from the task-oriented information they provide employees. Users should be able to find the HR and IT tools they need in a task-based information architecture that resides outside the department hierarchy.
Search and navigation exist for one reason: to help users find content. Many intranets were good at providing updated news about the company. This feature is helpful in overcoming a key intranet usability issue: getting employees to use the intranet in the first place. Most intranets, however, were substantially less successful at dealing with old news, archiving it, and integrating it with the main intranet areas.
To ensure a steady supply of good intranet content, make it easy for employees to add and update content. Department-level pages and employees' personal pages contribute much more value to the intranet when they are kept up-to-date, but since few people have intranet content provision as their main job description, good content will only happen if providing it is easy and fast.
Special mention must be reserved for a single, simple design mistake that caused huge usability problems for the users in our study: unconverted PDF files. These files were especially troublesome when they were used to post an entire employee handbook or other massive document on the intranet in a single unnavigable and overwhelming mass.
PDF is great for printing. And it's fine to have printable documents available on the intranet, which saves distribution costs and gives employees instant access to print out whatever they need. But don't take the lazy way out and just stick a PDF handbook on the intranet; give users other options for accessing the information as well. Search, navigation, and online reading are all enhanced when you convert content into well-designed intranet pages, each containing a meaningful chunk of information about a specific topic with cross-reference links to related material.
Productivity and Return on Investment
We measured users' task performance for sixteen common employee tasks across the fourteen intranets. As one might expect, usability varied widely, and some designs supported much faster performance than others.
When salaries and overhead costs were taken into account, we calculated that a company with one of the least usable designs in our study would spend $3,042 per employee annually to cover time spent on the sixteen tasks we measured.
In contrast, the average company would spend $2,069 per employee per year, and a company that was among the best in usability would spend $1,563.
The total annual cost of intranet use can be estimated by multiplying by the number of employees. For companies with 10,000 intranet users, the annual costs are as follows:
- High usability (among the best 25%): $15.6 million
- Average usability: $20.7 million
- Low usability (among the worst 25%): $30.4 million
Clearly, the biggest productivity gains are found by moving a company with bad intranet usability to a design with average usability. But the gains for improving from average to good usability are significant as well.
Intranets typically support mission-critical applications and other specialized tasks that differ between companies and cannot be included in a cross-company comparison. We assume that these company-specific tasks account for the same amount of intranet usage as the sixteen general tasks we studied. Thus, the full costs are likely twice as big as the ones listed in the table.
To improve intranet quality, a company with 10,000 users would have to invest about $500,000 in usability. Thus, the return on investment for intranet usability ranges from a factor of 20 (for a company that starts out low and moves to average) to a factor of 10 (for a company that starts out average and moves to high).
Impact on World Economy
If we improved all the intranets in the world to the usability level achieved by the best 25% in our study, the world economy would save $311,294,070,513 per year for the sixteen test tasks alone. Adding the likely savings from company-specific tasks leads us to an estimated $600 billion in total annual productivity improvements. This level of intranet productivity is a modest goal; we could realistically achieve it with an investment of about $31 billion per year in intranet usability.
Assuming further usability improvements — up to the very best level we found for each study task — could save the world economy $1.3 trillion per year when we include estimated improvements in company-specific tasks.
For more info, see the detailed report from our intranet user research, with hundreds of UX design guidelines. Note that the current edition of the report has been much revised, based on subsequent research at many more companies than those covered in the present article.