Intranet Users Stuck at Low Productivity

by Jakob Nielsen on December 3, 2012

Summary: Although intranet design is improving, it hasn't kept pace with increased complexity in enterprise requirements, so measured usability is down slightly.

Our latest user research of intranets paints a sorry picture of enterprise computing: we recorded marginally worse levels of measured usability than we found in our first intranet study 10 years ago.

Employees' average success rate when attempting basic intranet tasks:

  • 10 years ago: 75%
  • Now: 74%

By comparison, today's average success rate on public websites is around 80%. Website usability has improved dramatically over the past decade, so the full story is:

  • 10 years ago: intranets better than websites
  • Now: intranets worse than websites

In theory, intranets ought to have higher usability than websites for several reasons:

  • You have full control over the environment.
  • You know exactly who the users are—basically, the people in the next office—as well as all of their characteristics. Field studies are as easy as knocking on those doors next door, which also gives you all the data you need to build accurate personas for all major user groups. (Our research report describes 7 personas that cover the various intranet user types we observed in the field, but any given company would probably need fewer personas.)
  • Any usability improvements fall directly on your company's bottom line because you're paying for the users' time while they're using the intranet. Thus, the ROI case is very clear. ( E-commerce usabilit  has an even clearer ROI case because it causes increased earnings. However, a million saved is a million earned, so ROI from cost savings should be as good.)

Why Intranets Have Worse Usability

It is definitely not the case that today's intranets have worse design than intranets 10 years ago. When you compare the screenshots from our first study with the new screenshots, and there's no contest. Newer intranet screenshots not only look better, but (more important) they also hew more closely to recommended guidelines for usable design and have superior features.

Better design, worse usability—how can that be? The main reason is that the problems that intranets aim to solve have grown dramatically more complex. Modern intranets have vastly more features now than early intranets. As features increase, the requirements for helping users find their way around the intranet become much stricter.

Usability is a matter of the measured user experience—that is, the time it takes an average employee to perform a task. For example, the average time to find information about the head of a group or department was 2:19 (minutes:seconds) in our 1st research round and 2:46 in our 3rd research round. In other words, it takes 27 seconds more to do the same work today as it did 10 years ago.

Although half-a-minute slower performance on a single task isn't a usability disaster, the real problem comes when we scale the individual measurements up to the enterprise level. Multiply each individual task with the number of things people do on the intranet every year, and further multiply this result by the number of employees using the intranet. Such productivity calculations often show the equivalent of many full-time employee years lost to suboptimal intranet design.

Today, employees can do more with the intranet, but that added power comes with the penalty of additional task time and less hope of successful completion—unless, of course, the design emphasizes ease of use in addition to pure features.

A second reason intranet usability has not kept up with intranet features is the increasing reliance on out-of-the-box design from packaged intranet solutions. Having studied the winners of many years' Intranet Design Annuals, it's clear that great intranet design requires companies to modify packaged solutions to suit their specific needs.

The default user interface will do you no good. Although it's nice to use packaged software instead of coding everything yourself, the user experience remains your responsibility, and you must design a user interface that goes beyond the default settings. Otherwise, employees will likely get lost and waste time trying to get things done using an all-purpose intranet design. (From a usability perspective, an all-purpose design is really a no-purpose design because it doesn't offer users sufficient support.)

User Research: How Company Employees Actually Use Intranets

Our newest study is actually the third time we've conducted a wide-ranging series of usability research with a wide variety of corporate intranets. In total, across the 3 research rounds, we've tested 42 different organizations' intranets:

  • 30 in the U.S.;
  • 1 in Canada;
  • 10 in Europe (5 in the U.K., 1 in Finland, and 2 each in The Netherlands and Switzerland); and
  • 2 in Asia (Hong Kong and United Arab Emirates).

(There were 43 locations because we tested one multinational company's intranet on two different continents to assess international usability.) We also conducted observational field studies—sometimes called ethnographies —at 19 different sites.

Of the test users, 71% used the intranet every day and the rest used it less frequently. Although you might assume that the daily users would be expert intranet users, we found this not to be the case. Indeed, people mainly worked with only one or two features, such as using the employee directory to look up phone numbers or reading news items on the homepage.

All of this research supports two key points:

  • We know how real employees who work in a range of departments actually use intranet features, and which design elements help or hinder user productivity in the work environment.
  • We can generalize these insights across companies, industries, countries, and languages. Although every company has its own quirks, there are also many commonalities. However, designers who are limited to working on a single intranet typically lack access to data from other companies' intranets.

Higher Requirements for Intranet Usability

Although admittedly a simplistic metric, one way to estimate requirements for intranet usability is to count the number of guidelines derived from user research:

  • 111 design guidelines in the first edition of our intranet usability report, which was published 10 years ago; and
  • 782 design guidelines in the third edition, which we've just published.

This doesn't quite mean that intranet usability is 7 times as hard to achieve these days. But there's no doubt that intranet designers must consider many more usability issues arising from the myriad features required by today's enterprise environment.

Other Findings

In our past studies, 40% of intranet teams said they didn't have enough people to do the work. Today, "only" 32% of intranet teams feel understaffed; although the situation has improved, many intranets remain underfunded relative to their impact on productivity across the corporation.

Based on time-on-task metrics from our recent study, a company with 10,000 employees can save $4 million per year by going from bad intranet usability (defined as being among the worst 25% we tested) to average intranet usability. In contrast, improving an intranet with average usability to the usability level of the best 25% of intranets yields only about $1 million per year.

Essentially, bad intranets are really bad. And it shows in lost employee productivity every day.

Full Report

1,505-page report series with Intranet Usability Guidelines: 782 guidelines and 938 screenshots of the intranets we tested.

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