Ten Best Intranets of 2006

by Jakob Nielsen on January 23, 2006

Summary: This year, we saw increased use of multimedia, e-learning, internal blogs, and mobile access. Winning companies also encouraged consistent design by emphasizing training for content contributors.


The ten best-designed intranets for 2006 are:

  • Allianz Australia Insurance, Australia
  • ALTANA Pharma AG, Germany
  • Bank of Ireland Group, Ireland
  • Capital One, USA
  • IBM, USA
  • Merrill Lynch, USA
  • METRO Group, Germany
  • O2, UK
  • Staples, USA
  • Vodafone Group, UK

(Detailed descriptions and screenshots of the ten designs are in the full report.)

This is the first year in which a majority of the winners hail from outside the United States, underlining the continued growth of good intranet design around the world. In fact, the globalization of good intranet design is actually greater than what this simple list implies; many of the winning companies are highly multinational, with team members operating in multiple countries. At Vodafone, for example, intranet technology is managed from Germany, with development efforts occurring in California, Spain, Italy, and Egypt.

This year's winners are all large companies, with an average size of 80,000 employees. In previous years, we've always had winners with only a few hundred employees, but this year the smallest company has 3,000 employees. It might be that large companies are finally making intranet quality a high priority, and thus their more substantial resources make it harder for smaller companies to compete. One year's results, however, are insufficient to confirm such a trend.

In any case, while smaller organizations might not have the resources to implement as many features, they can apply many of the lessons learned from large companies' design efforts.

One trend from earlier years that persists is the strong showing for financial companies. This year, financial companies represent 40% of the winners, while manufacturing companies continue to be underrepresented. The possible reason for this is that financial companies have a tradition of emphasizing usability and white-collar productivity, while manufacturing companies have historically focused on physical concerns and thus have less experience in creating good screen-based designs.

Continuing Trends

One notable trend from past competitions -- to enforce a consistent look and feel across the intranet -- is even more prominent this year. Almost all winners have active programs in place to evangelize templates and design standards.

Several winning intranets have special training activities for content contributors, teaching them how to use design templates correctly and how to produce optimal intranet pages. Templates, after all, give users some leeway in applying styles and layouts. Authors therefore need training to employ templates correctly and thus maintain a consistent intranet design.

To further this goal, Bank of Ireland, for one, offers an extensive, searchable knowledge base with tips for intranet publishers. Such training support is necessary to achieve a unified intranet design. It's not enough to simply publish rules and design standards; you must teach them as well.

Another continuing trend we saw was the use of task-based information architectures, rather than IAs based on a company’s business units.

Navigation systems have become very complete, with good global and local navigation. Companies typically present navigation in the left column of a page, running utility features across the top of the page -- often with a layout similar to the typical intranet homepage. Many of the winning intranets also make excellent use of breadcrumbs to further help users orient themselves in the large information spaces found on today’s intranets.

Another earlier trend that continues to hold for many of this year's winners is the use of kiosks to allow intranet access for employees who don't work in offices. Staples even has kiosks in its stores that let employees show shoppers a special intranet version limited to information that helps facilitate sales. Conversely, the Bank of Ireland intranet contains selected Web content for branch personnel who don't have access to the public Internet from their work terminals.

Technology Diversity

As in previous years, the technology used to implement intranets shows astounding diversity. Across the ten winning companies, the teams used a total of 54 different products. Clearly, we're far from a consolidated market in which one or two dominant providers offer everything you need. Instead, intranet teams must stitch together their own solutions with multiple parts from multiple vendors. In fact, 40% of the winners had to custom build their own content management systems (CMS).

This year's most-used products were Apache, Autonomy, BEA Portal, EMC Documentum, IBM WebSphere, J2EE, Lotus Domino and Lotus Notes, Lucene search engine, Microsoft SQL, Oracle database, Verity, and various versions of Windows servers.

Multimedia

Most of this year's winners make significant use of video on their intranets, taking advantage of the high bandwidths usually found on corporate networks. Vodafone probably has the most extensive integration of video, with a special Vodafone TV area featuring video from a global team of correspondents.

Poorly used, intranet videos can substantially reduce productivity. It's important, for example, to correctly set users' expectations so that they only click through to videos they actually want to see. Merrill Lynch links to videos through a highly effective gateway page that offers a concise summary of the video's event, along with information about the featured speakers. The time required to write such pages is nothing compared to the time it can save thousands of employees.

Multimedia doesn't have to entail video; simpler media types also have their place. For example, IBM's employee directory includes audio files with the pronunciation of people's names -- a particularly useful feature in a multinational company.

Web Trends on Intranets

In addition to increased video use, we see many other general Web trends migrating to the intranet realm. This makes sense, since most employees use websites for business or in their private lives. Thus, they often come to expect or even demand specific features or design approaches commonly found on the Web.

A striking example of this is ALTANA's system for ordering supplies. The system uses a full-fledged e-commerce metaphor, complete with shopping cart. People are accustomed to picking products in a certain way -- why not leverage this knowledge by designing a feature they already know how to use? Another good example is the IBM intranet's extensive use of weblogs, including a powerful dashboard interface that lets users monitor other blogs, as well as follow-ups to their own postings and comments. Despite considerable Web hype, however, we're not seeing much business blogging in most companies.

More targeted, task-related tools tend to work better. Staples, for example, offers a blog-like feature where store managers inform each other about their progress in preparing for advertised sales offers. But, rather than offer this feature in a separate community area, Staples has a simple notepad-like annotation field in the intranet area where managers view the advertising circulars. These are just-in-time, just-in-place notes -- just for this one crucial task.

Finally, we spotted a contra-trend: the first good use of overlay graphics (where an image appears on top of the content). On the Web, this is one of the most annoying and repellant advertising techniques. Nonetheless, Allianz Australia effectively uses overlays to highlight and explain useful new intranet features. Of course, we usually caution against using techniques associated with hated Web design approaches. Do so only with extreme care and only when you're sure that the intranet's special circumstances allow the technique to add value.

Mobile Access

Although mobile intranet is not yet widespread, several of this year's winners support mobile features. O2 has a special mobile edition of its intranet that's optimized for the BlackBerry and strips the homepage down to a few of its most useful links. O2 also nicely integrates the employee directory with mobile features, for example by allowing users to send an SMS with someone's contact information from the directory to their cell phone.

Vodafone -- the other telecommunications carrier among this year's winners -- also offers extensive mobile access to its intranet, with simplified pages for smartphones. Its mobile intranet scales back content services, using fewer headlines so users can scan news listings on a smaller screen. Important applications, including the employee directory, have special user interfaces optimized for mobile access.

These mobile-oriented screens drive home the fact that mobile devices and networks have evolved to the point where they can be extremely useful for business people when they're away from the office. Mobile devices are no longer just phones; they're also intranet extensions -- at least when the intranet has features designed for smaller screens. This trend toward offering intranet access from mobile devices will surely continue as an understanding of the concept's value extends beyond the telecommunications companies that are currently leading the way (because of their early aptitudes and interest in mobile technologies).

Training And E-Learning

Another trend this year was an increased use of training areas on intranets. The best designs often locate traditional training options and e-learning in one area. After all, from a user's perspective, what's important is learning -- regardless of whether it takes place online or in a classroom. Many intranets also offer special training areas to help new employees learn about their new companies.

The METRO Group has a particularly extensive set of e-learning features to educate its more than 250,000 employees about the ever-changing retail industry. Many tutorials are presented as interactive Flash animations, with a single interface integrating text, images, and moving images, plus simple controls to pace the presentation.

Enhancing e-learning user interface controls in this manner is important: people often feel disoriented or frustrated when tutorials take over their screens and don't allow them the freedoms normally inherent in the Web (and intranet) user experiences.

A notable example of a unique e-learning feature is METRO Group's Knowledge Quest game, which teaches employees advanced retailing concepts. While games are not common on intranets, they do have their place in e-learning, since they can increase learners' motivation by adding an element of fun.

On the topic of fun, it's worth mentioning the O2 Fun Zone , which lets employees download ringtones -- one of O2's most important products. While not an e-learning feature per se, it does encourage employees to gain more first-hand experience with ringtone use. The O2 Fun Zone also lets employees send each other company-branded e-cards -- featuring such things as holiday, birthday, and get-well wishes -- which enhances a sense of community.

ROI and Expected Use

IBM dubbed its employee directory BluePages in reference to the company's "Big Blue" nickname. BluePages is one of the most impressive staff directories we've ever seen (and we've seen hundreds). The design team estimates that the redesign of this killer app saves employees 72 minutes per month. Likewise, IBM's redesign of its managers' area is estimated to save each manager 42 minutes per month -- a particularly important accomplishment given the higher salaries for this user group.

Given IBM’s size, the productivity gains from improving the intranet's design translate into huge amounts of money. BluePages alone is estimated to save IBM $194 million per year. Of course, smaller companies wouldn't realize quite such large savings, but it's certainly realistic to save an hour or more per employee per month when an intranet is redesigned for usability. At typical, fully loaded hourly rates, this often results in approximate savings of $1,000 per year for each employee -- a cool million for a mid-sized company with a thousand employees.

In general, too few intranets perform careful studies of productivity improvements, and thus rarely have hard ROI numbers. This was true for most of this year's winners. It's more common to measure an intranet's increased use and then say, "If people use it more, it must be better."

On that front, across all winners this year, intranet page views increased an average of 106% after redesign. These are obviously winning designs; in general, it's more realistic to expect intranet use to increase by slightly less than 100% after a redesign for increased usability.

Even so, you can realize even greater usage increases with more specialized applications simply by making them easier to access. For example, Staples has a "profit improvement culture" program for employees to contribute suggestions for making the company more profitable by cutting costs, improving processes, and so on. When the company placed this submission process on the intranet, the number of employee suggestions tripled. Staples estimates it has saved $200 million based on the ideas generated through this program.

Another way of looking at an intranet's success is to measure the proportion of employees who use the intranet. Among the winners, employee use of the intranet ranges from 75% to 99%. Obviously, the exact percentage of employees who use an intranet will depend on the types of jobs they perform. Office staff and knowledge workers tend to use intranet features more frequently than people who work on a factory floor or process transactions. In general, though, you should aim for at least 75% use overall. If less than half of your office-based employees use the intranet, then you probably have a usability disaster on your hands.

Usability Methodology and Design Process

Approaches to intranet design are stabilizing: new designs stay usable longer. On average, this year's winners let 33 months pass between intranet redesigns, up from 29 months for last year's winners. The redesign projects for this year's winners took an average of ten months, which is fairly speedy.

Despite such rapid design processes, redesign teams are nevertheless finding time for more user research. In looking across six years of design annuals, usability activities are clearly increasing. The following figure shows a comparison between the first three years and the last three years in terms of how often intranet projects employed usability methods:

Chart of how many winning intranet projects used various usability engineering methods, comparing averages for 2001-2003 with 2004-2006. There was no use of accessibility testing in the first three-year period, whereas 15% of projects employed this method in the second period.
Proportion of winning intranet projects that employed some of the main usability methods.

All methods show increased use, though heuristic evaluation has especially grown. This makes sense, because this method relies on evaluating a user interface relative to a known set of usability principles (the "heuristics"). In the early years of intranets, there were no documented intranet usability findings, which made it difficult to use this method. Now, however, intranet designers have access to well-documented user research and systematized knowledge about intranet usability, and they can apply this knowledge to judge their own designs.

Accessibility is still not a major concern for most intranets. This year, however, we saw many intranet designs that consider users with disabilities and include some accessibility features. Although very few projects went so far as to conduct actual accessibility testing with disabled users, several projects follow basic accessibility guidelines, such as avoiding frozen font sizes.

This increased attention to accessibility might be related to the larger size, on average, of this year's winning companies. The larger the company, the more employees with disabilities, and thus the greater the payoff from making the intranet accessible. Larger companies are also likely to have more older employees , who often need special usability accommodations as well.

Intranet Branding

It's an eternal question: Should you give your intranet a special brand name? Among our earlier winners, opinions have been almost evenly split: 59% of intranets were branded, and 41% were simply called "the intranet." This year, however, branding took a major upswing: 80% of the winners use it.

This year's intranet names include: in site, My One Place, On Demand Workplace (ODW), WorldNet, Networking, vitalO2, Staples@work, and vista.

One year is hardly a trend, particularly since only 50% of last year's winners were branded. Also, a great design with no name will beat a crummy intranet with a snazzy name anytime. Consistency in design and page layout does more to brand the intranet than any name.

Finally, there's no need to overdo the branding: intranets are for internal use, and you're not competing against fifty other intranets. We've seen many intranets that overflow with advertising for different business units, or even for the intranet itself. Such heavy promotions backfire. In the best case, users simply ignore them; in the worst case, they drastically reduce user productivity.

Full Report

Our 287-page Intranet Design Annual with 193 screenshots  of the ten winners for 2006 is available for download.

See also: This year's Intranet Design Annual


Share this article: Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+ | Email