Monday, January 29, 2007

Five ways to identify intranet usability issues

Many intranets are under-used. Intranet managers lament the low use and discuss how to get staff to 'use the intranet more', resulting in marketing and promotions activities to increase use.

Marketing and promotion activities are wasted however, if staff return to the intranet and find that it doesn't help them to do what they need. Before telling staff why the intranet is useful for them, make sure that it is both useful and usable.

Intranet teams should assign part of their workload and budget to improving the usability of the intranet and actively investigate intranet usability issues.

This article provides five techniques to identify likely usability problems in your intranet. Some techniques provide indications about where the main problems lie, others provide concrete evidence. Each technique can be used alone, or in combination to give you a rich picture of usability issues.

1. Stakeholder interviews

Stakeholder interviews involve one-on-one discussions with staff to identify key knowledge needs, gain an understanding of issues, and uncover problems. They are generally used in the early stages of projects when gathering requirements. For an intranet project, they help to identify how an intranet may assist staff by discussing information use, need and sharing.

Stakeholder interviews are generally not used to identify usability issues, but the technique can be varied to do so.

To identify usability issues using stakeholder interviews, the interview should be conducted in the environment where the intranet is used – usually at the staff member's desk. The interview should discuss what the staff member's job involves and how they currently use the intranet (or don't use it) to support their work.

The key question to ask during the interviews is "show me". Get staff to show you how they look up contact details in the staff directory, how they find important policies, how they check the news and other tasks that they frequently use the intranet for. If staff tell you that they had difficulty finding information or doing a task, ask them to show you again.

You will be surprised at the way people use the intranet. In particular, you may learn about:

  • work-arounds for tasks
  • different paths staff follow to information
  • parts of the screen or information that staff miss
  • areas of the intranet that staff don't understand
  • sections of the intranet that staff don't know exist

You will also see how staff have their computer set up and how they use technology (including any assistive technology).

An advantage of using this technique over others in this article is that you are able to explore a wide range of tasks that staff attempt. Another advantage is that, if you do not know what staff are attempting with the intranet, you gain a better understanding of staff information needs.

A disadvantage is that each staff member may show you different tasks, so you may not see any consistency in the usability issues.

2. Walking through scenarios

This technique involves preparing an extensive set of scenarios, and then attempting to complete them yourself (or with your team). The goal is to gain an understanding of what staff experience when using the intranet.

For this technique, a scenario is a short story describing a task that staff attempt on your intranet. It may be something short that staff undertake frequently or something longer involving the intranet as just one part of the overall task. For example:

  • Find the phone number of someone in personnel to contact about leave arrangements.
  • Joe needs to travel to Perth next week for work. He hasn't travelled to Perth before, but has travelled to other capital cities. He knows that he first needs to fill in the travel approval form and have it signed. He also needs to book a flight to get him there for a 9am meeting, book a hotel close to the office and pick up cabcharge vouchers.

A pre-requisite for this technique is a good set of scenarios. If you don't have a good understanding of what staff need to do on the intranet, you can run some stakeholder interviews (discussed above) or undertake some task analyses. Task analysis involves walking through individual tasks with staff and identifying all of the components and activities that make up the task (intranet and non-intranet).

When you are writing scenarios, make sure that they fully describe a task that staff attempt, not just the part that involves the intranet. It is helpful to think about why someone would be trying to find information, and what else they are interacting with. It is also useful to write scenarios without looking at the intranet – this helps to write them neutrally without details of the current implementation. Ask someone to read through the scenarios to make sure you cover the task well.

When you have the list of scenarios, walk through them yourself or with a team. While doing so, pay attention to the decisions you make and the reasons for your decisions. For example, if you choose a particular navigation item because you already know that the information you need is there, think about what the item is and whether you would choose it without that knowledge. Look at the information available at each point and see if it supports the scenario and helps you to achieve it.

If the scenarios contain complex tasks, you may find that for some you need to visit a range of places in the intranet – this may help you to identify areas of content that would be better grouped together.

It is useful to see whether you can achieve each scenario in a number of ways. For example, by navigating, using the search engine or using an A-Z list.

The main advantage of this technique is that it allows you to see how staff may be experiencing the intranet. At the end of the process, you will also have a solid list of scenarios describing use of the intranet.

The disadvantage of this technique is that you may have too much existing knowledge about the intranet for this to work or that you use the intranet very differently to staff.

3. Review existing data

You may already have data that can provide insight into usability issues. For example, you may have:

  • search logs
  • feedback
  • help desk requests

Search logs

Search logs provide data on the terms users are typing into the search engine on the intranet. Search logs are always interesting – they clearly show the main items that staff are looking for on the intranet and there are usually a set of queries that are consistently popular.

Search log data needs to be interpreted carefully as staff use search facilities for many reasons (not just for information they can't find). For example, staff may be using the search engine because they can't determine where to go using the navigation or because they know exactly what they are looking for, and expect the search engine to get them to it quickly.

You can use the information from the search logs:

  • as input when writing scenarios for a walk-through (technique 2) or a usability evaluation (technique 4)
  • to improve results displayed (by identifying the 'best' pages and ensuring they are high in the result list)
  • to create a list of 'quicklinks' on a home page
  • to identify information that staff are looking for that does not exist and arrange for content to be created


If you collect feedback from staff in a structured way, perhaps by the use of a feedback form on the intranet, you may have a rich source of information about usability issues. Take some time to analyse this information and look for consistent patterns in questions asked or comments made.

Help desk requests

Help desks can be an amazing source of information about the intranet and other business systems. Help desk operators have a good understanding of tasks that staff find difficult.

Arrange to discuss the intranet with help desk staff regularly. Talk about the types of issues that are occurring and what impact changes have had on the types of questions asked. Don't only talk about the existing intranet, but also about how the intranet could help staff in the future.

For example, you may be able to create some quick reference pages for common queries. The help desk officers can send staff to the quick reference pages, increasing use of the intranet and helping staff see that it is a useful source of information.

Most help desks have a job tracking system with a database of queries. Analyse this in the same way as feedback, looking for patterns in staff questions.

Language and labelling

All of these information sources provide details on the language that staff use and the way they describe what they are looking for. For example many staff talk about 'personnel', 'HR' and 'training', even when the organisation no longer uses these labels.

If the language that staff use does not match how you describe content on the intranet, chances are that they are not finding the information they need. You can use this information to improve your labelling and content.

4. Usability evaluation

The best way to identify usability issues is by undertaking a usability evaluation. This involves observing staff attempting tasks using the intranet. The main elements include:
  • determine what you need to achieve out of an evaluation
  • prepare a set of scenarios to evaluate
  • recruit participants
  • observe the participants attempting the scenarios
  • note what happens
  • analyse what happens and do something about it

The key differences between a usability evaluation and stakeholder interviews as described in technique 1 is that the usability evaluation:

  • has all participants working through the same set of scenarios
  • provides more consistency in issues identified
  • can provide measures of success and other metrics

For a successful usability evaluation:

  • scenarios need to be realistic and represent core tasks that users undertake (scenarios can be developed in the same way as in technique 2)
  • a wide range of scenarios may be necessary to evaluate core tasks undertaken on the intranet
  • participants in the evaluation should be representative of your user group
  • you may need to videotape the usability evaluation for thorough analysis

If your team has not conducted usability evaluations in the past, it is worthwhile undertaking the first evaluation with a usability professional or attending usability evaluation training. The benefit of this is not only to learn how to run the evaluation, but also how to determine what a usability issue is.

Some usability issues that may occur include:

  • staff cannot find the information they are looking for
  • staff do not see something that is on the screen that would help them
  • staff are 'lost' – not sure how to get back to a previous step or do not know where they are located in the intranet
  • staff cannot determine whether information is accurate
  • staff cannot use the elements of the screen (e.g. staff may have difficulty using navigation elements, clicking the 'search' button, or getting the cursor into the search box)

It is important to look for repeated behaviour – if a problem occurs for one person it may not be worth following up, but if 3 or 4 people have the same problem, it is worth investigating further. During the evaluation, look for 'a- ha!' moments, but also think about underlying issues and what has caused the problem

5. Expert review

An expert review is an inexpensive technique involving an assessment of your intranet against a set of heuristics to identify likely usability issues. Heuristics are 'rules of thumb', guidelines or best practice that the reviewer uses.

The 'expert' should have experience in both human-computer interaction and intranets (although it is difficult to find people who have significant experience in both of these areas). An expert reviews will not identify all usability issues, but will provide suggestions for further exploration via a usability evaluation.

As it is difficult to do an expert review of your own intranet without bias, the expert involved may be:

  • a consultant with experience in intranets
  • a colleague on your internet team (if there is a separate team)
  • an intranet manager from another organisation

Friday, January 26, 2007

Content Services Connecting Information and Profitability

For the last two weeks I have been using the intranet at Harvard Business School every day. You probably would not realize how much school has changed. The computer in my dorm room is on all day, so I can see my personal daily and weekly schedule online, linked to all my course assignments and scheduling information. By assignments, I mean HTML pages with questions, reading materials, company Web sites, links to stock and analytical information, plus video clips of interviews and case studies, all served dynamically from a database. Instructor emails update students the evening prior to class, and all students share class notes via email.

Alden Globe, email to a friend from Harvard Business School, July 1999

Harvard Business School (HBS) spends about 10 percent of its revenue on the school's intranet, which students use for course preparation, research, class calendars, messaging, and more. The system serves up 5,000 video sessions per day showing clips related to HBS case studies, and electronic documents are now the official versions of record. Once, during a presentation, a student asked Dean Kim Clark to talk about return on the HBS intranet investment. Without hesitation he answered, "We needed to make this investment or face going out of business. The return is infinite; it's a question of the continuing relevance of this institution."

Dean Clark's understanding of his intranet differs from that of many senior-level managers in large- and medium-sized organizations. For most, intranets and their content are mere utilities—nice-to-have tools that make it a little more convenient to share information throughout the organization. We doubt that, if asked, they could name the most frequently accessed documents; they certainly wouldn't be able to name the content that should be there but isn't; and they typically aren't frequent intranet users. The reasons are many, but the difference between Dean Clark's strategic view and others' less-than-strategic view has to do with the role content plays in the respective enterprises.

As an academic institution, HBS is all about the production and circulation of information and knowledge, which is largely what academic institutions do. Their business is creating knowledge and passing it on to students and other constituencies, and thus the ability to catalog that information and make it easy to access is an essential competency that ensures the "continuing relevance of this institution," as Dean Clark says.

Organizations like HBS are pioneering new ways of combining content and technology. For them, content isn't merely incidental to the operations of the enterprise but is rather a key asset that must be managed at least as well as other businesses manage land, labor, money, and capital equipment. These organizations have adopted new technologies along with disciplines formerly considered beyond the scope of business management. Library sciences, taxonomy development, and corporate journalism have emerged as necessary skills to help content-centric enterprises gain better control over their content.

But what organization doesn't have content that plays a vital role in its operations? All companies produce content—documents, spreadsheets, videos, charts, graphs, and so forth—some of it absolutely essential and some incidental. Accordingly, every business can learn important lessons from the content-centric companies. Finding the important content and managing it as a corporate asset can drive significant efficiencies throughout any operation.

Content as Asset

The experience that customers, employees, investors, and partners have of your company comes largely from the content on your intranet, extranet, and public Web site. Knowing what content is truly valuable is the starting point for deciding what technology you need. On thing is certain: Buying a search engine and a corporate portal doesn't automatically give your intranet and extranet users a MyYahoo!-style experience.

The fallacy here is that the technology creates the solution. Companies don't realize that the technology driving MyYahoo! is only a small fraction of its power. The real muscle is the 3,000 people behind the scenes ensuring that you have quality content to personalize, browse, and search. They maintain a taxonomy—entertainment, financial news, tech news, and the like—that is relentlessly adhered to by authors and publishers. Anything published must fit into these categories so that you can subscribe to it and search through archives. If MyYahoo! were simply a technology operation, it would have failed long ago.

The lesson here is straightforward: The management of enterprise content will fail unless it is intimately linked to business strategy. Without this connection, you won't have the sustained involvement and sponsorship necessary to make these initiatives successful and you won't be able to measure their results.

Let's take HBS as an instructive example. When Dean Clark talks about the intranet as an essential asset that ensures "the continuing relevance of this institution," he can't mean the technology alone—if the intranet delivered the wrong course schedules, the wrong assignments, and the wrong case studies, it would be useless. Rather, he means the combined power of quality content and intranet technology. In this sense, technology is the easy part. Adapting formerly paper-based processes to it is the real challenge, and it can be successful only insofar as it is a key part of the organization's strategic direction. At issue for Dean Clark is improving and extending the quality of the most important process to the institution: the creation and transfer of knowledge between instructors and students. This transfer occurs most intensely in the classroom itself, but efficiency in the classroom comes from the preparation that takes place before the students arrive there. For that reason, the intranet is designed to improve the classroom experience by improving the students' ability to prepare for it, and this purpose drives its organization. Course assignments and case studies are easy to find; the student's individual schedule is personalized and served up automatically. Students handle administrative tasks online, which minimizes the need to stand in lines that take away from time spent learning.

The Content of Relationships

Another important issue in this example is how content influences nearly all facets of a student's relationship to HBS. The PC is on in his dorm room all day because it is the primary device for managing this relationship. The student experiences HBS in large part as streaming content—between him and his peers, his instructors, research archives, and administrators.

For example, collaboration occurs via email in many instances, such as sharing class notes and preparing presentation materials, and even when the collaboration is face to face it usually involves an official HBS case study. Students, in other words, don't collaborate absent of context. Rather, they have assignments, often consisting of HTML pages and links to Web sites and video clips, that serve as the basis for interaction with instructors. All of this is managed by HBS to make the classroom experience more productive.

Even on the administrative side, course schedules and other paperwork necessary to a student at HBS are handled online. Why spend time at the registrar's office if you can handle these administrative tasks from your desktop PC? The effect is more time spent on education and less on bureaucracy.

The HBS example illustrates some very important points about managing content:

  • Enterprise content mediates most relationships between people and organizations. Even when the interaction is face to face, some form of content is driving or supporting it.

  • Content is valuable in relation to strategy. HBS's purpose is to facilitate knowledge transfer among its students and professors. The intranet serves that purpose by minimizing administrative time and maximizing the students' ability to prepare for classes.

  • The quality of the content significantly enriches the students' (and the instructors') academic experience.

HBS's intranet is a good example of an asset-based approach to enterprise content management. It is essential to an organizational strategy that maps directly to the central purpose of the institution: the creation and transfer of knowledge.

Understanding how content can facilitate business strategy is the starting point for treating it as an asset. Content can include structured data in data warehouses, unstructured data (documents and presentations), and tacit knowledge (as defined in the Preface) in the heads of experts. It also includes methods for searching, delivering, and publishing this information. Giving consistent access to content to your key audiences is essential to managing your brand because it affects the experience these groups have with your company. In that light, it should be easy to see that the return on investment (ROI) of enterprise content management is tied to the success factors of your department, workgroup, division, and enterprise.

Creating Relationships through Content

Say an employee has devised a process change that leads to a 30 percent reduction in product defects. It is a fairly complex change, so he writes up a white paper and sends it to his colleagues across the globe. All agree that a workgroup for creating and sharing information would be a good idea. While the employee and his colleagues have never met face to face, this workgroup interaction yields several ways to reduce defects by another 15 percent.

Or say a group of healthcare customers for a complex software system has formed an independent users group. They hold annual meetings in Atlanta, but most of their interaction is via a Web site where they share tips and tricks for getting more out of the software they have purchased. This interaction has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in support costs across all the participating companies.

Top 10 Intranet Deployment Considerations

ntranets are all the rage these days for several good reasons. First, they unify multi-site operations, while simplifying and improving the quality of inter-departmental communications. Second, the collaborative computing provided through intranet and (typically free) browser technology is far less expensive than the $150-plus per desktop spent to implement proprietary-by-comparison Lotus Notes from IBM. Third, intranets are easy to use.

However, intranets are not The Internet. Creating an Internet web site is one thing; creating an intranet is something else. Not entirely different, but definitely with its own gotchas—even though most organizations already have a network infrastructure in place. Here are some steps to consider.

1 Gain executive sponsorship

By definition, the intranet is an enterprise-wide system. By extension, it affects the entire enterprise—from information technology (IT) architecture and purchases to the design of electronic documents, from employee and corporate communications to collaborative work, from the display of confidential information to the posting of the latest joke off of the Internet.

Such importance demands the commitment of senior management to the funding, implementation, standardization, and use of the intranet from the very start. Without this, the intranet is doomed to failure.

2 Establish a project team

A project team helps crystallize the stated objective for the intranet, initiates and oversees publishing standards, evaluates and specifies intranet tools and applications, and provides the change management consulting that typically accompanies any change in organizational dynamics.

The team also functions as intranet champions: it ensures that a collaborative spirit exists within the company for the intranet to succeed; promotes the use of the Web technology; helps to gain buy-in from all user constituencies; and provides employee training.

The team should survey end users about their intranet needs. This will identify what content needs to be on the intranet, including the collaborative tools for knowledge sharing.

By the way, the project team should include representation from all over the company—but initially steer away from techies and webheads. Technical people will likely draw the discussion toward arcane technical issues not germane to the greater issues of goals, information content, displays, and collaboration.

If this all sounds like business reengineering, you’re right.

3 Build a structure

Think “virtual workspaces” and “business processes” rather than “document types” or “organizational charts” to determine the structure and organization of the intranet. Give each corporate department its own virtual space on the intranet, deploy collaborative tools, and then step back. Points out Steven Telleen of Amdahl Corp., realize “The key characteristic of this technology is its ability to shift control of information flow from the information creators to the information users.”

4 Establish standards

Intranet standards are critical: design standards, publishing standards, technology standards—you name it. For example, Ford’s Usability Guidelines, which help create a common look-and-feel for Ford’s intranet, address the use of color, animated objects, lists and tabular information, hypertext links, and other design elements on a web page—all from a productivity standpoint. They are not mandatory. “Obviously, that’s a living document; it changes as technology and [our intranet usage] changes,” says Steve Scheerhorn, Ford’s manager of Enterprise Information.

They’re changing right now, in fact. When first deployed, Ford’s intranet web pages were organized in the traditional way: Navigation on the left, plus links upon links to various hierarchical menus that, as the intranet grew, buried rather than uncovered information. “It was more a gateway to people and web page search engines,” says Ford’s Martin Davis, project manager, Millennium Web Project. Just after New Year’s, the “Ford Millennium Web Hub” debuted, featuring a default home page portal that appears on all desktops attached to the intranet. The new design minimizes the number and size of graphic elements on each page, aiming for an uncluttered and consistent appearance. (This design must be incredibly unique, innovative, or/and stunningly proprietary, because Ford would not provide this magazine with a screen scrape of a sample web page.)

Ford also has a bunch of standards regarding information content. One, the “Global Information Standards,” applies to company-wide information, e-mail, and any records the intranet users create. It addresses creating, managing, retaining, and the security of information. These standards are “business driven, but they have a legal undertone,” says Scheerhorn. What this means, adds Davis, is that these standards help “derive a business benefit from using the Internet, while protecting the corporation in the way we do that.” (Think about the role of e-mail messages in the Microsoft antitrust trial.)Somewhere in there is what other companies typically call “use standards,” which define the appropriate use of the intranet. These standards need to cover both corporate communications and—this will happen, so get used to it—personal communications.

5 Resolve IT issues

The IT department gets involved when the intranet discussions become technical. Here’s a simple example. The choice of web browsers would seem to be a no-brainer. There are basically two options: Netscape Communicator/Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, the two browsers have several incompatibilities, particularly in how they implement, or display, advanced HTML features and Java scripts. To solve this, Ford has a “dual browser strategy,” which states that all applications and web pages must work with both browsers. That requires sticking with generalized HTML coding and Java scripts, and not implementing the latest browser versions. (Ford recently upgraded the “official” version of Netscape running on Windows-based desktops from 4.04 to 4.7.)

6 Focus on cultural issues

Technology is just one of the intranet challenges facing management. Cultural challenges must also be overcome. For instance, consider the “simple” purchase of desktop computers, especially for standalone (kiosk) access to the intranet. In many enterprises, desktop buys are a distributed function, the participants of which might be loath to following a technology standard from on high.

The same holds true with software applications. Enterprises consisting of multiple internal divisions or acquisitions have to integrate different messaging applications, such as e-mail. This often involves converting one system to the other, and throwing away the former. Data conversion is not the only issue here; there’s also user retraining—and resistance.

7 Start small

Inaugurate the intranet with a pilot. In need not be fancy. It doesn’t have to be packed with content. Part of it can even run from a CD-ROM. Because most people already know how the Internet works, the pilot only has to demonstrate the possibilities of this communications medium within the enterprise. It should show how easy it is to post and find information, as well as demonstrate the effectiveness of display designs, informational structures, and Web-based tools. A secondary outcome of the pilot would be to evaluate such issues as design, response times, policies, and the ability to find, access, and post information.

8 Deliver tools

An intranet toolkit is a must. Obviously, the toolkit delivers the computer-based tools to “publish” on the intranet. But it also performs a cultural function: Through its tools and templates, the toolkit reinforces the tool and design standards for posting on the intranet.

9 Perform an audit

So much can be learned from an intranet audit: are various intranet sites in compliance with style guideline; who is accessing what on the intranet and how often; by what path do users surf the various sites on the intranet; and of course the technical issues, such as response times at various times during the day.

Audits also provide a legal basis for discussing corporate policy and practices regarding intranet usage, versus what a plaintiff might contend in the courts.

10 Gain executive sponsership

Ford is working on giving its users the power to personalize their portal to the Millennium Web Hub. “Turning from what is mainly a central navigation page to almost a work environment,” is how Davis describes it.

To do this, a dedicated, centralized intranet staff—one person or a team of people—is mandatory. The staff can maintain the company’s intranet standards, manage the gobs of complex information posted on the intranet, evaluate rapidly changing intranet technologies, update templates and document links, monitor internal staffing requirements, and negotiate technology infrastructure issues with IT as user and corporate needs evolve and expand, and as intranet technology changes.

Content managers should work with this staff. These individuals, assigned from each department within a company, ensure that information for the intranet is identified, posted, and updated on a timely basis.

Along the same lines, consider forming an intranet users’ group. Often, employees will be quite happy to work on, and advance, the intranet. A users’ group will also help foster a sense of ownership among employees.

If you do all of this, watch your intranet explode. When the Ford intranet debuted on July 4, 1996, it had 2,000 users. Now it has over 150,000 users. The content currently posted on the intranet consists of over 250,000 documents augmented by over 500,000 documents included in the “enterprise knowledgebase.”

Intranet Procedures and Guidelines

Web Site Considerations

Authoring Guidelines

Suggested Software Tools

Suggested Training for Authors

Forum Administration Guidelines

Web Site Considerations

Several issues to consider before you begin constructing a department web site:

  • The site should bring value to your function. Design and content should do one or more of the following:

Improve Service to your internal customers

Increase Accuracy of the information

Increase Speed with which people can access the information

Reduce Cost and Effort of providing/publishing this information

  • Determine who will design and build your site. For a basic site (non-application type pages), someone in your department/group can build the site or you can have the internal web vendor or an external vendor build your site.
  • Updating information is crucial and maintenance of sites will be the responsibility of the department who "owns" the information (Information Technology can recommend training for the person who will be maintaining the site, see below).
  • Determine who is the audience for the information and consider what they will be able to accomplish by using your site.
  • Contact the Webmaster to determine if there are similar efforts underway and to discuss the best ways to accomplish your objectives.

Authoring Guidelines

Authorization and access to web server libraries is controlled by the Webmaster. Contact the Webmaster (ext. XXXX) to obtain access to your file library for web site creation and update purposes.

Naming Conventions and File Locations

Each business will have its own subdirectory and departments within that business will have their own sub-directory beneath the business level. All business' and departments' main home pages must be named index.htm or index.html.

Practice Good File Management for your site. That means, files of the same type should be stored in sub-directories below the main directory. For example, a sub-directory named images is suggested for all graphic elements associated with a department's home page. Also, be mindful of your filenames and the length of filenames. Avoid spaces whenever possible (use "-"," _", etc.) as it makes things cleaner, and keep filenames to a reasonable length (the "lovely little presentation my boss gave me to post.ppt" is not a great idea as a filename).

Keeping content and links up to date is the responsibility of the publishing department (the department who has ownership of the information). After a document and its links have been tested, it can be moved to the web server by placing the files in the proper subdirectory using FTP software (see FTP Procedures for details on using the WS-FTP Pro Software). All documents are automatically moved to production 4 times a day.

Design Considerations

There are several important design and format details to keep in mind when creating an Intranet site. These considerations and standards are not meant to be restrictive but are presented to help ensure the overall consistency, success, and optimum performance of the Intranet.

  • Keep in mind a global audience when choosing labels and graphics
  • Break up the information being delivered so that it will take up no more than 2-3 pages ("screens")
  • Choose graphics that will enhance the presentation of the information
  • Keep in mind that graphics can also slow down the performance of the page
  • Remember that all users do not have access to external links; therefore, label any external links as "Internet access required" or something comparable
  • Label any links to secured areas (where confidential content is secured by userid and passwords) as "restricted access/password required" as a courtesy to all Intranet users
  • Practice good Usability. For example, avoid underlining words in your formatting as much as possible since underlined (particularly blue and underlined) words connote links.


    An Intranet Point of View


    We are living in a society where information overload is increasingly becoming a problem. With the advent of the web and e-mail, the amount of information exploded, and this has serious consequences for the workplace.

    In this article, we will look at some of the benefits Plone can give you in the intranet area. Plone is not restricted to intranet use, but it is a useful example of how to use Plone to leverage the strengths of your company and give you a competetive advantage. This is not aimed to be a very technical article, but rather to try to explain why Plone has gained a such a large following, and what its main strengths are. It's mainly targeted towards decision makers and managers.

    Recent developments in business processes have shown that company intranets aren't just for big companies anymore. Most companies, big and small, have the need to set up intranets and internet pages, and organize the available information. Good intranet design is essential, and becomes increasingly important as the company grows. To have all the information available at your fingertips from a standard web browser brings great power to management and employees alike.

    Plone is a generic platform for web applications, as well as being a stand-alone Content Management System in itself, and has quickly become one of the biggest and most successful projects in the history of Zope. It builds on the well-proven design of the CMF framework for Content Management, and extends this with a lot of useful features. It also integrates well with existing solutions, and complements them instead of replacing them.

    Low threshold solutions like Plone enable any company, big or small, to gather all their information and resources in one central, web-accessible area. It helps foster ownership of information and documents, which is of crucial importance to keep content up-to-date.

    A very important advantage is that you achieve significant synergies through one common web platform, with unified content management and publishing for the intranet, Internet, and extranet. You can publish between the different parts of your net, and retain the individual differences in look and feel for the different parts, even though the content is the same.

    Allowing users to post content is a good way of ensuring individuality and fresh news. Teams create their own home pages, while still adhering to the intranet design standards. This ensures a consistent design across the intranet, but lets groups highlight people, services, and events. Users own the content, and a central unit controls the design; this facilitates consistency and enables powerful communication.

    Process benefits

    Plone encourages and enforces best practices from a variety of projects, and helps you work in the most effective way possible. It has a low threshold and is easily understood by people from widely different backgrounds and with very different skills, and exposes a rich feature set without becoming intimidating or confusing. Here are some of the benefits it brings to the process of content management:

    Manage your content from anywhere
    You can access all your information from a normal web browser - Plone is viewable in all kinds of browsers, even mobile phone browsers. This means that you can manage your intranet and public web site from a web browser anywhere in the world.
    Live editing
    The web site is updated from within the site itself - no specialised tools are needed, just a web browser. It even works with older browsers, so even if your organization do not use the latest in web technology, Plone is still usable.
    Designed by usability professionals
    Because much care and thought has gone into the user interface, employees will be able to utilize it with minimal training. Plone aims to be self-documenting, so even new add-ons to Plone use the standard paradigms for working with and controlling content.
    Limited use of graphics
    A main goal is minimal use of graphics - adding to the content instead of detracting from it, focusing on the information - not irrelevant elements.
    Facilitates collaboration
    When editing and publishing content, you can assign other participants local roles within projects, and Plone also supports versioning and staging of content.
    Easy management and configuration
    The administration and configuration of Plone is done through the web, and no access to the file system is needed after the system is set up. This makes for a very secure system - even in the worst case scenario where somebody gains access to the Zope instance, they can't access anything outside the sandbox Zope and Plone runs inside.
    Single sign-on
    Plone has a centralized sign-on mechanism, which prevents users from having to log on to each area separately. Security is controlled centrally. This is also easily integrated with the existing user authentication mechanisms in the company - be it LDAP, Active Directory, Novell, Windows, UNIX/Linux or other database-based authentication systems.
    Special care has been taken to let the web design adjust flexibly to users with impaired eyesight and/or motor skill challenges.
    Encourages ownership
    Users add content, managers manage. Letting users edit and add content lets them feel ownership towards the intranet, and encourages content production. This in turn leads more people to use the intranet actively.

    Technical benefits

    In addition to the ways Plone helps you perform your work, it gets a lot of benefits from its architecture. Plone is built on the award-winning application server Zope, and gets all the benefits of the underlying platform, as well as adding extra features not present in any other system in the Zope world.

    Here are just some of the reasons why Plone is being widely deployed throughout the world:

    Powerful pluggable workflow system
    Plone has built-in support for administrative workflow and approval mechanisms. It supports both action-based and entity-based workflow paradigms, and has a pluggable architecture to allow you to plug in your own workflow systems, if required.
    Modular, easy to expand, reusable components
    Both the programmatic logic and the user interface construction can be reused extensively in your custom project, which means that you both get code reuse and a consistent look across different parts of the application.
    SQL connectivity
    Since Plone is based on Zope, you can connect to any relational database that Zope supports. All the major databases are supported - both commercial (Oracle, Sybase, DB2, MS SQL, SAP, Interbase, etc) and open source (PostgreSQL, MySQL, etc).
    Easy to create new content types
    By repurposing existing content types, you can easily generate your own custom content types without any programming skills, and if you want to write richer content types with advanced behaviours, you can do this with the Archetypes add-on.
    Lightweight XHTML
    The XHTML interface of Plone is very lightweight, which is a feature you will appreciate if you are ever using it from a mobile phone connection or directly from a mobile phone browser. It's also a big advantage if you want to build on and extend the interface later on.
    Fully indexed, powerful search engine
    All content in Plone is indexed and searchable. It also supports pluggable stemming and splitter options, which enables useful searching in languages like Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
    Activation date and expiration dates
    Every content item has attributes that control its lifespan, and ensures that the content is posted and retired on time.
    Topics and Topic Map technologies
    To enable efficient aggregation of content, you can use using hierarchical topic systems to help you grow the knowledge in the system while maintaining structure and control.
    Powerful template system
    Plone utilizes the industry's first XML standards-compliant templating language, ZPT. This templating system works well with a wide range of editors, including visual web editors like Dreamweaver.

    Intranet Relevance

    With these features, Plone makes it easy to keep content updated, which again assures the value of the intranet. It also has a quite a few of the so-called intranet "killer apps" built-in - the functionality that makes people use the intranet every day. One of them is the ability to quickly and easily locate other employees, with associated portraits.

    Another interesting point about Plone is the consistent quality of the design and solutions used, especially in combination with the aforemetioned killer app:

    Because they will be using the killer app just as much as everyone else, these designers will internalize the good usability guidelines embedded in its design, and will be reluctant to launch contributions with significantly lower quality. - Nielsen Norman Group, Intranet Design Annual 2002

    This study also highlights several other important considerations that are core strengths of Plone, namely:

    • Single sign-on.
    • Limited use of graphics. (intranets should use graphics minimally, and to add to content, not detract from it)
    • International focus.
    • Templates based on predetermined styles.

    Business Relevance

    In a business perspective, Plone distinguishes itself from the other open source Content Management Systems with its focus on business and professional use. From the very start, Plone has been focused on solving business problems by making processes more effective. It has not grown from a community web site project like so many other systems in the same area, but rather as a result of a clear business focus and tangible goals.

    Plone has professional support services and consulting available in Europe and the USA via the Plone Network, and is currently working on expanding these partnerships to cover Asia and Australia.

    In addition, one of the competetive advantages of Plone is its large active community that supports development of additional add-ons and products based on Plone. It is a very diverse environment, with users from a lot of different backgrounds, from government agencies via research institutions and universities to multi-national companies.

    Plone also has a uniquely strong international focus - with well-tested multi-lingual support and localization, it is ideal for multinational companies. It is currently available in over 20 languages, including most major European languages, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. It is fully Unicode-aware, and has a multi-lingual interface enabled out-of-the-box. The Plone Team currently has core developers in 14 countries worldwide.

    Users of Plone include NASA, Lufthansa, Government of Hawaii and University College London.

    Plone is available under both open source (GPL) and commercial licenses, for more information, please contact the Plone Network.

    Benchmarking against other intranets

    The most exciting aspect of this project is that it has given us the opportunity to upgrade the site in several ways. For example, the new version we are now building is fully Web Standards compliant (XHTML & CSS), accessible up to WCAG 1.0 Level-AA and features a number of design improvements.

    Notwithstanding these enhancements, the real reason for buying the new software was to help improve our content. This applies not only to the quality of the language we use, but to the range and depth of services the intranet provides.

    I am always interested to discover what sort of content is published on other intranets. This provides a means for benchmarking ourselves against industry practice. In this regard, the NNG reports provide many very valuable insights.

    The four pillars of content

    Having read several of these reports, I have come to the conclusion that almost all intranets contain exactly the same content. By this I mean that - although individual sites may differ in terms of specifics - the core themes are almost indistinguishable.

    What I have found is that there are four major pillars of intranet content. These are:

    1. Work Content

    This encompasses all the information & applications that help staff do their day-to-day jobs. For example:

    • Content relevant to a particular roles, e.g. updates to accounting rules relevant to financial staff.
    • Content relevant to all roles, e.g. online phonebook.
    • Office support, e.g. mail services, printing services, meeting rooms, couriers & taxis, stationery, building services, security, dining, etc.
    • IT support, e.g. application support, IT security, remote access, etc.
    • Procurement, e.g. office consumables, IT equipment, contract renewals, etc.
    • Knowledge management, e.g. company library, journal subscriptions, etc.
    • Business Travel and insurance.

    2. HR Content

    This includes information & applications that staff need to support their employment with the company and to manage their careers. For example:

    • Pay, including pay scales, taxation, overtime, expenses, bonuses, etc.
    • Attendance & Leave, including working hours, flexitime, job sharing, annual leave, parental leave, other leave, etc.
    • Benefits, including medical benefits (insurance, free services), financial benefits (pension scheme, staff loans) and other benefits (discounted merchandise).
    • Career, including training, career development, job switching, new jobs, etc.
    • Union representation and membership.

    3. Corporate Content

    This encompasses information that tells staff what their business is about, what it is currently doing and any other relevant news. For example:

    • Basic information, e.g. business overview, business lines, office addresses, etc.
    • Corporate governance, e.g. mission statement and strategy, annual reports, organisation chart, senior management team, corporate policies, etc.
    • Corporate communications, e.g. press releases, internal news, etc.

    4. Social Content

    Almost all intranets include some element of 'fun' content that allows staff to organise social activities. Some common elements include:

    • Online discussion.
    • Sports and Social committee.
    • Social events.
    • Charitable societies.
    • Sports clubs.

    The four pillars in practice

    In summary, these four pillars comprise a framework for building intranet content. Indeed, it is obvious that many companies actually base the Information Architecture and/or navigation schemes for their intranets on this theme. Admittedly, a perfect one-to-one match rarely arises, but the basic pattern stands out.

    Some clear examples of this from past NNG reports include:

    • Merrill Lynch (2006 report, page 158). This site is divided into:
      • Employee Resources (HR)
      • Education & Career Development (HR)
      • Business Support (Work)
      • Technology (Work)
      • Local Office Services (Work)
      • A list of Merrill Lynch businesses, local sites and news is also provided
    • Bank of Ireland (2006 report, page 75). This site is divided into:
      • About the Group (Corporate)
      • News (Corporate)
      • Employee Centre (HR)
      • Career Centre (HR)
      • Life & Leisure (Social)
      • Resource Centre (Work)
      • Products & Customers (Work)
    • Cisco (2005 report, page 36). This site is divided into:
      • About Cisco (Corporate)
      • Learning and Development (HR)
      • Support and Tools (Work)
      • Products and Industry (Work)
      • Security (Work)
      • A list of Cisco businesses, news and locations is also provided
    • IBM (2006 report, page 127). This site is divided into:
      • Work (Work)
      • Career & Life (HR)
      • Links to news and corporate information are also listed

    I can also add the Microsoft intranet to this list. I recently had the opportunity to view this site and was not surprised to discover the same content themes emerging.

    • Microsoft. The IA on their intranet is based around:
      • News (Corporate)
      • Campus (Work)
      • Employee Centre (HR)
      • Workplace Services (Work)
      • About Us (Corporate)
      • A list of news is also provided

    The reason for commonality

    So why are intranets so similar? After a little consideration the reason is clear. Almost all companies uses their intranets to solve the same problem - to support the presence of staff by giving them access to everything they need to do their job and manage their career. The inevitable result is commonality in content themes.

    The benefit of revealing this pattern is that anyone can now use the four pillars as a framework for evaluating the scope of their site's content.

    Intranet: information technology for a limited universe

    Scarcely a day goes by without significant media coverage of the information technology industry's newest communications creation - the Intranet. Small consulting firms and corporate titans alike are working to expand Intranet applications.

    The word "Intranet" had little meaning and no media exposure as recently as a year ago. Even now, defining the term "Intranet" is a challenge because of the power and versatility of Internet-based software and connectivity.

    In late 1995, the term "Intranet" was applied to closed or proprietary computer networks - either local area networks (LANs), or wide area networks (WANs) - running Internet-based software (TCP/IP and http for you techies). As Intranet technology began to allow remote access either through dial-up modems or through the Internet itself, the distinction between an Intranet system and a password- or security-protected Internet site began to blur.

    The current working definition of Intranet is a limited-access network of/inked computers that uses a common Internet-based protocol to exchange data and information. The differentiating feature between an Intranet and the Internet is the limited access feature of the Intranet. Access limits can be created using any of a variety of firewall systems, password protection, browser-based security features, and other types of security technology. An Intranet could even be created by simply limiting the distribution of, and linking to, a given universal resource locator (URL) thereby producing an information-based security system. This level of security is tentative at best, however, since the effective password and the Internet address would be one in the same.

    Intranet's Strengths

    So what's the big deal regarding the Intranet? Moreover, how did it move from obscurity to the cover of Business Week in less' than one year?(a) The answer lies in three relatively simple concepts - standardization, capacity, and efficiency.

    Standardization. A relatively open environment for software development has helped hundreds of companies and thousands of programmers create Internet-based languages, tools, and applications at an astonishing rate. The explosive growth of the Internet has been aided by adoption of standardized languages and protocols whose acceptance is increasing in part because they are platform-independent (ie, both IBM-compatible PCs and Macintosh computers can interpret and display information conveyed in standard languages).

    Capacity. Internet-based protocols allow the transfer of images, sound, and even video online - a tremendous step beyond simple text-based transfer of information. The ability to transfer graphic content online can be compared to the advance in the evolution of personal computers when operating systems replaced text-based DOS languages with Macintosh and Windows systems that feature graphic user interfaces. This improvement was fueled by the knowledge that human beings comprehend and prefer images over simple text.

    Efficiency. With the Intranet, an organization need only look in one place for key and/or frequently used data and information. Images, text, tables, directories, and other content is available in updated format at all times. Documents and projects under evaluation or development can be accessed and worked on by many individuals from remote locations.

    Implications for Health Care

    So what does all this mean to the healthcare industry? Should every healthcare delivery system have an Intranet? Despite the tremendous opportunities offered by such networks, Intranets are not for everyone, at least not yet. Exhibit 1 lists some of the advantages and disadvantages of Intranet development.

    Of particular interest to healthcare financial managers are the matters of cost and return on investment. The costs of setting up an Intranet can be broken down into developmental cost, which typically runs from $25,000 to $100,000, and ongoing maintenance cost, which usually is about $25,000 per year. But costs are affected by the existing state of the information infrastructure within the institution.

    If, for example, a healthcare system considering an Intranet already has a LAN or WAN in place, development cost will be significantly less because hard wiring can be kept to a minimum. On the other hand, if an organization has employees who need access to the Intranet network, but who are not currently linked to an existing network, hard wiring costs may be significantly higher.

    To date, a number of organizations have elected to invest in Intranets. Information commonly provided on healthcare Intranets includes:

    * Policy and procedure manuals;

    * Directories - telephone, address, and e-mail;

    * Human resource benefits information and forms;

    * Answers to frequently asked questions;

    * Schedules - daily, vacation, on call;

    * Positions available;

    * Forms; and

    * Patient instructions.

    The decision to implement, postpone, or forgo an Intranet involves complex issues and is, to some extent, enterprise-specific. Healthcare financial managers should carefully monitor developments in this rapidly expanding area and be willing to exploit the benefits an Intranet can offer to healthcare organizations.

    The Intranet was a Ghost Town

    As in many companies a few years ago, our intranet was created and managed by a fine group of developers. These were all very technical folks with all sorts of Lotus training and certifications, and they could write scripts and create databases and make things happen with calendars and forms.

    But they weren't graphic artists. Not a trained designer in the group.

    PLEASE don't misunderstand me: They knew the difference between a GIF and a JPEG, but they couldn't work PhotoShop to save their lives, and they tended to use whatever clip art was readily available. Sometimes their choice of color or font was, well, unusual, and most of the site lacked consistency. This is certainly not an insult to them; they got the project off to a good start, but they knew the intranet they had created needed some help.

    So, what was really wrong with the intranet? After all, it worked, for the most part. You could find information, eventually. There were rarely error messages or broken links. In other words, it functioned…oh, but it was plain, and it was boring. The navigation was quite poor. The menu required expanding with multiple clicks just to see if what you were looking for was even available. Once you found what you wanted, you usually had to click the Back button on your browser several times to return to a main menu or screen. In fact, the Back button became the main way to navigate in some cases. Getting lost was an everyday occurrence.

    The site itself was developed using frames. I believe there were six or more frames making up the set. The two top frames were used for information such as our stock quote or links to an industry calendar, and were displayed as part of most pages. Because of this, there was very little screen real estate left for content, so you had to scroll a great deal, especially on smaller monitors. Also, some of this information wasn't really necessary on every page—or even important to some users.

    Finally, the intranet had very few features or tools. The only departments represented were human resources and IS, but neither one had much in the way of content. And we didn't offer any external links to frequently used sites, although many departments maintained their own lists. The claims department, for example, had a multiple-page Microsoft Word document with links to hundreds of sites they used regularly. But the intranet didn't let users access that list or others like it. This information was typically kept within departments on shared network drives, since few people used the intranet and there was no fast and easy way to publish to it anyway.

    Not surprisingly, nobody used the intranet…including me. Communication was done either by paper or a broadcast email or voicemail. Since all users could send broadcast email, they often sent messages about lost earrings in the fitness center or free kittens for a nice home. Important messages were kept on users' systems for days, weeks, even months. Some users had literally hundreds of email messages saved. Part of our plan in developing the new intranet was to shut off the broadcast email ability for most users, thus forcing people to rely more heavily on the intranet to stay informed. This solution would also eliminate some of the burdens placed on the network. We could only accomplish this by designing an intranet that people would want to use.

    A simple intranet model

    This article sets out a process for putting in place a ‘baseline’ intranet – one that serves the twin needs of facilitating corporate communication and supporting staff in their work activities, and that is based on established knowledge management and usability principles.

    The article provides a model for how the intranet should function, how it should be organised and what it should contain. While it may be only the starting point for additional functions and layers of complexity , it nevertheless provides for a comprehensive address of basic corporate internal communications needs.

    The model answers to the following principles:

    Navigation should be easy

    There should be clear identification of links to content areas, an ‘uncrowded’ interface and consistency in look and feel and operation.

    Structure should reflect the company structure

    The company structure – its primary organisation into divisions or units – is the readiest-to-hand organisational principle for intranet information. Each company division will have its own main section – with an ‘overarching’ section that unifies the content and speaks for the whole company (a ‘corporate’ section).

    For each division there are ‘internal’ and ‘external’ audiences

    Intranets are for communication within an organisation – but each employee is both ‘internal’ to their own area of the organisation – and ‘external’ to the other areas of the organisation.

    This means, for example, that for a Payroll section of the intranet, there will be information that 'faces out' to the rest of the company, such as "How to enquire about your pay" and information that ‘faces in’, and supports the work done within the department, eg "Running the payroll".

    Navigation should be clear so that users know which type of information they are accessing.

    Quick access to key information

    All information about a company is owned somewhere within the various functional areas of the company – and as such, will belong in the section of the intranet belonging to that area. Some information, however, is key and frequently called on, eg the company phone list – additional, direct access needs to be provided to this information in the form of a ‘hot’ or quick link on the main page.


    Information on the intranet – all of it – needs to be kept current. Regular, fresh information will provoke ongoing interest and recourse to the intranet. Currency is part of managing the intranet, and needs to be formally considered with appropriate processes being set out. Fresh information should be published to ensure a continuing connection to the user audience – company news and company staff and social information are key types of information that can be regularly updated.

    Ownership and controls

    All information worth publishing needs to be ‘controlled’ to some degree. Where compliance, regulatory and safety issues are at stake, the controls need to be more formal and rigid – but even low risk information needs to be managed so that it doesn’t proliferate or lie around, out of date, cluttering things up. Ownership – whereby a nominated person is responsible for an element or category of information – is the key to effectively managing information, and keeping it current and relevant.

    What might it look like?

    Below is an example that illustrates the home page for the ‘model’ proposed for fictitious company "Frobisher Foods". The design is illustrative only. Frobisher has a number of sectors of operation that they term Stores, Buying, Factory, Admin, Transport and R&D – these are Frobisher’s organisational divisions.

    Frobisher’s ‘quicklinks’ break out the following information items and areas: News, Phonelist, Leave, IT Support, Social Club, Noticeboard and Staff Specials. A link to collect feedback is also located under this head.

    Click on the above image to see a full-size readable version

    The ‘corporate’ element

    The ‘corporate’ presence within the intranet site may be overt – and a separate division button be added to take users to a formal sub-area of the site. Or it may simply consist of the ‘home’ page text with links, as in the example above, where Quicklinks point to items like News, Noticeboard, Social Club etc, that have a corporate wide audience and function.

    Division pages

    Within each division page, a menu should offer clearly distinct access to each of the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ information areas.

    Each division page may in fact lead to a ‘sub-site’ that replicates the model for the whole intranet – with a unifying element covering all audiences for division-related information, division quicklinks and a button set for component elements of internal and external information. The model is scalable in this way – and the depth to which it is deployed is dependent on the size and complexity of an organisation and the volume and variety of information appropriate for the intranet.

    Extending beyond the baseline

    Applying the baseline intranet model to a living example of an organisation will almost certainly result in the discovery of good reasons to vary it – for example, some divisions of an organisation may simply not have a need for either an internal or external type of information – for a variety or reasons. Subjecting each element of information to the model as a ‘test’ however is a useful exercise, as it draws out a conscious awareness within the organisation about how it chooses to communicate internally and how it supports its personnel.

    What a simple, practical model offers in evaluating the information needs that are in view when an intranet is being considered is a structure to permit effective planning, evaluation and ongoing development.

    Facilitate searching, not just navigation

    An important part of an information architect’s job is to make it easier for users of a Web site or intranet to find the information they want. Usually the focus is on site navigation—the site’s structural design, hierarchy, page titles and labels, menu design, site map, and so on.

    Another way to address making information on a Web site easy to find is through search functionality. What’s the difference? Navigation means finding one’s way around and learning the layout of the site. Searching means finding a desired bit of information as efficiently as possible. A good site should support the search needs of users, not just the navigation needs.

    When we think of searching in the context of the Web, the idea of search engines immediately comes to mind. Search engines, a practical way to find information on the entire World Wide Web, are increasingly being added to individual Web sites to allow users to search a site. However, results tend to be less than satisfactory.

    Drawbacks of search engines

    Search engines only pick up exact words or phrases. If a user enters a synonym, singular instead of plural, a spelled-out form instead of an acronym, a misspelled word, or merely a concept with words that never appear in the text, appropriate pages may be missed. Searching the entire Web, missed pages are usually not a problem since so many results are retrieved. But on an individual Web site, it is essential that all relevant pages be returned.

    Search engines pick up pages that contain a specific search phrase, even if just in passing or out of context. The page could be about an entirely different subject. This isn’t a huge problem when searching the entire Internet because major commercial search engines have developed complicated ranking systems based on meta tags, keyword frequency, links, etc.

    Of course, a site search engine can be customized to search only keyword meta tags as long as keywords are carefully created for each page. If you are going to go to the trouble of creating keywords for each page, you may was well create a manual index for the Web site. This option has several distinct advantages.

    What is an A-Z index?

    As an “index” can have different meanings, as can “site index.” According to the National Information Standards Organization TR-02-1997 standard, an index is “A systematic guide designed to indicate topics or features of documents in order to facilitate retrieval of documents or parts of documents.” NISO classifies indexes as displayed and non-displayed, and further explains that a displayed index has syntax for combining terms in headings and a systematic ordering of headings. The most common systematic ordering is alphabetical, and being displayed means that it can be browsed. For Web sites or intranets, this type of index, to distinguish it from other indexes, is often called an A-Z index.

    On a Web site or intranet each of the alphabetically arranged entries or subentries is hyperlinked to the page or to an anchor within a page to where the topic is discussed. Since an alphabetical index can be quite long, it is often divided into pages for each letter of the alphabet. Typically, each letter is linked at the top of the page allow a jump to the start of that letter’s section of the index.

    Legality and the International Intranet

    Data Privacy
    There is a fundamental difference in the approach to data privacy law in the U.S. and Europe, which has some major implications on the transfer of personal data between the two using a corporate intranet. The legal position in the EU (strictly speaking, the European Economic Area, which includes Norway and Iceland) is set out in the Directive on Protection of Personal Data. The Directive is not in itself "law." It sets the minimum requirements that have to be complied with by the national legislation of member states, and the date (October 25, 1998-three years after adoption in October 1995) that this compliance has to be implemented. Personal data is any data about an individual person, such as his or her date of birth, job position, home address, and just about anything else you can think of. In addition, there is a further category of Sensitive Personal Information, which includes information about race, health, religion, and political affiliation.

    The Directive, and the legislation enacted in individual countries, does not prohibit the transfer of personal information across country boundaries. Indeed, the main purpose of the legislation is to ensure that this information can be passed across these boundaries, but only under conditions that ensure that the rights of the citizen to control the use of this information are consistent across Europe. When setting up the legislation, the EU was concerned about what might happen if personal information was passed onto a country that did not have equivalent controls over the use of the information. As a result, any transfer of information between the EU and the U.S. requires companies to inform employees about any possible transfers, and to gain their explicit consent.

    The problem for intranet managers is that intranets often provide information about the activities of the staff, and exchange information on staff with specific expertise and knowledge. Adding photographs of employees to their profile on the intranet is usually regarded as very useful. However, a photograph reveals all sorts of personal information and, according to the Directive, a photo should only be posted with the explicit consent of the individual.

    Safe Harbor Under Siege
    As a way of getting around the lack of equivalent data privacy legislation in America, the EU and U.S. authorities have come up with the Safe Harbor protocols, which effectively provide a similar measure of protection for personal information in the USA as in Europe ( U.S. companies have been slow to sign up for the protocols, and there is a feeling in the U.S. government, and among many lobbying groups, that this is an unfair barrier to trade. The topic came back into prominence in May, because the Safe Harbor protocols did snot apply to the financial services industry since the Gramm-Leitch-Bliley consumer protection law had just been enacted in mid-2000, when the Safe Harbor issues were being discussed. The EU proposed to hold further talks about financial services within the framework of this law, but no talks have yet taken place, and the EU is getting restless, since the temporary exemption on these particular issues ends in October 2001.

    The danger for intranet managers is that the entire question of the Safe Harbor protocols may be put back on the table, especially since so few U.S. companies have signed up for the provisions. As a result, it is of very considerable importance that intranet managers of multinational companies ensure that they have all the appropriate approvals and audit trails for any personal information stored on, or traversing, their intranets-and that includes email communications as well. The Data Privacy regulators in all the European countries (especially Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.K.) are keen to test how far their powers actually extend, and to date there have been no prosecutions. One would be well advised not to be a test case. [For more on this topic, see the article I wrote in EContent, August/September 2000, pp 45-47.]

    Disabled Access to Intranets
    One area where there is broadly similar legislation in the U.S. and in Europe relates to the provision of access to an intranet by employees with disabilities.

    The most obvious area is visual disability, but it is important not to overlook physical disabilities. It is quite possible to navigate around Microsoft applications using the arrow keys for staff who do not have adequate motor control for a mouse. Intranets often depend entirely on precise control of a mouse for drop-down menus or for mouse roll-overs on index terms. This may require either a substantial redesign of the intranet or the provision of special areas of the intranet for disabled access. If using the latter approach, it is vital to ensure that the content available to someone using a specialized area is equivalent to the main site.

    A Successful Intranet Move to the Extranet

    e-Business Connection was a small idea that became a LotusNotes database and then took off to become an extranet. When the Information Center at MasterCard International was established in 1997, LotusNotes was leveraged to promote library services. In 1997 and 1998, e-mail was used as an alerting service to employees that covered important articles in the secondary press. In the beginning of 1999, the service had grown to the point where e-mail was inadequate. Given employee needs, the Information Center Exchange (ICE) was launched in July 1999.

    ICE is not only a database; it also broadcasts e-mail alerts to clients, targeted at their areas of interest. Today there are almost 550 clients, and on an average day the database is accessed about 900 times. Survey results are always spectacular.

    The third annual ICE survey revealed that:
    • Ninety-nine percent of respondents were very likely or likely to recommend ICE to a colleague.
    • Ninety-seven percent agreed that ICE provides information that helps them do their jobs better.
    • Ninety-one percent agreed that ICE adds business value to MasterCard.

    Client quotes from the survey focus on how ICE helps them do their jobs better:

    "The news on ICE keeps me informed and helps me do my job better."
    "Quick, easy, convenient, and powerful."
    "It provides me access to the very information that I need. It saves me time by not having to go through extraneous news items."

    Since 1999, several MasterCard International employees have requested ICE-like services for MasterCard member institutions. After carefully explaining copyright and contracts, the costs involved became very clear. However, one employee would not take "no" for an answer and realized that targeting and disseminating information was a necessary and sellable commodity.

    In April 2000, the concept of the intranet services on an extranet, called E.C. Central, was a PowerPoint presentation. At its conception, it was visualized as an information hub for key members: an e-commerce news and information extranet. An external consulting company was hired to interview the target market and consult with the MasterCard librarian regarding vendors that could provide the extranet.

    Extranet Requirements
    Market expectations gathered from the interviews focused on some core elements. The extranet needed to provide the following:

    • A password-protected site to e-commerce news and information resources
    • Both internal and external MasterCard data and resources
    • The ability to do refined searches in selected categories as well as access current news feed
    • Links to other pertinent industry and trade organizations

    There were "need to have" items and "wouldn't it be nice to have" items. The following items were on the "need to have" list:

    • E-mail alerts
    • Single-click searches
    • News feed

    Some of the "wouldn't it be nice to have" items included the following:

    • Personalization of the headlines and queries
    • MasterCard branding on each page

    Building the Team
    The nature of the project made it necessary to build an internal project team and a vendor team with a wide range of expertise. For example, the legal department approved the contracts, branding standards reviewed the logo and colors, and the sales force ensured that the product met customer needs. The internal project team included e-business representatives, the information professional, marketing representatives, sales force members, technical experts, and legal representatives, each not only providing assistance in their areas of specialization but also providing a unique perspective and added dimension to the input of the other participants.

    The MasterCard team chose Northern Light Technology as the extranet vendor. The vendor team consisted of librarians to hand-pick the information to be included on the site, a team leader to help keep the project on track and within budget, design professionals to make the site look attractive, usability experts to make the site easy to use, and technical people to make all the great ideas feasible on the chosen platform.

    Key Issues that Changed What Could or Could Not Be Done

    Technical Issues
    The biggest technical issue was site access. Since MasterCard already had an extranet for members called MOL (MasterCard Online), it seemed obvious that access to the new e-Business News service should be through MOL. While initially this made sense, on closer examination, it was not possible since MOL is accessed by members using a SecurID card that not all members nor most MasterCard staff (including the sales force) had. This left the challenge of restricting access to the site to only those members who were subscribers. The solution to this was to require site usernames and passwords. Unfortunately this presented another challenge—managing the registration process and administering usernames and passwords. Since subscriptions were limited to member banks and MasterCard employees, this required checking each registration request to verify the applicant's eligibility. Once approved, the applicant's username and password could then be entered into the Northern Light database, either individually or as part of a bulk load.

    Branding Issues
    One of the biggest branding challenges was trying to strike a balance between having sufficient MasterCard branding to make the site easily identifiable as a MasterCard service, without having so much MasterCard branding that the site appeared to only offer MasterCard-sanctioned information. This was accomplished by designing a banner containing the name of the service and the MasterCard logo to be used on each page of the site. The banner also provided a space to put the "powered by Northern Light" line while helping to unify the site by having one consistent element at the top of each page. To further project an image of impartiality, all advertising was banned from the site.

    Legal Issues
    The contract was finalized on August 29, 2000—2 months before the initial soft launch on October 2. The contract provided several challenges, given issues like the terms of the hosting agreement, the level of service expected, the content that would and would not be included on the site, how the ongoing maintenance of and enhancements to the site would be handled and priced, customer service, usage reporting, and confidentiality.

    Another key legal challenge was the development of a comprehensive privacy policy that users had to accept before registering. It detailed exactly what subscriber information would be collected, which information would be known to MasterCard and which to Northern Light, as well as why this information was necessary and how it would be used. The privacy policy had to explain that cookies would be used so that the Northern Light server would be able to recognize the user when the user returned to the site. This allowed the service to eliminate the need to continually log in. (As a security precaution, if more than 24-hours have elapsed since the user's last visit they will be asked to log in again). In addition to the disclosure that cookies would be employed and the details of their use, the privacy policy had to provide detailed instructions for setting a browser to block cookies, if the user so desired.

    The First Production Model
    The first production model provided the users with the following abilities:

    • Research all e-business topics using Northern Light's search engine technology.
    • Choose their own searches or take advantage of pre-constructed searches designed by experts at MasterCard and Northern Light Technology. In each case, the results were organized into topical folders for easy use.
    • Be alerted, via e-mail, when new articles on the search topic were published. The e-mails had hotlinks directly to the article. • Access special pre-selected articles with links to relevant Web sites, through the MasterCard e-Business news.
    • Access business headlines that are refreshed every 5 minutes.
    • Be free of advertisements, pop-up ads, and banner ads.

    Launching the Extranet
    The first production model went live on October 1, 2000. The next day the service was launched internally to all current ICE users (approximately 300 users). The ICE users were sent a letter containing their username, password, and the site's URL, along with an explanation of how the extranet service was intended to be complementary to ICE rather than a replacement or competitor. At the same time, the service was launched to 10-25 users from each of MasterCard's top four members through the key account member reps who had helped in the development of the site. In November, the service was formally launched at the Global Sales Meeting, demonstrated to St. Louis employees at their local Technology Fair, and announced to members worldwide through a Global Marketing Bulletin. In early December, the service was promoted to Purchase employees through a demonstration and registration drive that added 400 internal users. By the end of 2000, the service had approximately 700 subscribers.

    More Marketing … Changing the Subscription Model
    Despite the initial success of the service, there was still a need to market the site more aggressively, particularly since a business decision had been made to charge member subscribers for the service. Initial efforts focused on the top member banks and U.S. MasterCard employees. A wide range of media was used to reach a dispersed audience. Some of the tactics included mailing an invitation to all U.S. member relations staff to try the service, an article in the employee newsletter, articles in member magazines, demonstrations to key account representatives and promotion of the service on MOL and mas The result was a threefold increase in staff subscriptions and a sevenfold increase in member subscriptions.

    Redesigning and Relaunching
    In July 2001, user interviews were conducted to solicit feedback on how best to redesign the site for the official global expansion of the service. The goal was to increase both its appeal and usability in anticipation of a relaunch in September, 1 year after the original site launch. The most useful features the users found were the live queries, e-mail search alerts, and the ability to access and search the Special Collection archives. Other suggestions included adding extra instructions and easier navigation (for example, making the live query category names hyperlinks), as well as rearranging the home page elements so users could more easily find their way. Surprisingly, the only feature deemed not useful was the business headlines feature.

    Several changes were made to the site. The site was renamed. To the users, MasterCard e-Business News sounded as though the site was a newsletter providing only information about what MasterCard was doing in e-business, rather than representing a one-stop e-business information resource. A list of potential new names was developed based on the interviews, and ultimately a new name was chosen—MasterCard e-Business Connection. Another key change was the ability to limit search results to those documents written in one of five languages (English, Spanish, Italian, German, or French). The regional offices were asked to review the publication list from Northern Light to determine relevance to their local client base. On October 3, 2001, the site was relaunched globally, preceded by an announcement of the improvements and name change to existing users, followed by smaller, specially targeted launches to the Asia Pacific region, the Latin American region, and Europe. Currently over 2,000 subscribers in more than 65 countries use the site worldwide. The next focus of the team is on increasing awareness of the site around the world, particularly among MasterCard's smaller member banks that have the least access to current, reliable information. In third quarter 2002, another distribution channel will be available through MOL in an effort to increase the usefulness to this target audience.