Friday, March 16, 2007

Intranets: strategy first, usability second

More and more intranet teams are buying into the need for usability. However, usability is not a strategy, and without a clear strategy, usability can become a pointless, wasteful and counter-productive exercise.

“Ten Best Intranets of 2005”, is the Nielsen Norman Group’s latest report. There’s some excellent information in it but in my opinion it puts the cart before the horse. It talks about usability, website design and computer-related issues as if these are the drivers of strategy. Fundamentally and absolutely they are not. They are tools and tactics of strategy, and it is extremely important that they are understood that way.

Let me be clear about my intent here. I am not out to get Jakob Nielsen; a fashionable pursuit among some within the industry. I believe he has contributed enormously to the development of better websites, and that he is a genuine visionary and pioneer.

However, I found his intranet report a frustrating read because the usability tactics were leading, and the strategy seemed either not there or else following some distance behind. The report explains key characteristics of the winning entries:

1. Several intranets, it found, were designed to work best at a 1024 x 768 screen resolution, and it suggested that in future there will be much bigger screens. Why? What’s the strategy here? Having bigger screens is certainly not a strategy.
2. The report found that intranets are already pioneering the use of online video. Again, not a strategy. The strategy is hinted at later in the point, when it states that video can help “strengthen the corporate culture” because people can see the CEO make a speech, and thus judge emotion and mood. That’s a strategy, or at least an element of a strategy.
3. The report talks about “kiosk-based intranet access for factory-floor workers”. It’s certainly not a strategy to allow factory workers have access to the intranet unless we can answer the question of how they will become more productive if they do.
4. The report talks about intranets that make “internationalization a core design element”. Why? What are the benefits? Why do staff in Canada need to gain access to the Switzerland intranet? Let’s get away from motherhood and apple pie aspirations here. Where’s the productivity return?
5. “The average time between redesigns for this year's winning intranets was 29 months.” That’s no achievement. If you’re regularly redesigning your intranet that is probably more a reflection of a failure to plan properly.
6. “Averaged across the winners, intranet use increased by 149 percent.” Intranet use is an extremely primitive metric, as the report does later admit, stating, “Pageviews are not a fully satisfying ROI metric because it's hard to estimate the monetary value of the increased use.”

Most intranets I come across still lack a clear strategy whose foundations should be:

1. Who in the organization really needs the intranet to become more effective?
2. What are their key tasks?
3. How can we measure task completion?

“Cisco also improved its user success rate across the test tasks by 2 percent, increasing it from 87 percent to 89 percent,” according to the report. This is where the intranet gets real; when the completion of tasks that have been identified as being strategically important are fast and efficient.