Usability and Cost Savings while Designing an Intranet
Abstract: This article discussed the value of design in the development of an intranet and how it can create cost savings not only in it's development, but in the future as company employees leverage the system to save time.
First we should understand exactly what an intranet is, these are some working definitions for an intranet:
Web site designed to serve employees of a business. Intranet pages may link to the Internet but an intranet is not accessed publicly
Systems using communications protocols and hypertext links like the Web to provide a standardized way of internally disseminating information
Using Internet technologies privately in an organization to facilitate communication and access to information
An integrating mechanism for people, processes and information within an enterprise
The corporate information network Design guidelines offer cost savings AND improve usability
Intranets should provide tools to help people find information efficiently across a company network (and possibly at other levels). Intranet designers should seek to develop policies which outline the scope of the service and make this information public to employees. A well organized intranet encourages use and collaboration. For this reason, establishing design guidelines helps employees understand how and what they can use an intranet for:
Develop a model for what information can be searched and how. Searching is one of the most overlooked design features of an intranet --often the most useful
Development of user rules lead to less confusion and frustration, increases usability. Design a consistent navigation for all users based on user needs; develop a style guide which documents this look and feel, listing it as a hyperlink on the intranet
Is there cost savings in assigning administrative systems to handle the majority of content sharing needs? If so, this can be a useful means of applying the style guide because it reduces the time required for training users
Should business groups have the ability to update the system or should it be a centralized process? Does company hierarchy require customized views? Recognizing these issues early saves time
Develop help files to support users; require different departments to contribute to this system. This approach provides a foundation for consistent development across different departments that places the emphasis on helping users Intranet technical design, considerations before the design process
Before technical discussions begin there are many elements which need to be understood. Spending time early on to discuss technical issues generally results in a more fluid design and development process later on. Inventories are recommended to focus on which parts of a current internet site or other web enabled applications are recyclable. Inventories offer cost saving approaches thru faster development. Often there is significant functionality that can be re-used.
Too often there is pressure to see development taking place. Although this satisfies the needs of people not specifically involved in the project, this pressure reduces the usability of the final product and often corrodes the morale of the design team. Some considerations:
Long term budget
Repercussions of an intranet on current system processes
Support for the completed system
Usability testing plans
Training users and administrators
What are competitors doing with their Intranets, what can be leveraged? Publishing content is always recommended, not always useful
Often companies are plagued by redundancy because of isolated user groups. Publishing can be a wonderful solution when well organized. Documents should be searchable and archived: the key component. Other aspects are not cut and dry, but again, the focus need to be on users and making sure that users are able to find what they need. Publishing documents on a company intranet can become a tangled mess unless there is attention paid to these issues:
Will there be a need for version control?
Will collaborative authoring take place?
Is version synching necessary?
Are approval processes to be established?
Does the system need audit trails? Searching intranets
This article has mentioned search functionality on a number of occasions. The reason is that search engines provide a powerful means to distribute and locate information. Search is a scaleable and customizable architecture for indexing and accessing information stored throughout the company, not to mention a time saver. This is why we feel it should be offered (with search box, not a link) on every page of the intranet.
A well designed and standardized company website administration system provides an excellent backdrop for a network wide search. This creates a central database which keeps record of information throughout the system.
There are many means to support good search functionality, customized searches such as advanced search can be useful for separating old versions or search directly for them. It can also be a lifeline to be offered when standard searches fail.
Automated maintenance is also a good means to support search. Automated maintenance can be useful for updating data pools regularly, which make search results more accurate. Automation also reduces costs through automating repetitive tasks.
Search functionality can also be specific to certain areas of the intranet:
Corporate libraries and online help
Collaboration methods and documentation
Skill tracking services
Company records (accounting, HR, etc..) Summary:
Developing intranets for political reasons likely ignores good usability. Intranets are for employees to automate, standardize, collaborate and have a say in its evolution
Treating intranets as a business tool keeps the focus on providing services to employees that create efficiency
Balance version control with employees desire to publish, standardize this process
Use budgets efficiently to provide as much coverage as possible, train and promote these services
Good security promotes open exchange of information
Good search functionality promotes use
Before designing, create documents which list needs, trust a professional to develop the application properly and leverage the developers experience for suggestions on useful features
If an intranet application can solve 80% of the problems, it's usually a good time to initiate the development. Give time for users to adapt to the system and ask for feedback. After an appropriate amount of time, update the system by adding the remaining 20% of features and also improve usability
Article by Isaac Ferreira, visit www.onlinetransmissions.com for related articles.
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