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Intranets also have to be easy - 05/07/2007

Usability is not only a strategy focusing on the external client- the corporate environment can also benefit from it.

Never has so much information been available inside companies for different employees at different levels. At the same time, finding the right information at the right time seems also to never have been so hard.

Information for work needs to be useful and easy to get. It may seem obvious but this is not what happens inside companies. At the start of 2007, a study by Accenture was released, about the thoughts of company managers in the USA and the UK on information necessary to complete daily work duties.

Among the managers interviewed, 59% said that on a daily basis they were unable to access various pieces of important information that exist somewhere in the company, because they were unable to track them down. Half of those interviewed revealed that the information they did find was not exactly what they needed and more than a third of the interviewees said that they waste a lot of time finding exactly what they are looking for in the sea of information.

A good part of the problems described by these managers, and by thousands of other employees in different companies around the world, are directly linked to the difficulty in using the company’s intranet.

In Brazil, a few years back, the majority of intranets were nothing more than a deposit of information of the type: birthday of the month, company’s restaurant menu, messages from the directors, etc. Now they have evolved and today some are not even called intranets but rather, corporate portals. They offer, in addition to huge amounts of information, numerous tools to carry out daily work activities.

Focus on employee is missing

The problem is that the evolution of the intranets was too focused on the technology and not on the users. Some companies invested heavily on systems and tools believing that this was the path to a successful intranet.

What you see today inside many companies is a low number of intranet accesses, a low use of the expensive features implemented and a much lower than expected, in terms of productivity increase, return on investment.

Usability is one of the critical factors in determining the success of an intranet. It hardly matters whether your intranet has the most modern content management system if your employees get lost finding information, or if they waste a huge amount of time finding what they need. They end up giving up and going back to using old methods, which they consider more efficient, such as asking a colleague next to them, calling the support team, using printed information instead of those on the system, etc.

IBM case

IBM has on their intranet a list of thousands of employees, their names, phone numbers, positions, etc. This list is what is called a “killer app”, an application that is used by all employees of the company, from the intern to the director.

The employee list at IBM, called Blue Pages, did not used to fulfill its duties as a killer app on the intranet, because it was too complicated to use. The company conducted usability tests, discovered where the problems were and went on to redesign the application.

The usability improvements on Blue Pages brought a gain of 72 minutes, per employee, per month, time which used to be wasted on not finding employee information quickly and easily on the intranet.

IBM estimated that the savings, just with the usability improvements, on the list of employees reached 194 million US dollars a year.

How to make an intranet productive

The recommendations on how to make your intranet an effective and efficient tool are similar to those for any open web site. Firstly, include employees in the intranet’s creation process. Carry out qualitative research to identify the real needs of employees and their respective areas. Offer what they need and not just what everyone else is doing, or what the IT companies want to sell you as the solution of the millennium.

Do not put aside usability tests on your intranet. You will only know if the intranet is adequately meeting the employees’ needs if you test it with real users. The usability tests show if the employees have difficulties or not in finding what they need and how much time they spend to get this information, as well as is what they find is actually what they were looking for and if they are satisfied when using the intranet.

Mercedes Sanchez
Director of Mercedes Sanchez Usabilidade

Translated from an article published on JumpExec.

With IBM’s BluePages each employee stopped wasting 72 minutes a month searching for internal information.

See also

The way to provide effective international user experience is doing local user research studies, with local users.

Global studies

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