Intranets have now been around since the 1990s and so there is a large body of best practice evidence that this guide draws upon. What’s more, also reflected in this guide are some of the latest internet design best practices and guidelines, which often cover similar ground. You’ll find lots more detail on different aspects of intranet design within our blog, but here we provide an overview of the key issues.
Navigating The Site – Navigation Menu
Site navigation is fundamental to a successful intranet as your site will be useless if users cannot easily and quickly find the information and tools that they are after.
We’ve touched on this briefly already, but the first step is to develop a sitemap. A sitemap sets the structure and organization of your site. Often it reflects the organizational structure of your business with each department or team having their own specific area on the site. Quite often, each department will want to have their own navigation home page followed by a series of sub-pages.
To get started on your sitemap, gather together a small group of key stakeholders and a whiteboard. The stakeholders could be your intranet steering group or they may choose to delegate the task to the departmental level. The stakeholders are tasked with identifying the department’s key parent or main pages along with the child or sub-pages. To illustrate this let’s use the example of the human resources (HR) department. HR will have their own parent page which will be the gateway to all the HR information and data and so child pages could include leave requests, performance management, employee wellness and employee benefits and so on. A similar process needs to be followed by the other departments as well as any centralized data that all personnel need to access.
The sitemap should make sense in the context of the organization. The key test is that it should be easy to navigate the most important information without the need to search. And remember that each parent and child page should be solving a business problem or need. Be careful though not to go overboard with the number of child pages. We’ve all had experience of those annoying automated phone systems where you have to select from a series of menus before eventually getting to speak to someone about your issue. You don’t want to be replicating this kind of experience for users of your intranet.
And while you’re drawing up your sitemap, it’s a good idea to begin considering whether any page viewing permission restrictions need to be put in place. Given the sensitive nature of the data that’s likely to be on at least some of these intranet pages, it’s likely that some pages will need to be secure in terms of who can create and edit content. In addition, you may want to restrict access to certain pages so that only appropriate staff as determined by job role, team or geographic location can view the data. Being mindful of these issues at the initial planning stages will save valuable time later on in the process.
It’s also important to bear in mind that up to 60 percent of users will want to navigate around your site using a mobile device. You will, therefore, need to ensure that when viewing your site on a mobile or tablet that the navigation area fits the screen for both landscape and portrait viewing.
Intranet Pages On-page Navigation
It’s a fact that when viewing information online, we tend to read from left to right and so it pays to put all the important information on the left-hand side. With this in mind, columns are a great way to present information but make sure you use the appropriate column width for the information you would like to present. For example, always place your main content in a full-width or 2/3rds column while things like links or social media feeds work well in narrower columns on the right-hand side. Also, keep in mind how the columns flow one on top of each other on mobile devices including what will display first, always test it on an actual mobile device if you can.
Home Pages Should Pack A Punch
First impressions really do count and the home page will set the standard for your whole intranet so make sure yours packs a punch. Why not use a striking visual or image to really grab the user’s attention? And make sure the content of the home page is refreshed on a regular basis as static content is disengaging. It’s also a good idea to set up links on the home page to the most commonly used or requested information on other pages. You could also consider directly downloading or displaying the most frequently accessed policies or files to make it even easier for the user.
Too much writing and big blocks of text make for a dull and boring intranet. Diagrams, photos, infographics are all useful ways to add visual appeal to your site. But rather than using stock photos sourced from the web, why not include real photos of team members or situations and settings that will be relevant to your employees. This will increase their sense of engagement and will help to make the intranet more relevant. Images also help to ensure the intranet reflects your brand personality.
The Six, Six Rule
Be mindful of limiting the number of pages as too many will make the site overly complex, cumbersome to use and difficult to navigate. And so try to design your intranet with the six, six rule in mind: a maximum of six pages with six items of content on each page. This exercise will also help you to focus on what’s really important. And when you’re reviewing the setup, it should be obvious what the problems or pain points are that each page is resolving.
Wherever possible use lots of white space to break up the text. Think of it as being the blank canvas on which all the other design elements are placed. White space, far from being wasted space, helps to create a clean and uncluttered overall look for your site.
It’s best to be economical with hyperlinks to documents – too many on one page can be overwhelming and distracting for the user. Instead, break the links out into logical sections using expanding and collapsing content areas with intuitive and relevant sub-headings. Here’s an example, sub-heading Travel Policies > Hotel Expenses (hyperlink). And instead of always using text hyperlinks of the click here kind, think about using images that act as links. In terms of the end user’s experience, this is much more obvious and visually engaging.
Use Relevant Headings To Assist With Searches
Make sure your page and content headings provide enough detail to return meaningful search results as well as guiding users to the information they are looking for as they scan the content on the page. In our experience, younger demographics tend to use the search site tool more than an older demographic who tend to just navigate through the pages to find the information they are looking for. And that’s why descriptive headings are so important.
Take the time to ensure all of your content is consistent in style, especially font and font sizes. Don’t fall into the trap of copying from another document and pasting directly into your intranet without adjusting the font and font size or you will end up with an inconsistent look and feel that will not only confuse your users, it will also, more importantly, look unprofessional. The true test is whether you would take the same approach with your customer-facing website. It is well worth the investment in time.
Use banners or page header images at the top of each page. This acts as a welcome to the page and can highlight what the user will find on the page. It’s also visually engaging.
File Sizes For Web And Mobile
Large files will take a long time to download and this is especially relevant with a mobile connection. There’s nothing more annoying than having the browser whizzing around for ages while it struggles to download a graphic or video. So that high-res, glossy sales brochure that downloaded so quickly in the office may not really be a viable option for your sales reps out in the field. Pick a format that works well on both the web and mobiles: JPEGs or PNGs are the best choices. And if you are planning to use lots of videos on your site then upload them first to YouTube and then embed the video in an iframe or widget on your intranet. That way you can be certain that users will be able to access the video regardless of the type of device that they’re using.
It’s likely that you will have a number of intranet content contributors identified in your company. These contributors may be on a team, department or geographic basis. To ensure that all-important consistency and uniformity to the look and feel of your intranet, it’s important to have clear guidelines in place about fonts and font sizes, colors and branding.