Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Standards in enterprise level intranets

This is more of a best practices blog than a technical one. After seeing several large enterprise level intranets grind themselves to near uselessness, I figured it was time to shed some light on why standards can be so important.

Defined standards is an often overlooked part of a companies internal computing strategy, yet in my opinion a very important one. Introducing standards into web systems will in the long run save user frustration, save time, save money, and ensure that an organization's investment in their information is accessible.

Keeping a few simple things in mind when laying out your design will inevitably create a better end user experience.

Successful enterprise level intranets should contain usable, organized information. Feel free to babble on about the history of your company on your extranet, remember to keep your intranet environment concise and to the point. The key is the intranet is a tool, and when users brains are highjacked by lack of organization an extraneous information the effectiveness is lost. The end users should be able to retrieve what the are looking for quickly, and then to move on.

Early intranet adopters usually have chaotic web structures. Many larger companies have a disorganized or non existent web structure because their strategy was (and is)to piece together all their departments home made websites. Every department has a self proclaimed web aficionado, and that person was typically usually tapped to "put together" and maintain that dept's intranet site. This leads to a host of issues including lack of central management, unbalanced traffic loads (both physical loads and "political") and my personal pet peeve - departmental branding which I will get into a bit later. All of these things lend themselves to an inefficient end user experience. It may sound harsh, but taking the design liberties away from your rouge developers will foster a user centric and standard web experience. Management of corporate intranets should be centrally managed in regards to design and function, actual content should be delegated.

Drop the fancy logos. One thing that I have seen over the years in most or all of the patched together intranet systems is custom departmental logos popping up. Some facets of an organization will in fact need self branding, but keep in mind most don't and when they don't they add to the confusion factor. Adopt a rendition of your corporate logo, and create a clear background for sublevels to modify with a picture explaining what it is that they do. Your company has already spent millions of dollars developing an image for itself, it may hurt, but it is better than your fancy new logo that you made in Photoshop. Sub-branding also throws off new users. I speak from experience when I say an intranet with a different header image and logo in each site makes a new employee wonder how many different companies are involved. Sure departmental pride is a good thing, but who do you actually work for - creating sub logos projects you are on a different team altogether and not working for a common goal.

In closing, it is easy to see why we need standards. Designing the superstructure of your intranet smart will make your investment give a much higher return. So, develop your design standards in regards to Look/Feel, Navigation, and keep them user focused! Long story short - all development including back end systems, graphics, and applications should be agreed upon at a corporate level by development staff and management. Delegate content management tasks the guys in each dept whose experience consists of making a website for their local church. Good luck, you're gonna need it.

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