5 staff behaviours that suggest your intranet is failing

— 7 minute read

Intranets, whether a tiny wiki or a massive enterprise solution, are core to the efficient functioning of any business. A successful intranet helps staff complete tasks and find content in a speedy and painless way.

As key organisational tools go, they command little attention. They aren't customer facing and they don't handle money, so organisations often consider them to be low-impact services.

As a result, there are a lot of poor intranets out there. They are often so underfunded and under resourced it's almost impossible to ensure a smooth user experience, no matter how lovingly they are tended by their devoted maintainers.

Think your intranet might be in the same position? Here are five staff behaviours that I've observed in user research projects that are usually warning signs of a failing intranet.

1. Staff are asking for a "last updated" date on content permalink

While dating your content can be useful, a "last updated" date is not generally something that users are actively looking for. So, if staff are asking for this feature, some further discovery is required. Why would staff find this information useful? In what circumstances would they normally check for the date?

Often, the underlying reason is that staff have learned from previous bad experiences that the intranet content is out of date and unreliable. Seeing a "last updated" date would allow them to judge whether or not the content can be trusted.

However, a "last updated" date won't really solve their problem. After all, just because content is old, doesn't mean it isn't accurate. And even if it has been updated recently, it isn't necessarily reliable.

A good intranet should be the sole source for verified content. Staff should never have to think twice about whether or not they can trust the information in front of them.

2. Staff are emailing or calling colleagues to find content permalink

Whether your intranet is up to the task or not, your colleagues are clever people. They will find a way to complete their tasks and get their jobs done regardless.

When they don't have reliable technology to hand, they'll often fall back to their social networks. I've known staff members who keep informal address books of colleagues in different departments, their details on-hand for those times when they can't find the answer. Some staff even go as far as to give up on the intranet entirely, going straight to their address book instead.

It seems like an acceptable solution, because the job still gets done. But in practice, if a staff member needs to stop and find a document for a colleague, the organisation slows down. If someone has to wait for a colleague's response before they can complete their task, bottlenecks are created. While your colleague's persistence and dedication to their job should be applauded, this behaviour might just be causing congestion in everyone's day.

A good intranet should be the easiest route to the information that staff need to do their job. If it's less painful to wait two days for a colleague to respond to their email, it's likely that your intranet isn't living up to this requirement.

3. Staff are relying on bookmarks to navigate back to mission critical content permalink

Do your intranet users rely on bookmarks to navigate back to content, so they don't "lose it"? This can be a sign that staff don't trust the system enough to believe they'll be able to find that content again.

If it's just the odd blogpost here and there, there may not be a problem. But when your colleagues are bookmarking high priority tasks or important pieces of information, it might be an indication that your information architecture is poor.

If staff "lose" content, it's likely to be because they can't replicate the journey they took to find it in the first place. A good intranet will have a consistent structure for content that aligns with the way staff think about their needs within the organisation. When that structure is working well, staff shouldn't have to pause to consider where they found the content the last time.

4. Staff say "we need a better search engine" permalink

Building good search is difficult, and it might be true that you do need a better search engine. However, almost every time I've heard this request the more obvious culprit has been poor content on the intranet, rather than the search function itself.

Bad or poorly structured content can cause a number of issues for search, including:

  • The desired content being difficult to locate because the searcher's terms don't match the language used in the content,
  • Too many search results to filter through, because there is a lot of similar or overlapping content,
  • Difficulty identifying the desired content in the search results list, because the page titles and introductions aren't sufficiently descriptive.

A good intranet search should mirror the language and phrasing that your staff use as closely as possible. Technology can go a long way to make this easier. But ultimately, if you aren't using the same language as your users, even Google can't make your search better.

5. Staff say "when I first joined the organisation the intranet was difficult to use, but I learned" permalink

Bad systems can make any person feel stupid, particularly when they can't complete (what should be) simple tasks. "When I first joined the organisation the intranet was difficult to use" might be a way of saying "I find the intranet difficult to use".

When I do user research it's common for me to see participants find a way of expressing something they are uncomfortable with or unhappy about without directly attributing those concerns to themselves. It's easier to say "this might be frustrating for someone else" than it is to say "this is frustrating for me".

It is also true that new staff members are particularly likely to suffer in organisations with poor intranets. The first few weeks of a job requires a steep learning curve and the last thing any new worker needs is the additional challenge of mastering a difficult intranet system.

A good intranet should empower staff to do their jobs faster and with less friction. Your colleagues have enough complicated problems to solve in their everyday jobs without the intranet being one of them.

Ok, that sounds like my intranet. What can I do? permalink

Before you jump to make improvements, it's important to do some research. You'll need to understand what your colleagues use day-to-day, what content and tasks are high priority for them, and the kind of language they're using.

Start by making sure you have a good analytics package (such as Google Analytics) running on the intranet, and that you're logging the search queries that the staff are making. This will give you some rich quantitative data on how people are using the intranet. You or your help desk should also start logging the types of issues and queries staff report; this a useful way of discovering "pain points" in the intranet user experience.

You'll also want to do some qualitative research; talking to the people who use the intranet. The GOV.UK service manual has a thorough list of different qualitative and quantitative research methodologies that you can use to get you started.

The good news is that once you've identified the problems your colleagues are having you can start making improvements to make their intranet experience easier. You won't be able to fix everything at once, but trust me, they'll appreciate any improvement you can offer.

I'd love to hear more about your intranet experiences. Is your intranet amazing? Or do you have tricks to make it easier to navigate the system?