TCANZ 2010 day 1 – Building a great intranet

I’m attending the TCANZ Conference 2010 in Wellington, New Zealand. Rachael Fogarty gave a great presentation on the design and evolution of the intranet at the Office of the Auditor-General, where she works. These are the notes I took during the session. All credit goes to Rachael. Any mistakes are mine.

Rachael told us that the words in the title of her presentation are deliberately chosen: “Building a great intranet”. She uses the word “building” even though the intranet launched 3 years ago, because an intranet is never finished. It should be continually growing.


She started off by telling us of some of the problems people used to have, before the introduction of the intranet. The most problematic task was searching for someone’s phone number. You had to know the office in which they worked, before you could even start looking. This was time-consuming in an organisation that has offices in different parts of the country.

The session covered these important aspects of the intranet:

  • Content
  • Organisation
  • Governance

The most useful aspects of the intranet are:

  • Powerful search. Now you can find a person’s phone number very quickly.
  • RSS feeds. You can build a feed to get the information you need. This is fast and convenient.
  • Dashboards. You can customise your own.
  • Microformats. These are a standardised way of tagging your content so that it can be used by other applications. One example provides a quick way of adding an event to Outlook.
  • Cleanly coded. There is no clutter in the HTML. This means that the intranet is fast, which is essential especially for people connecting remotely.

The intranet is open source. It’s based on Plone. The software is free, and cost very little to set up. (They paid a web developer $15 000 to do some customisation.) There is basically 24-hour support because developers are working on the project round the globe, as an open source project.

Rachael recommends the design philosophies of these three people:

  • Rachel McAlpine
  • Jakob Nielsen
  • Gerry McGovern


Rachael gave some good tips for finding out what content would be useful on the intranet. For example, in a staff directory it’s useful to show a person’s cost centre code as well as things like telephone number. She discovered this by purchasing a Nielsen guide.

When determining whether some content should go on the intranet, Rachael and her team always ask the question “Does it make the boat go faster?” This helps to keep the fluff and the stuff that’s not useful off the intranet. They ask questions like, “Who is going to use it and how often are they going to use it?”

Intranets die when they become repositories for old and obsolete information. Rachael has processes for removing content that is no longer useful. The content is archived, and is still available on the documentation management system, but it is no longer cluttering up the intranet search results.

As guardian of the intranet, it’s part and parcel of your job to keep the information fresh and useful.

Sarah’s comment: I come at this from a different direction. If you have a really good search engine, it’s better to put everything on the intranet. Well, not everything, of course. But much more than Rachael suggests. Then everyone would know that whatever they’re looking for is likely to be found on the intranet. If you have a good CMS, it should be possible to find what you’re looking for by search, by metadata categorisation or by sorting by date, for example. Historical (“old”) information is often very useful. Of course, it depends on the size of the organisation and volume of information. Still, I’d rather not have a guardian of the intranet. Instead, let all members of the organisation contribute. End of my comment.


Organisation is critical. People must be able to find the content.

Rachael showed us a screenshot of an intranet page and discussed the design of the layout and the importance of various bits of real estate on the screen.

Rachael’s team talked to many people, asking them how they used information. They gave people a say in what they were doing and how they were doing it.

When the intranet was introduced, at first it had only had a couple of tabs. The idea was that the search would do everything necessary. But people said they would prefer more tabs, because it gave them a sense of comfort to see how the information was organised. So they added more tabs: Governance, corporate services, team spaces, resources and sector gateway.

Throughout the intranet, they have created one-stop shops. These are sections or pages for each task or topic, with all the information required about that task or topic, or at least links to the information. For example, there is a page about “travelling for work”.

People can mark items as their “favourites”, just by clicking on a little red heart. This means that people can make a quick list of places they go to regularly. Their favourites list shows at top right of every screen.


Rachael emphasised that there must be somebody around to look after the content.

Who owns the intranet? In Rachael’s organisation there is a team of editors (technical communicators) who are responsible for it.

It works, because they really care about it.

Great service is the key to influence. The intranet’s ability to do the job it’s designed for depends on how much the team cares about it. And the level of service they provide is key to spreading the news about the technical communications team and their influence in the organisation.

What can and should you control? Rachael gave a few examples of what the technical communication team controls and/or monitors.

Total control:

  • The home page and the items on it.
  • Classification scheme for core items, such as the phone number search and office information.

Monitoring, but not total control:

  • Training
  • Central government

Not controlled, and so open to all staff members to contribute:

  • Blog posts

Rachael’s summary

Keep the user-centred focus of everything you do.

My conclusions

Rachael has a very engaging and humorous way of speaking, complete with delighted chuckles and even the occasional evil giggle. Thanks for a great session, Rachael.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 2 September 2010, in technical writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi Sarah, thanks for your kind words about the presentation. I’m so taken with “delighted chuckles and evil giggles” that I’m getting that engraved on the iPod I’ve just ordered. And eating more chocolate.
    Warm regards,

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