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ASTC-NSW 2010 day 1: Delivering an intranet that works for staff

This week I’m attending the ASTC-NSW 2010 conference in Sydney. These are the notes that I took during a session by James Robertson. All the credit for the content and ideas goes to James. Any mistakes are mine.

James Robertson gave a presentation titled “five ways to deliver an intranet that works for staff”. He covered these topics:

  • Understand what the staff needs
  • Make the site design useful
  • Focus on key content
  • Separate “back office” content
  • Test your design with the staff

Understanding what the staff needs

People will use the intranet if it’s useful. You need to talk to the people. James’s tip is this: Don’t ask people what they want! There’s a difference between what people say they want and what they actually do.

Instead, we need to understand what people are actually trying to do. Find out what works well for them, and where they are having difficulties. In an interview, don’t even ask people about the intranet. Instead, ask them about their job. Ask what information they need to do their job and where they get it from.

James discussed a number of needs analysis techniques, and gave us a link to his website where there’s more detail.

Making the site design useful

James discussed the fact that typical intranets give you no information at all on the home pages. Instead, they’re full of boilerplate text, a welcome message or a photo of the director. Instead, use the body of the home page as a navigation page, in plain language and linking to the information that’s useful, categorised into chunks. This is where, as content people, we have a lot to say about the navigation.

Ensure that the links are task-focused. For example, add a block of “how do I” topics such as “apply for leave”, “access my email from home”, and so on. Using task-focused design is something all technical writers know, and this is how we can help in the intranet design.

One of the categories on James’s slide was “How, what where”. Someone from the audience commented that this can quickly get out of hand. James agreed: FAQs are evil! The same applies to “quick links”. They can quickly expand to an amorphous mess. We need to design for tasks that are useful to staff, and we need to design for sustainability. Some designs and information architectures will make it much easier for the site to be manageable.

Focusing on key content

We all know what good content looks like. The challenge is, how to we get this content onto the intranet. One problem is that we have amateur authors adding content to the intranet. They weren’t selected for their ability to write, but they’re doing their best.

James suggests that we need to recognise this fact: Not all content needs to be of equal quality. Some documents do, such as HR policy. But communications from IT, for example, don’t. Currency is more important than quality.

We need a graduated governance model. We have limited resources. We will target them at high value content.

Separating “back office” content

By “back office” content, James means those large amounts of information specific to one area of the organisation, such as finance modelling spreadsheets and engineering documents. This content is often the content that people need to do their job. We can take it off the intranet and put it somewhere else. These are the collaboration sites for specialised bulk content. The governance of these is critical, to ensure that they can be managed and that people can find the information.

Testing your design with the staff

We need to apply use-centred design. James was running out of time here, so he talked fast through the techniques such as card sorting, tree testing to test navigation on bits of paper, usability testing.

These are the techniques that we can use to combine information architecture, content and strategy into a site that actually works for staff.

My conclusion

James is hilarious and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed his talk. Thanks James!

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.

TCANZ 2010 day 1 – Metadata: Key to a successful intranet

I’m attending the TCANZ Conference 2010 in Wellington, New Zealand. Ann Rockley gave the keynote address this morning: “Metadata: Key to a successful intranet”. These are the notes I took during the session. All credit goes to Ann. Any mistakes are mine.

Ann started with a general overview of the problems an intranet may encounter when it starts growing, gaining lots of content and possibly suffering from haphazard organisation. Then she showed how you can reduce the problem by good use of metadata.

Your intranet is only as good as your employees’ ability to find information in it. The key to retrieving information is metadata.

Metadata is “information about information” (rather than “data about data”).

These are some of the uses of metadata that Anne talked about:

  • Similes. People won’t find information if they search for a simile, a word that’s not in the document but means the same thing as a word that is in the document. To solve this problem, you can add the similes in the metadata.
  • Categories. You can also use metadata to categorise information. For example, you might tag information for specific user groups, such as business analysts.
  • Tracking. Metadata can mark information that is in a particular state, such as its status in a workflow (draft versus approved, or translated versus awaiting translation).

Ann talked about taxonomy, which is the process of organising information. Metadata is one of the tools you use in your taxonomy. It is important that you build your taxonomy with your users in mind, because they’re the ones who are going to use it. You should also build it in such a way that it can grow. Ann gave us some interesting insights into the limitations of the Dewey Decimal System.

You also probably need a controlled vocabulary, to make sure that everyone in the organisation is talking about the same thing. This is especially important if the organisation has teams of people in various geographic locations.

A taxonomy consists of:

  • File structures.
  • Navigation structures.
  • A controlled vocabulary – A list of agreed terms. Ideally, only certain people can add terms to the vocabulary. This means that people know what to call an item when they add it to the intranet. People also know what to call it when they’re searching for it.
  • The relationships between items of information – Synonyms; broad versus narrow terms (furniture and bed); preferred versus variant terms (colour and color); etc.
  • A thesaurus.
  • Metadata.

Ann led us through the steps to take when creating a taxonomy. The most important things to concentrate on are the goal of your taxonomy, and the people who will use it. Don’t focus on the technology in the early design phase. She gave us useful guidelines on identifying the scope of the taxonomy. We looked at the details of designing and finding hierarchies, facets, keywords, etc, in the information that your taxonomy will serve.

A good tip: If your information is on a website, use web analytic software to find out what people are searching for, and add those terms to your keywords.

Ann wrapped up by telling us about the books she has published and those in the pipeline. She also mentioned the Intelligent Content 2011 conference, taking place in Palm Springs in February 2011.

One of the questions at the end of the session was, “What are your strategies for getting people to agree on the terms used in the controlled vocabulary?” Ann’s answer:

  • One great way is a “card sort”. Put the terms on index cards and see how people use the cards when they try to find information.
  • Another good way is to see what people are actually searching for, on the existing intranet.
  • A good way to defuse the situation is to use preferred terms and variant terms, and let people know that they can still use the alternative terms on the intranet.

Always remember, it’s not about the people designing the taxonomy. It’s about the users.

Thank you Ann for a detailed and considered walk through this aspect of information design!

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