An organization came to me recently seeking help with their failed intranet. They want to revitalize it and make it a great business tool.

I suggested they start with user research; they replied that they’d like to “get straight to design.” They meant color, fonts, images, branding.

Poorly implemented design elements such as color and font can break usability. But they aren’t the most important parts of the user experience.

Structure, location and labeling have more impact on success than the elements that make an intranet “pretty.” For example, look at the winner of DWG’s 2013 My Beautiful Intranet competition, Singapore International Enterprise. The article even notes that “beauty” can be defined in different ways--in this case, it was about how the site delivers what users need to be truly engaged.

Figure 1 shows the ideal process for creating an intranet. Bend the graphic into a circle and you get the ideal ongoing evolution of your intranet.

Research/test, wireframe, test, design. Do it again and again. Don’t stop doing it. Moreover, choose to ignore the user voice – the research and testing at the front end – at your own peril.

How to Listen to Users

Listening is much harder than talking. This is why most companies are bad at it. When we listen to users, we often do these things:

  1. Interviews
  2. Roundtables (less formal than focus groups)
  3. Usability testing
  4. Site reviews

Interviews and Roundtables

We don’t go into an assignment to find the user voice by asking what they want. People cannot say what they want on the intranet because they cannot conceive what is possible.

Instead, we discover how they do their work, how they interact with the intranet, and how we can better leverage the technology to help them solve business problems.

Interviews and roundtables look at the following:

  • Information needs users have (both incoming and outgoing)
  • Users’ frustrations
  • Manual processes users engage in
  • Types of documents they use

Interviews are typically done with those who are tougher to schedule (e.g., executives) or those who have specialized needs or roles (e.g., site managers). Roundtables are done with groups who work in the same function (e.g., operations, research, finance, human resources, etc.).

Usability Testing

Usability testing typically starts with what’s called card sorting. For those unfamiliar with it, here is how it works:

  • The user has a list of items representing both topics and tasks they might find/complete on the intranet.
  • The user sorts these into categories.
  • The user labels each category created.

The results of card sorting help us understand how to structure the experience and how to label navigational elements. There are several online tools for card sorting that make it easy to include users from around the globe. Optimal Workshop, Userzoom, ConceptCodify, SimpleCardSort, UsabilityTools and Usabilitest are just some examples.  

After you begin wireframing the intranet – wireframes are simple line drawings that represent what goes where and how items are labeled – you can also do testing of the wireframes or testing of the information architecture. These are useful in confirming assumptions and validating your approach.

Site Review

The last item we include in a user voice research effort is site review. In site reviews, we look at an existing site for several important considerations:

  1. Usability
  2. Content (useful, accessible, current, etc.)
  3. Functionality (balance of tasks with topics)
  4. Integration (with other applications and across site collections)

We often follow up with site owners to learn more about their strategies, decisions and governance approaches.

More Thoughts About User Needs Research

Here are several other tips to consider when planning your user voice research:

  • If you do roundtables via telephone, it’s best to keep the number of participants to 6-8 people. This ensures you can equitably include every participant in every question.
  • If you do the roundtables in person, have flip charts and markers on hand to write responses to your questions.
  • Executive interviews are a great way to identify executive champions. Alternatively, it is a good way to identify those executives who may benefit from some reverse mentoring. Pair super users with executives for short – 10-minute – sessions to teach individual skills. They also can work together to establish goals for the executives learning and usage. Provide the super users with some basic materials to support their teaching.
  • Site review helps you uncover the full user experience, which helps you plan for the change management effort. A site review is often tough for an internal intranet owner to do, however, because that owner is often too close to the site to see its faults.
  • Keep card sort lists to fewer than 100 items. More than 100 and your users will be more apt to abandon the exercise.
  • It takes just 30 participants to get sound data from a card sort.
  • Every user who participates in data gathering can become a launch advocate. Groom those relationships by providing a summary of results and following up with progress reports.

Important Questions User Research Can Answer

Taken as a big picture, user voice research results can help you answer several important questions:

  • How should we launch our new intranet (e.g., everything at once, incrementally, regionally, site-by-site, department-by-department)?
  • What business processes should we web-enable for launch day to drive adoption?
  • Who can serve on a street team of launch advocates?
  • How should executives be involved in launch and adoption efforts?
  • What third-party tools might we benefit from adding to our SharePoint environment?
  • How difficult will it be to get users to use and get value from the new intranet?

While it seems like a lot of up-front time, the more you invest in this stage, the better your chances of hitting a home run when you launch.