Intuitive intranets: The newbie test

We all agree (hopefully) that websites should be intuitive. But what do we actually mean?

For most public-facing websites, the meaning of “intuitive” is pretty simple – in theory, if not in practice.

For example, if you’re building an online shop, you want to create a site structure, navigation scheme and labelling system that will help your potential customers find the products and information they’re looking for with as little guesswork as possible. (It’s Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” principle.)

Not that most online shops achieve this goal – few of them do, because execution is hard and because other, less customer-centric priorities get in the way. But at least most website owners will agree with the basic idea that a website which mystifies and frustrates users isn’t cool. (Again I stress, most website owners.)

With intranets, “intuitive” gets slippery

Intranets are different from public websites. They’re different because organisations think of the audience for their intranets as “people who work here”. What that means is that the standard for what’s “intuitive” becomes slippery. If everyone in your organisation knows what a TPS Report is, then it’s perfectly intuitive to have a link that says “TPS Reports”, right?

Right…unless you’re a new employee who’s been plonked in front of the intranet on their first day to “get acquainted with the business” while your manager scrambles to get computer access granted, security passes printed and induction sessions organised. (This describes my first day in every large organisation I’ve ever worked for – yours too, I bet.)

At Weave Web, we’ve recently been doing an information architecture and content strategy project involving an intranet for a large not-for-profit organisation. This intranet has exactly the problem I’ve been describing: it’s been built for people who already work in the organisation and are presumed to know about stuff. (It has lots of other problems too, but this is a good place to start.)

As a way of avoiding this kind of “everyone knows” argument, we came up with what we call “the newbie test”. It’s a simple principle:

The intranet should be organised and labelled so that an employee who is brand new to the organisation can easily find their way around.

Why the newbie test?

There are two good reasons for using brand new staff as the litmus test for what’s intuitive.

Firstly, new staff are heavy intranet users, not just on their first day, but in their first few weeks, as they desperately scramble to not look stupid in front of their colleagues and boss.

Secondly, in just the same way as making a website accessible to disabled people ends up being good for all users, the newbie test is good for everyone in the organisation.

After all, those assumptions about what “everyone knows”? Most of the time they’re wrong. Especially in big organisations, different divisions develop their own internal jargon, their own acronyms, their own shorthand. This is a big reason why information silos develop. If your intranet doesn’t make assumptions about what people already know, it has a much better chance of breaking down those silos, which means the whole organisation wins.

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