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Intranets need to be a bit more fabulous

May 12, 2014

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Beauty Project, a celebration of all things beautiful at London’s Selfridges department store. There I listened to beauty columnist Sali Hughes talk to a panel of women about their experiences of – and different attitudes to – beauty.

While many deride the beauty industry as frivolous and superficial, for others make-up instills chameleon-like superpowers, giving them the confidence to go into any new context knowing they look the part.

As I returned to work the next day, it struck me what a depressingly under-appreciated quality beauty is in online experiences, and particularly in intranets. And how because we don’t apply make-up to our standard intranet faces, they suffer the fate of appearing unglamorous, dowdy and frequently unloved.

For a couple of years now I’ve been collecting intranet screenshots in a Pinterest board – over 230 so far. There are some great examples, but a lot of bad ones too.

It got me thinking: wouldn’t intranets be better if, like this weekend’s Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, they were just a little bit more fabulous?

Ugly sister

Intranets have historically been the poor cousin of the organisation’s website. They’re utilitarian things. Intranets often began life as a little side project, put together by someone in IT, built using clunky old tools. They served a purpose, but they didn’t do it very elegantly.  That purpose was usually communication, resulting in dense, ugly pages of text.

If you were really lucky, you’d get some icons. But these early intranets were no fun – they were serious stuff, and they had the rugged bad looks to show for it. These early intranets were managed, painfully, using tools like FrontPage and LotusNotes.

Early intranets were no lookers

Creating and managing intranets became easier with the widespread adoption of content management systems. Unfortunately, this often meant Sharepoint. Sharepoint is packed with functionality, but left a lot to be desired when it came to visual design. At the same time, few organisations gave much thought to the need for strong graphic design on an intranet. After all, it’s not like you’ll look anywhere else, is it? (Remember, at this time many organisations still routinely blocked web access for staff).

Over time, intranets got a little better, with text communications giving way to other content. Early attempts were made to try and engage users with more than just text, with the use of banners.

As intranets evolved, they began to provide a route through to key services, like HR, IT or room booking.  Problem was, these services were often designed by HR or IT people who didn’t give a great deal of thought to user experience, still less to visual design.

Text-heavy and dull, but early attempts were made to use imagery

Now intranets aren’t on the web, but they are of the web. And as websites became clearer and more engaging, so too – eventually – did intranets. Slowly.

Intranets began to be aligned more closely with an organisation’s brand, using more imagery, bolder fonts, and embracing the use of white space rather than trying to pack every available pixel with more internal communications.

Cinderella moment

But no intranet manager can escape the march of progress. In the first decade of this century, Apple emerged from its doldrums to become one of the dominant forces in technology. And it did this through making products that didn’t just do more, but also looked better than their rivals.

Functional and beautiful became the order of the day. And people loved it. The web stopped being a nerd’s hobby and became a way of life for almost everyone.

In just a few short years, we had a revolution in our hands. Almost all of us now has more powerful technology in our pockets than we do on our desktops. The consumerisation of IT made us all more demanding – we wanted better functionality, faster pages, but we demanded better visual design too. The ugly web just wasn’t good enough anymore.

Intranets have responded to the changing demands of their users with intranets that offer utility as well as communication, in a form that approaches some of the cutting-edge cross-platform design we see on the wider web. This means offering communication and services that don’t just work, but also engage.

Intranets have begun to learn from the best of website design

Embracing the power of imagery

Once freed from the shackles of slow connection speeds, the web has quickly become more visual as brands began to recognise the power of imagery.

We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and because of that  images have become the currency of social media. They can instantly inform, intrigue, inspire, delight or capture the imagination of those that engage with them.

That’s because they affect us in two ways: cognitively, they expedite and increase our level of comprehension, recollection and recognition. But they also work emotionally, enhancing or affecting an emotional response.

And they do that in the blink of an eye. Following the lead of websites and social media, more intranets are making the most of visual assets to inform and engage, and tell their brand story.

Reaping the rewards 

And that’s because there are strong business drivers to do so. Organisations have long realised the impact an ugly office has on morale and productivity. Studies have shown that a well designed work environment improves productivity by anything up to 50%, increases job satisfaction by 24%.

Organisations invest time and money in making their offices look good, even if they’re not client-facing, because they know it makes business sense. But as the digital workplace becomes the place where we got to get work done, it follows that the same is true in our online environments too.

If the primary place that you do your work is online, then making that digital workplace one that people want to work in will have huge benefits in productivity and engagement.

As more of us work flexibly supported by a digital workplace, then the intranet becomes the primary way that we experience and understand our employer brand.

By connecting employees with the organisation’s brand and vision using both content and design, good-looking intranets create more engaged employees. Better looking intranets can have a big impact on their business outcomes.

The times, they are a-changin’

It’s encouraging, then to see intranets finally embracing the power of beauty. This year’s My Beautiful Intranet competition, the Digital Workplace Group’s annual intranet beauty parade,  is already seeing a steady stream of entries – and they’re a million miles away from the out-of-the-box ugliness that’s plagued the industry for two long.

Dense blocks of text, tiny images and 1990s styling has been replaced with big, blod and on-brand design on par with some of the best web sites around.

The competition is still open for entries – take a look, vote for your favourites or submit your own. I’m on the judging panel this year, and am looking forward to seeing more.

Is there more to life than being really, ridiculously good looking?

Of course a great intranet can’t just be about form over function. But by combining form and function, pairing great functionality with an interface that functions well and looks good, we create intranets that have a huge impact on engagement and productivity – and are really loved by our users.

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