In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan said “we shape our tools. Thereafter, they shape us”.
McLuhan’s focus was language; he argued that language doesn’t describe that which is in the world, but rather, we can only see the world through the medium of language. Language is limiting; our tools don’t let us do whatever we want, but instead limit and often dictate what we do.
His thesis is that while the way we work, think and communicate have led to tools being designed the way they have, once this design is finalised it closes the loop and that tool influences how you think or behave.
To take an offline example, albums are around an hour long simply because this was how much music would fit on a vinyl record. But this persisted long after the physical media was replaced with one where length was no longer so constrained; the shared understanding remains that the art form of the album is “a collection of approximately an hour’s worth of music”. Even after the arrival of the MP3 player, the concept of the ‘album’ remains, with the download market set up so music can be sold in two sizes: single songs, or ‘albums’. An arbitrary decision about vinyl production has shaped the listening habits of four generations.
The same is certainly true online. It’s years’ worth of your reading and searching habits which determine the priority Facebook gives to updates from your friends. But this quickly becomes circular, so that in time you no longer see updates from some friends, and they’re filterered out of your life, while others get more of your attention. In the early days of Facebook, it was us – as consumers – who shared our updates, uploaded our pictures and moaned every time a new feature was rolled out.
But here we are years later, with Facebook serving us up a homogenised diet of updates (in a feed feature no one seems to like), stalking us across the Internet, and auto-tagging us in pictures – and we just suck it up. Because, well, what choice have you got? You’ve got to be on Facebook these days, don’t ya? etc.
As on the Internet, so in the enterprise. In its infancy, it’s the organisation that shapes the intranet, designing it around the needs of internal users. Or at least, that’s the theory. In truth, organisations get the intranet they deserve, with flaws and compromises and sometimes just bad decisions.
But thereafter, it’s the business that has to live with this, and it’s the people within it who have to suffer the consequences. The decisions you make at the design stage will affect the way employees work every single day, for years.
The language used on your intranet – from labelling to tone of voice – both reinforces and shapes company culture. So, too, does visual design, technology and content; all of these things say something about the type of organisation you are. They impact on engagement and retention. Claims to be a hyper-efficient organisation working at the forefront of technological change cut little ice with the workforce when they still need to download a form in Word, print it, sign it and post it to apply for remote access to your network.
Intranet design shapes the way the business works. Done well, social functionality can break down silos, enable people to work more effectively and support flexible working. Done badly, design costs money – in reduced productivity, disengaged staff, abandoned processes and channel shift. A badly designed form might be a necessary compromise right now, but it’s a big bundle of irritation that could be annoying colleagues long after you’ve left.
What do we do about it?
- Don’t make your intranet bad in the first place. This seems obvious, but it happens all too often. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard intranet managers describe the latest feature on their intranet as “well yes, I know it’s a terrible idea, but the CEO’s insisting on it”. Time invested in getting all your senior stakeholders to sign up to the principles of User Centred Design early on will pay dividends later on as it gives you the option to suggest any Bright Ideas are user tested (and changed) before being bolted on to your intranet.
- Identify your fail points and make the business case for making changes. Got a bit of functionality that everyone hates? Find out why, work out what it’s costing (not necessarily in cash terms – task completion time, or numbers of abandoned transactions are all powerful arguments for change) and sort it out.
- Design for the organisation you want to be, not the one you used to be.
- Focus on making things work the best way they can, not replicating offline formats or existing practices on the intranet. I’m yet to experience a single instance where anyone loves a printed document so much that they’d rather have a PDF than a page properly formatted for web.
- Improve, all the time. All too often, intranets are seen as a project, to be overhauled over the course of a few months then left for another five years until it’s once again woefully out of date. Good intranets continue to innovate, adding on new functionality to support changing needs and deliver organisational goals.
It was McLuhan who coined the phrase the medium is the message. Your intranet is your medium; what message does it convey to your organisation?