Summary: What is intranet usability? Why should you care? How can it be improved? Guidelines for navigation. Overview of paper prototyping.
A recent study by the Nielsen Norman Group showed that users are not happy with their intranets1. Satisfaction ratings were a dismal 66%. To put it in perspective, that is only marginally better than the Rotten Tomatoes rating for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Which was terrible.
Thankfully Intranet Connections was not included in the study, mainly because our customers love us. But why are so many users unhappy with their intranets? Much of the dissatisfaction comes down to one word: usability.
What is usability?
“Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word “usability” also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.”
Think of bad usability as the Jar Jar Binks of your intranet. It ruins everything.
Why should I care about intranet usability?
Intranet usability is all about employee productivity. The more time your users spend being lost and confused, the more money you lose to lost productivity. Making your intranet easier to use is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings – even more to large organizations. The following information is from a report published by the Nielsen Norman Group on Intranet Usability1.
Saving employees just 3 minutes a day can save your organization of 500 people almost $190,000 per year!2
An intranet design going from:
- bad to average usability could save an organization $200,000 USD per year;
- average to good usability could save an organization $67,000 USD per year; and
- bad to good usability could save over $266,000 USD per year.
Intranet Usability Annual Savings for an Organization with 500 Employees
The annual cost of the time spent using the intranet for the subset of 13 intranet test tasks for a company with 500 employees. The blue bar in the center represents the baseline average intranet; the yellow bar represents the savings of the best 25% of intranets; and the red bar, the cost of usability on the worst 25% of intranets.
What can I do about my intranet usability?
The first place to look for poor intranet usability practices in your site navigation. We have previously discussed best practices for information architecture, planning your navigation and task-based versus topic-based navigation. These are each valuable resources for those looking to improve their intranets. I am going to assume you are familiar with the concepts presented in those posts so I will focus on best practices for the execution of your navigation (while I leave JJ Abrams to consider how he might remove Jar Jar Binks in the upcoming Star Wars sequels).
Intranet navigation should be consistent and persistent
The navigation on your intranet should look the same and be carried out the same way across your entire intranet. Changes to the site navigation cause confusion. Confusion causes wasted time. Wasted time causes frustration which in turn causes people to take a break and start looking up information about irritating Star Wars characters.
Maintaining consistent navigation can be a challenge if you have a large intranet portal with unique sites maintained by different departments. In such cases, a style guide or template should be created to keep uniform elements across all sites, including navigation, font styling and general look and feel. This will help fend off productivity loss due to the familiarization process between sites.
Choose your words wisely, you must
Using the right terminology is key to successful navigation. Menu items should be clear enough to be understood by your users, enabling them to easily decide whether they want to click on them or not. The words should reflect the commonly understood language of your organization. If you are an employee of LucasArts, using the Star Wars intranet, you are likely able to figure out what the “Wookiepedia” might be, whereas that might not make a lot of sense at Walmart.
Also, avoid the use of abbreviations. This can be a challenge given the limited space in a navigation for full words. But if employees have to stop and think about what a link might mean, it leads to confusion, which, as discussed earlier, leads to Googling obscure Star Wars characters (unless, of course, you have access to the Wookiepedia). You do not want to increase the cognitive load on your users – don’t make your users think – at least not about confusing navigation labels.
It is also worth mentioning that your menu item names should be unique and distinct from one another. One customer intranet had links for “Employee Info”, “Company Info” and “Departments”, all of which had overlapping information. Users were forced to click on multiple links in an effort to find the information for which they are searching.
Better intranet navigation by paper-prototyping
Creating clear, concise, comprehensive, familiar, unique yet uniform navigation names is hard, I hear you say. Thankfully I have a suggestion to help in your time of duress: paper prototyping.
Paper prototyping saves time and money since it enables you to test your navigation and its groupings before beginning development. The beauty of paper prototyping is that anyone can do it. You don’t need software. You don’t need a degree in graphic design. All you need is some paper, pens and maybe some scissors (as long as you don’t run with them). If scissors are too daunting a prospect you can use Post-it notes.
- Start by putting 5-7 sticky notes on a table.
- Write one of your top level navigation names on each sticky note. This is the top level navigation for your site.
- Start a new line of notes under the top level so they can be moved around if necessary. Group your secondary links under each top level item.
- Add as many levels as necessary for your navigation, although in general, pages lower than three deep will not be accessed often.
- Test, test, test
Once you have added all the links that you want accessible, find a sampling of 5-10 co-workers and ask them to find a given link on your sticky note navigation. Can they find the link? Is it in a grouping that makes sense to them? If not, where would they expect to find that link? This is valuable information for the person trying to make usable navigation. Your co-workers will not all think the same way you do, but with testing and refinement you can create a navigation scheme which is as clear and intuitive as possible for the majority of your users.
Poor intranet usability is losing money for many organizations. I will continue to identify usability issues in upcoming posts and give concrete suggestions on how to deal with them.
How are usability issues affecting your intranet? Contribute to the discussion by posting your comments below.
1Pernice, K., Schade, A., McCloskey, M., Whitenton, K., Cardello, J. & Nielsen, J. Intranet Usability Guidelines. Vol. 7: Navigation and Page Layout (3rd edition). Fremont, CA: Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved September 4, 2015, from http://www.nngroup.com/reports/intranet-navigation-layout-and-text/
Their study was focused on organizations with 10,000 or more employees, but we have scaled the data to that of a company with 500 employees to better reflect our customer base.
2To convert these time estimates into monetary estimates, the Nielsen Norman Group made assumptions about the cost of an employee’s time. In 2010, the average white-collar worker in the U.S. made $19.79 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If we assume that employee’s overhead is about 50% (for benefits, payroll taxes, workers’ comp, etc.), then the cost of having a white-collar employee is about $30 per hour. 3 minutes = $1.50 employee per day. $1.50 per employee x 500 employees x 253 working days / year = $189,750 in savings.