9 surprising findings from the Nielsen Norman Best Intranet Design Annual 2018

As Nielsen Norman announce the winners of the 17th Intranet Design Annual Awards, we share 9 insights from the report that you might find very surprising…

User experience research firm Nielsen Norman this month announced the winners of the 17th Intranet Design Annual Awards, highlighting the 10 Best Intranets of 2018. Having won the award with our clients four times in the past, we eagerly await this report, as it often provides commentary on the state of the intranet industry in general, with statistics and comparisons drawn from all 10 winners which help to highlight trends and developments. Having analysed the report’s winning entries, we’ve recognized 9 quite surprising results.

1. Average time to create an intranet is 1.2 years

This statistic surprised us at Unily, as the last couple of years have seen a huge increase in the rise of intranet products available on the market that look to solve the challenge of lengthy and costly deployments. However, from those reviewed by Nielsen Norman, it was found that the average time to create an intranet sits at 1.2 years in 2018, an improvement from last year’s timeframe of 1.4 years but still a lengthy project. The reason for this 1.2 years statistic is most likely due to the approach to development, with 8/10 of the winning entries developing custom platforms from the ground-up on various technologies from Drupal to SharePoint. This approach is always going to take a certain amount of time, as each element of the intranet will be designed and developed from scratch. Contrastingly, of the two winners who used intranet-in-a-box platforms, the development times were significantly shorter, deployed in 7 and 10 months respectively.

At Unily, we find that intranets are typically deployed within 3 months, stretching to 6 and 9 months for some of our largest customers (up to 140,000 employees) who require a large content migration effort.

2. 9 out of 10 winners were developed using an agile process

Nielsen Norman also noted a shift in the way intranets were implemented this year, with 9/10 winning platforms using an agile development process. This is a step in the right direction, building on one of the trends we outlined at the start of 2017 that ‘an agile approach is the only way for digital workplace success’. Agile is often an overused term but approaching an intranet in this way often improves its impact to the business, taking a more flexible approach to allow your digital workplace to develop and grow as your organisation does.

The benefit of being agile is speed to market – launching your intranet quickly so you can start to see how the end users will really use it. Once people are using the platform, you can utilize feedback and analytics, such as those found in Unily, to see where to improve next and help plan out a roadmap.

At Unily, we follow a similar process, often encouraging organizations to focus on one of five capabilities: communication, collaboration, productivity, knowledge management or networking. Once the foundations of the core capability are established, e.g. communication, the organisation can gather feedback from employees and adapt their strategy for the following capabilities accordingly.

3. 8/10 of the winning intranets looked to outside agencies for help

This year’s report highlights that 8 out of 10 of this year’s winning organizations looked to outside agencies and consultants to help with intranet design, including content creation, information architecture and more. This is another positive statistic as more and more businesses understand that asking an internal IT team to build an intranet using SharePoint, without consideration for use cases or user experience, does not result in adoption and usage. By looking to outside agencies for support, particularly in areas such as discovery and business consulting, businesses can start a project off on the right foot. By starting with Why e.g. why are we creating an intranet in the first place? What’s wrong with what we have now? What do we want to achieve? What is a successful platform to us? Businesses can ensure that, when they reach the design stage, they have a clear business case and strategy for what they’re trying to achieve.

Another aspect that Nielsen Norman doesn’t touch on is the importance of outside agency support when it comes to measuring, monitoring and improving an intranet after launch. Launching a new platform is just the start. The real work comes when trying to keep content fresh, keep users engaged and keep the platform on a path of progress, by making tweaks and adding new features. At Unily, the Grow phase of our customer success program is one of the most important, helping our clients to listen to how the platform is being used, while keeping an eye on the future and deciding what to do next.

4. Only 2/10 of intranets selected used a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product

As Sam Marshall of Clearbox Consulting states in the SharePoint Intranets-in-a-box Report released at the end of 2017, “over the last eighteen months, there has been a dramatic shift in how organizations approach new intranets. Instead of partnering with a development agency, they are looking for ready-made solutions that can be easily adapted and quickly deployed.” However, of the 10 award winning platforms this year, only 2 out of 10 were supported by SaaS products.

This surprises us, as we see the same trend in our own client base as outlined in Clearbox Consulting’s report, with a huge increase in demand for SaaS products as opposed to the legacy ‘develop from scratch’ SharePoint consulting that has been BrightStarr’s focus for over 10 years. Looking beyond intranet products, the increasing demand for Office 365, Microsoft’s SaaS productivity suite, marketing, CRM and ERP tools, is testament to the growing trend for subscription cloud-based technology over on-premises platforms. Office 365 is growing so rapidly in fact, that Microsoft have reported that by its 2019 fiscal year, it expects two-thirds of Office customers to be 365 subscribers.

Interestingly, one company in the report states that if they were to repeat the project, they would be more rigorous in analyzing the value of Build vs. Buy. Having built a platform from the ground-up on open source technology, the in-house team spent a huge amount of time designing, building and managing functionality that could have been achieved much more quickly and simply by using an intranet platform. With cloud and Office 365 so prominent in 2018, they comment that it’s likely their solution would look very different if they were to start again.

With this said, perhaps next year we’ll see more alignment with this growing trend in the report, as more and more organizations go live with SaaS intranet products.

5. Responsive design is on the up, but where are the mobile apps?

Compared to 2016’s report where 30% of winners had no ‘Mobile Approach’ at all on their platforms, this year’s report saw that 100% of winning intranets had a platform designed to work responsively across devices. This is essential for any organisation with employees on-the-go, or front-line employees who need to be engaged in the intranet. But does mobile design go far enough? There is a distinct difference between intranet platforms which are responsively designed, and those which are adaptively designed for mobile devices. At Unily, we find that responsive design is often not enough, with mobile workers requiring a more tailored and streamlined version of the intranet on their mobile devices.

With Unily, we support a responsively designed platform with an adaptively designed mobile app, available for iOS and Android devices. This app is designed specifically for mobile workers, removing access to certain areas of the intranet such as the CMS to streamline the experience, removing functionality which isn’t as suitable for mobile. Content managers can define content layouts and experiences for different types of users e.g. head office employees to frontline employees, changing the layouts and types of content shown to ensure the most effective experience possible. The app also offers deep integration with the mobile OS, such as notifications and (soon) Touch ID, location services and integration with MDM solutions such as Intune, functionality which is missed out on with simply responsive design.

As many of the organisations featured in the report chose an agile development plan, perhaps we will see a more tailored strategy for mobile in the future.

6. 80% of winning intranets only support one language

In the past, many organizations had separate siloed intranets for each region. Sometimes the reason for this is infrastructure and corporate strategy, but language and relevance were also a blocker to launching a global intranet. In 2018, this has shifted, with many organizations seeing the benefits of products such as Unily where you can support multiple languages and tailored experiences, within one platform.

It is very surprising then, to see that 80% of winning intranets in this year’s report only support one core language. Even GSK, with 140,000 employees, only offers the capability for “some content to be translated into any language”, even though 13 languages can be used for site provisioning and the purpose of the intranet was to combine varying intranet interfaces into a consistent one.

As part of our included Customer Success Programme, we use surveys to gather and analyze our client’s needs at the start of the project. Language is consistently high on an end user’s agenda, with many feeling left out of the loop with poor multi-lingual capability or a reliance on machine translation where the message is easily lost. In Unily, we offer content managers 1:1 translation capabilities, which allow editors to automatically translate a piece of communications and then edit the translation before publishing. This ensures total control of the message, rather than relying on variable automated translations.

7. 2 companies didn’t want to customize SharePoint for fear of updates

Another interesting statistic from the report is 2 companies’ hesitation to customize SharePoint Online for fear of updates. This is in some ways understandable as unforeseen updates from SharePoint can often cause challenges for a heavily customized platform, with in-house teams not prepared for the work that needs to be done to keep a platform up to date. This may also be a reflection on the fact that Microsoft change its recommended approach to development every few years, most recently to the SharePoint Framework (SPFx), and it is difficult for companies to keep up-to-date. However, if customization is thoughtful and managed intelligently, this shouldn’t be a problem.

When considering customizing SharePoint, we recommend working with a partner, rather than an in-house team of developers taking the lead without the benefit of foresight. As a Gold Partner, we focus on meaningful customization that’s focused around the needs of the employees, as it may not always be necessary. As new updates are released for SharePoint Online, these are then integrated as and where appropriate.

8. Content is king

It’s great to see that the report also focuses on the importance of content, rather than purely the design of the platform. Ultimately, content is king, and without fresh, engaging content that’s relevant to different segments of users, adoption will suffer. This year’s report concluded that the content audit, migration and on-going management was essential to each teams’ strategy, being picky about what to migrate and often re-writing legacy content to suit the needs of the new platform. Training for content editors and publishers is also a hot topic across the report, with many organisations training writers on how to publish content, but also how to write compelling creative copy that will keep employees engaged.

At Unily, we work very closely with clients as part of our Grow phase to ensure their content strategy is working effectively. By reviewing what’s working and what’s not with analytics, we can then adjust the strategy going forward to ensure effectiveness.

9. The average team size is 14 core members

The report also highlights that the average team size for intranet projects is around 14 members, ranging from 3 at Capital Power to 22 at both American Medical Association and eBay. These numbers reflect the core teams, rather than content editors or authors. Despite some organisations having around 30,000 employees, we found this team number to be surprisingly high. In our own experience, even for organisations with over 140,000 employees, the intranet team is less than 10 core members. We believe this may be down to the platform chosen. If working with an open-source, custom developed platform like eBay have done, the number of employees needed to manage the platform are substantially more. For our customers, teams can be smaller as the general performance, upkeep and support of the platform is managed by our team.

How do you get the report?

If you would like to purchase the full report, head to the Nielsen Norman Group website here. The report is packed full of analysis, comprehensive case studies, detailed best practices and annotated screenshots that can be very insightful for your own intranet design.

The key takeaway from this is to always approach your own intranet project from your own perspective, considering why you need a new platform, the challenge it will solve and what success means to you. Once you have a clear business case established, you can then consider the most appropriate platform and design to suit those needs. If you’d like any assistance with this process, we have recently created a helpful guide to ‘writing your intranet business case’ which comes with a supporting word template.

If you need support with this process, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us directly.

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