It's undeniable that intranets have become more pleasing to look at over the past decade, but they may not be easier to use.
A recent study from the Nielsen Norman Group found that the rate of success for employees attempting to accomplish basic tasks on their intranets has stayed basically the same—ticking down just a bit—since 2002. The success rate 10 years ago was 75 percent. Now it's 74 percent.
The group's study compares that single-percentage-point drop against the success of public Internet websites, which have "improved dramatically" in terms of usability over the past decade.
Though at least one intranet expert contends those numbers may be a bit deceiving given the changes in the digital world since 2002, there are definitely ways internal communicators could make intranets easier to use.
If public websites have improved so much, what's holding back intranets? Nielsen Norman Group co-founder Jakob Nielsen offers two reasons: One, they've become too complex, with too many features. Second, too many companies use intranet software right out of the box, rather than customizing it for their employees.
Toby Ward, president of Prescient Digital Media, says it's true that intranets aren't particularly user-friendly compared with websites. Complexity—hundreds of thousands more pages of content—and a lack of customization certainly contribute to that problem, too.
"In our annual study of intranets, we've seen both employee and executive satisfaction levels drop for enterprise social media," he says. "One reason is … an overreliance on out-of-the-box functionality in SharePoint, which is less than thrilling to begin with."
Laura Grover, senior digital strategy director at Quintiles, says she's found that customization is necessary, no matter what the platform, be it something open-source or cloud-based, or SharePoint. For Quintiles' intranet, iQ, she found SharePoint had two main drawbacks: First, search wasn't intuitive. Second, the social tools and profiles weren't nice to look at nor easy to use.
"Both of these are now being addressed through customization efforts this year," she says.
Paul Miller, founder and CEO of the Intranet Benchmarking Forum, says the inclusion of third-party applications such as self-service HR or travel booking can overcomplicate intranet interfaces.
"Employees move from increasingly well-crafted intranets to other apps that feel like another digital world entirely," he says. "That fault lies not with intranets but with the third-party vendor industry and its own poor approach to usability."
Miller argues that putting intranets now up against intranets from a decade ago isn't a fair comparison. They're different entitites.
"In 2002, intranets were just internal communications systems," he says. "Now they are business-critical, complex services that drive work. The fact that key task-completion measures are unchanged is testament to higher usability. NNG has a flawed interpretation of its own data."
Miller points out the one-point difference over 10 years is negligible, and says the success rate for websites—80 percent—isn't far removed from the 74 percent rate of intranets.
"These highly resourced sites still only see slightly better task-completion rate than intranets," he says. "What a testament to the ingenuity of tiny intranet teams, which have played second fiddle to external sites for those 10 years."
Ward says the issue for intranets certainly isn't that they've gotten worse—companies have invested billions of dollars in them—they simply haven't improved much.
Making intranets more user-friendly
For an intranet to work effectively for an organization, it needs care and attention, Ward says.
"Intranets are two-thirds people and process," he says. "Technology is only an enabler. Therefore, most intranets require heavy doses of change management, especially social intranets, to ensure the intranet realizes its value."
Many executives don't think about intranets that way, Ward asserts. For instance, many companies provide intranets with only a sliver of the funding they need, much less than corporate websites get.
"Until this view changes, and executives view employees to be as valuable as customers, then intranets will not substantially improve," he says.
Miller says the solution isn't to make intranets more like Facebook and other popular websites, however.
"What users of intranets really want, and are experiencing, is the strong merging of function and design based around tasks that matter, rather than news, available through any device, particularly tablets and mobile devices with high-grade connectivity at all times," he says.