7 design flaws that can undermine your intranet

Certain visual elements can confuse your employees; structural pitfalls can lead them down a rabbit hole. Here are common problems, along with ways to overcome them.

The past two decades have seen revolutionary intranet designs that have lifted employees to higher levels of productivity, motivation and communication.

Still, some untenable designs have inexplicable staying power. Don’t let your intranet fail on the user experience front because of the following flaws:

1. Poor search results

Most intranets have a search field and return results to user queries, but that’s a low bar for defining a successful search functionality, and many intranets still don’t rise above it.

Instead, relevant content is concealed from search because it is poorly tagged or categorized or because it’s stored in areas that the search engine doesn’t reach. Employees waste precious time trying to find what they need or using the wrong bit of content.

2. Content in silos

Content might be siloed in any number of ways:

  • Not accessible via the search function
  • Absent from the global navigation and subnavigation
  • Hidden based on user’s role, due to personalization
  • Protected by a log-in wall

Common examples of silos include:

  • Team spaces, communities, collaboration spaces
  • Separate intranet subsites
  • Social platforms, such as a wall or feed that is technically not part of the intranet
  • Enterprise applications and third-party applications that link from the intranet

Silos make it difficult or impossible for employees to find the right and most updated content and tools they need. Employees will feel alienated and disrespected if their colleagues can access content that they can’t. Silos waste users’ time and lead to low job satisfaction or even flight to other employers.

3. Poor visual layout

Intranet teams are often understaffed, so having a seasoned visual designer is merely a dream for many organizations. Additionally, politics and the stakeholders with the biggest checkbooks often dictate which page content appears bigger, higher and brighter. Resulting designs often lack informed page-layout strategy, clear hierarchy and visual appeal.

Here are the primary elements of visual layout:

  • Text: color, size, typeface, bold and normal, and space above and below text
  • Graphics and images: position, size, color, graphics’ relationship to content
  • Space: information density, white space, chunking

When text, graphics or space are not used properly, pages look cluttered, with too much content and no visual hierarchy. Scanning is difficult because links, headings and subheadings are not easily distinguishable from normal text.

Users have trouble determining which page elements are relevant, and important announcements might appear to be external advertisements. The result: Employees waste time and miss vital information.

4. Illegible text

Pretty, modern-looking text doesn’t have to be illegible. Still, these text-camouflaging practices are quite common:

  • poor contrast between text and page background
  • tiny text
  • flowery typefaces with complicated details

Today’s intranets are used on a multitude of devices, many of them portable, so sunlight glare can make low-contrast text invisible. Employees shouldn’t have to work hard to read the text on a page, whether they’re viewing it on a big monitor or a phone.

5. Announcements and promotions that look like external advertisements

Banner blindness is almost as old as the internet. Advertisers persist in creating ads that do not match the style (color, font, graphical elements) of the websites they appear on, most likely because they do not know where the ad will be shown.

Our eyetracking research shows that people look more at ads that match the style of the website and tune out elements that don’t align with the site’s core content.

It is surprising, however, that banner blindness persists on intranets. Teams such as HR and corporate communications, in seeking to deliver certain announcements to employees, erroneously make internal promotions look like ads.

Certain visual elements— animations, smiling stock-art models, bright colors not used on the rest of the intranet—repel employees, causing them to miss relevant promotions like Benefits Open Enrollment, All-Hands Meeting Friday at 3PM, and Blood Drive Next Week!

Promotions should be the province of intranet designers, not of a special branding team. Intranets should have dedicated spaces for promotions. Above all, they should look like corporate content, not ads.

6. Global navigation that disappears

Content strategy and information architecture often are only partially planned on intranets. Pages and subsites hang by the thin thread of a crosslink. When users click this crosslink, they enter a completely different world from the rest of the intranet, one lacking the anchor that is global navigation.

One common reason global navigation is absent on certain pages is an attempt to declutter the design and create an immersive experience. Progressive disclosure suggests hiding unnecessary elements in an interface until the user asks for them.

For mobile devices, designers sometimes collapse the navigation to optimize the limited real estate. Rarely, though, does global navigation become unnecessary. Its removal from the intranet is unexpected and unsettling, and it takes away employees’ control.

7. Bare-bones links to other content

Intranets are a hub for an organization’s store of information, often including links to relevant content. Problems arise when only the link is offered, without elaboration about the content itself.

For example, a section on an employee-benefits page may be called Employee stock options. Additional information sometimes comes with the link—such as Sign up or Check funds. This is slightly better than the link alone, but it still contains no real content. Rather, it promises that content will appear on the next page.

Why not give the employees some information of value just after the link? For example, offer the current stock price, or the personalized options’ value for the user.

In another example, CEO Blog with a picture of the CEO is understandable, but also seeing a post’s title, like The presidential election will affect our business this year, might spur employees to read the post.

Kara Pernice is senior vice president at Nielsen Norman Group. A version of this article appeared on the Nielsen Norman Group website. This post first ran on Ragan in 2016.

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