How to boost your intranet’s usability—and save your company money

If your internal platform has byzantine navigation or unclear menus, your employees will waste time and your organization will suffer from diminished productivity. Try these remedies.

How’s that intranet working out for you?

A recent study by the Nielsen Norman Group showed that users are not happy with their intranets. Satisfaction ratings were a dismal 66 percent.

Why are so many users unhappy with their intranets? Much of the dissatisfaction comes down to one word: usability.

Jakob Nielsen, “the guru of Web page usability” (per The New York Times), defines it thus:

“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.”

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 bigger the hit to productivity. Making your intranet easier to use is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings—and even more to large organizations.

The following information is from a report published by Nielsen Norman Group:

Saving employees just three minutes a day can save your organization of 500 people almost $190,000 per year.

An intranet design going from:

  • bad to average usability could save an organization $200,000 per year;
  • average to good usability could save an organization $67,000 per year; and
  • bad to good usability could save over $266,000 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 percent of intranets; and the red bar, the cost of usability on the worst 25 percent of intranets.

What can I do about our intranet usability?

The first place to look for poor practices is in your site navigation.

The navigation should look and function the same way across the entire intranet. Changes to site navigation cause confusion. Confusion causes wasted time. Wasted time causes frustration.

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Keeping navigation consistent can be a challenge if you have a large intranet portal with unique sites maintained by different departments. In such cases, you should create a style guide or template to keep elements uniform across all sites, including navigation, font styling and general look and feel. The commonality among the sites will streamline search processes and minimize losses in productivity.

Choose your words wisely

Using the right terminology is vital to successful navigation. Menu items should be clear, so users can decide easily whether to click on them. The words should reflect your organization’s nomenclature.

Also, avoid using abbreviations. (This can be a challenge given the limited space in a navigation module for full words.) If employees have to stop and think about what a link might mean, it leads to confusion. Don’t make your users think too much—at least not about navigation labels.

Your menu item names should be distinct from one another. One customer’s intranet had links for “Employee Info,” “Company Info” and “Departments,” all with overlapping information. Users were forced to click on multiple links to find the information they were seeking.

Better intranet navigation by paper prototyping

Creating clear, concise, comprehensive, familiar, unique yet uniform navigation names can be hard, so try paper prototyping.

Paper prototyping saves time and money, as it enables you to test your navigation and its groupings before you begin development. Anyone can do it. You don’t need software. You don’t need a degree in graphic design. All you need is paper, pens and maybe scissors. If scissors are too daunting a prospect, you can use Post-It notes.

The process:

  • Start by putting five to seven 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, gather a sampling of five to 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 develop 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 that is as clear and intuitive as possible for most users.

How are usability issues affecting your intranet? Please contribute to the discussion by posting your comments below.

A version of this story originally appeared on the Intranet Connections blog.

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