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Personalization solutions for your irrelevant intranet

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Personalization solutions for your irrelevant intranet

Most of your intranet is irrelevant. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just that when intranets become comprehensive, much of the detailed content won’t apply to any specific individual. It’s the same with Amazon: I have no interest in the majority of their stock, but the trick that Amazon gets right (and which intranets need to emulate) is that it feels like what is on offer is relevant to me because it is personalized.

In my last post I talked about how to design the personalization experience for an intranet. Here I’m going to explore the different options for implementing personalization and the pros and cons of each:

  1. Start page segmentation
  2. News aggregation
  3. Personalized navigation
  4. User customization
Example topics 1

Personalization dimensions

Start page segmentation

The simplest way to give some degree of personalisation is to have a different start page for each geography, such as Canada, Brazil and France as distinct pages. Typically, each start page will follow the same template but there will be a section that covers ‘Local news’ and a menu of services specific to that country. Company-wide news can also be part of the template, either manually re-published or (ideally) automatically pushed through from the corporate comms team.

The advantage of this approach is that it is simple to implement (it can be a browser setting or based on the user’s IP address, for example). Using a common template makes it easier to keep things in step when there are changes to the global navigation or design too.

The big downside is that it really only works for one dimension (see the figure above). As soon as you want to personalize along a second dimension, such as function, then you get an explosion of template possibilities and it becomes too unwieldy. For example, each Canada page now needs Canada + HR, Canada + Sales, Canada + Finance etc.

News aggregation

News aggregation offers a partial solution to the multi-dimension problem. In this approach, each news story is tagged with a target audience. News is then show to each user by matching that keyword to their profile (driven by their profile settings, people finder details or Active Directory, for example). In effect, when they go to the page, news is retrieved using a saved-search with these keywords as filters).


Keywords allow the same story to be targeted in multiple channels

This approach can work well when you have stories relevant to multiple audiences, but not everyone. News with multiple keywords can be pushed to several news streams at once. SharePoint, for example, can do this relatively easily out of the box.

There are some downsides to the approach too though. Some communicators worry that important stories will get pushed down the list by lesser stories. However, judicious use of page design can address this: add a ‘Headline’ tag to the main stories and show these as hero images. Put remaining stories in an ‘Other news’ feed, or ‘pin’ important stories to the top.

A second concern is that users will see duplicate stories, for example in the illustration  above when they go from the ‘France’ page to the ‘Sales’ page the ‘France Aug Sales figures’ story would show again. However, this is common on the web and rarely a deal-breaker.

Navigation personalization

For some intranet owners, a focus on news means that navigation personalization can get overlooked. However, this can be a powerful tool in simplifying the user experience.

Imagine if every time you wanted to book a meeting room you had to go through a hierarchy of: Services > France Services > Paris Office > Meeting Rooms. It would be so much easier if your services directory knew you were based in Paris so gave that as the default, with other offices as extra options. A smart “How do I…?” list on the homepage can be a useful upgrade over the ubiquitous “useful links” list.

Going further, some intranets make all of the top-level menus user-specific. In my last post our example user Karin saw: [Our Company] [Aerospace] [Stockholm Services] [My Projects] and [My Communities] for example. All of these can be determined by Karin’s profile and give a strong sense that when she logs onto the intranet it understands who she is and what she might need.

In my last post the closing advice was don’t be creepy and over-personalize, and that’s a particular risk with this approach. The balance to get right is to make it clear how Karin can see other options when she wants to, otherwise we lock her into a silo. For example, the [Aerospace] menu needs to have [Other Divisions] as an option.


Unlike the options discussed so far, customisation is user-driven rather than system driven. It relies on someone making the effort to choose what they want to see up-front. The problem is that they rarely do, even though it has a long-term benefit it has a short-term cost in effort. Carroll and Rosson called this the paradox of the active user. Few companies have managed to get more than about 10% of their users to customize their experience. Sometimes I’ve looked at an intranet homepage and two years after launch users still have big blank spaces saying “Please select your function to see news”.

However, there are times when a little customization can go a long way. One example is where a pop-up dialogue asks them to make a simple forced choice, much like setting the home city for a weather app. Indeed the app model is a good one, because people are used to doing customization on their smartphones by selecting the apps they want, and a ‘speed dial’ app widget on an intranet can tap into this understanding (global law firm Linklaters used this good effect with their My Apps section).

Combined approaches

There’s no reason why any of the above can’t be usefully combined. In particular, any of the personalization approaches is likely to hit a niche scenario where the rules just don’t work, and this can frustrate users way more than having no personalization at all. For example, some functions work in a ‘business partner’ model, where an HR representative will be assigned to Marketing, or IT to Research and Development. Business partners don’t just want to see what is happening in their own function but in that of their internal client too.

This is where customization can be useful on top of news aggregation: let people add or ‘follow’ additional topics, and see the personalization settings as sensible defaults rather than immutable rules.

Ultimately how far you go with personalization takes us back to the opening question: what will it take to make your intranet feel relevant?

Photo credit: Ged Carroll

This article was originally publihsed over at CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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