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Should Intranet Managers Ever Listen to their Users?

Should Intranet Managers Ever Listen to their Users?

Post-Steve Jobs, there’s been much about how Apple innovates differently, creating demand that didn’t exist before . On the surface, the implication is paradoxical:

Apple is famous for usability but doesn’t listen to users.

In a great blog post, Jane McConnell made a knowingly-provocative comment on how this relates to intranets:

“User research is not necessarily the best way to take your intranet to the next level. I’ll get hit for saying this, but there are lots of things we know today that we do not need to research…Great IA and UX people can create and satisfy user desires that even the users would not know how to formulate”
(See blog: Four ways Steve Jobs influenced intranets)

And yet there’s lots out there about user-centred design for intranets that advocates working closely with users. So what’s going on? I’ve tried to sum it up as:

10 Principles for Involving Users in Intranet Design

1. User’s can’t specify what they want

They know it only when they see it (and sometimes only once they’ve tried it out). Sometimes what they do ask for is inconsistent. I’ve had surveys that simultaneously say “we want less email but more emails informing us what’s going on”. It’s the intranet designer’s job to work out what the underlying need really is.

 2. User’s do know what their pain points are

Intranets that can fix problems in this category are more likely to be adopted.

 3. …but not everything is a pain point

Some things just introduce whole new opportunities. Think live pause on TiVo Sky+ or Yammer in the workplace.

 4. You can’t improve everything just by optimising how people work now

This is where the breakthrough leaps come in: the iPod wasn’t just a better Sony Walkman.

People often have work-arounds that are so deeply ingrained they become invisible, so all you’ll do is make the work-around more efficient. You see this on intranets where people complain they can’t find the paper forms for HR processes, so the intranet creates an easy-to-navigate forms library, when a workflow approach would be so much better.

6. You can’t be sure you’ve fixed a problem until you’ve seen it in real use

You need to do user testing to validate that. David Snowden used to tell a story of how sewage workers were given Psion PDAs as a better solution for scheduling jobs. Technically it was much more efficient, but using a tiny keyboard with rubber gloves and freezing hands…

 7. Where there are significant and fundamental problems, work on improving the overall service

If, for example, there are widespread problems with collaborating, connecting or findability, it makes sense to put in place a measures that raise the floor for everyone, rather than trying to design per-problem solutions. Produce something that is attractive and easy to use, and and then suport the  business in finding good ways to exploit it. This is the iPad route – people find their own way to apply it to their needs

8. Not all users are equal – the business should set the priorities

Although we shouldn’t let senior managers dictate how a solution works, they should steer what matters most.

 9.  Intranets are not a consumer product

If a product is a hit with 40% of the marketplace, that would be considered a huge commercial success. But for an intranet that means 60% of your employees hate it, and unlike consumer goods they rarely have an alternative. Once you have the big plan, you still need to work with users to nail the details and try to satisfy as many as you can. This may mean making the majority mostly happy rather than a minority wildly happy.

 10. Not everyone is a great designer

As Jane said, “Great IA and UX people can create and satisfy user desires…” but average designers will come up with something much better if it is user-driven rather than just thinking they know best.

Conclusion: think step change, but validate

PS. I don’t think any of the above disagrees with Jane’s points; I just thought it raised a great question to explore.

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.

  • Posted at 12:54 pm, 28 October, 2011

    Very well put, Sam! Glad I inspired this post as it gives some very useful guidelines.

  • Phil
    Posted at 1:07 pm, 28 October, 2011

    Very well said Sam. If I could pull this off where I work – now that would be something!

  • Posted at 6:59 pm, 28 October, 2011

    Should intranet managers ever listen to their users? – Sam Marshall…

    This article has been submitted to Intranet Lounge – Trackback from Intranet Lounge…

  • Posted at 12:42 pm, 9 November, 2011

    Hi Sam,

    Sorry but I quite disagree.

    The first point, to begin with: it is called user-centered design and not user-driven design for a reason.
    You need to engage on serious user research (which is not a simple survey asking what they’d like) to then move to the design phase knowing the attitude and the goals of your users.

    Concerning the rest, it is just a matter of how good a designer (which should be a UX designer, stress on the UX)) is.

    Answering to your question: do designer have to listen to users?
    If asking the right questions, in the right context, to the right people, with the right attitude and experience, YES they have to.
    If for no other reason because it’s the most valuable data you can get on why and how users will use your platform.

    My five cents,


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