Interview: Jakob Nielsen on Usability and Intranets

Monday 3rd December 2001


Holding more than 50 patents on web usability and a reputation for being the defining voice on web usability, Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D. is a man that knows how to make a web site - be it internal or external - work. With a background running from VP of research at Apple to distinguished Engineer at Sun, he currently preaches the usability mantra from his position as Principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, which he co-founded.

Last week met with him in London to find out about his latest work on Intranets and to get some advice on how to develop an internal network of information that actually serves the company.

Jakob, can you explain where the world is in terms of intranets?
I think the intranet is one of the most important developments an organisation can make in terms of improving its productivity and efficiency. Today it falls under many guises, from Enterprise Information Portal to knowledge management, but the principal remains the same; an intranet is just an internal network of information.

Intranets seem to have come on leaps and bounds from when I first used them, when they were simple, ad-hoc resource pools for each department. Is that true?
I think it is true, yes. Years ago the intranet was a dumping ground for much of the corporate information. They werenÕt a coordinated effort at all. They became a melting pot of departments that had put their own web server online and had started publishing, so there was little in terms of a cohesive strategy. They were a real mish-mash. Nowadays people are understanding the kind of benefits that can be derived from developing a robust intranet strategy, they are taking things a lot more seriously and subsequently many of them are making considerable productivity gains.

Is productivity the key consideration for an intranet?
Productivity has to be the key consideration for an intranet. Ultimately an intranet is an information system, a management information system and a user tool. ItÕs there to help employees work more effectively and efficiently and that means developing it around the principles of productivity improvements. For instance, if you are an organisation of 10,000 people the intranet would be in place to provide corporate information, such as HR related notices, project information, such as whatÕs happening and where teams are up to with their initiatives, and ultimately information that will support the employee's roles. The trick is to make sure that people can find this information quickly and effectively so that they can do their job better.

So do all of the knowledge management and EIP products that are coming out help with things like that?
IÕm not sure. To be honest I think these things are just new categories that vendors have created to sell new products and create a market. I donÕt think they are the silver bullet solution for an intranet. Organising your intranet around a portal, for instance, doesnÕt make it any better. It doesnÕt mean that the information you find when you dig down is going to be good and effective Š thatÕs the key to a successful intranet, itÕs not about the technologies. Organisations have an awful habit of developing an intranet and publishing their corporate manuals and best practice quides exactly as they find them in print. And that is just so wrong.

I thought this would be exactly the place to reproduce your corporate manuals, ISO guidelines, best practice guides etc. Why is it so wrong?
ItÕs not wrong to publish them here, itÕs just wrong to publish them as you find them. An intranet is meant to help all of the employees, so the information that goes onto the site needs to very carefully planned. It needs to be ruthlessly edited, and re-written too, to ensure that it serves the needs of the employees. ItÕs not just a repository for information, itÕs a repository for the right information in the right format. If you donÕt consider that, you may as well not bother because you wonÕt make the gains that you should make. Organisations need to invest very heavily in a content strategy and good writers if they really want the intranet to be a success, and so many companies ignore this fact. IÕve seen organisations, and I mean major multi-nationals, that have spent millions of dollars on their intranet projects but when you get to the information you want you need a translator to understand it.

Okay, perhaps we should take this from the beginning then. Who needs an intranet nowadays?
I would say that any organisation with 100 employees or more would probably benefit from an intranet. At this kind of size there should be enough activity, history and information to warrant such an investment. It depends on how large the organisation is, however, to how complex your intranet may need to be in terms of the applications and services that you provide. For instance, if you are small company that requires an intranet you should probably just focus on the big wins, the really beneficial stuff that is going to help you everyday, rather than attempting to put everything that you might ever need up there. That should ensure you get good returns. For larger organisations, though, the considerations are more complex. For instance, you may have branches across the globe so collaborative tools, discussion groups and forums and such like may also be required.

Assuming that youÕve identified the need for an intranet, whatÕs the next step?
The first step for a project like this is task analysis. Organisations really need to spend a lot of time figuring out what their employees need in terms of information to support their roles effectively and that means in-depth and considered task analysis. I saw a sales-force application recently where the sales teams had their own private folders with press cuttings and messages that they would use when they went out to pitch, but they were constantly searching for these things instead of sharing them around and coordinating the message, this is the sort of thing you have to discover. You need to unearth the real needs of the employees and then look to build a feature set on top of that that will enable to access this information effectively. ItÕs only once youÕve done that that you would start to look at technologies and such like.

So what sort of skills do you need for an intranet project?
The really key people you need are editors. You need someone that understands the topic to unearth the content and set the principles and then an editor to dive in and ruthlessly edit the content to make sure that itÕs what the employees need and, more importantly, that the employees can make sense of what they are reading. For instance, from the studies that weÕve done, the headlines that a company puts on its intranet can have a tremendous impact on the workforce. If you put the wrong thing up there it can instill negativity, make people think that youÕre amateurs, na•ve or ignorant. And it makes an enormous difference - so you need people that know how to get a message across effectively, people that can write headlines, people that can convey information. You need professional content developers. They are essential.

I keep hearing about intranet projects being run by huge committees that spend all of their time arguing about the colours of backgrounds and texts. Surely this isnÕt the right approach?
No it clearly isnÕt. A committee is absolutely necessary for this type of project to ensure that you are covering all aspects of the business and the employees needs. But there has to be a definite devolution of responsibility. You bring in experts to do the job itself. You need content, you bring in editors, you need colours, you get a graphic designer and you leave them to get on with it. They are experts and they know what theyÕre doing. This is a big problem facing organisations. They donÕt realise that these experts know what theyÕre doing. They may say to editors that they should us this particular word, or that particular phrase, but thatÕs not right, editors are communications experts and should be left to do the job correctly.

What else do you see as key to the development of an intranet?
Keeping it simple is paramount. If you develop an intranet effectively you can expect to see a magnificent return on investment but people lose sight of the opportunities and end up with an intranet that is muddled, complex and ultimately very difficult to use. And thatÕs where things go wrong. The whole idea of an intranet is to support tasks, support employees and to speed up the distribution and availability of information. If employees find that they are spending half an hour trying to find information then the intranet has been a complete waste of time. So simplicity is absolutely key. To get this right you need to put in an awful lot of time. You need to test the design, the usability, the searches, the navigation and you need to get it right. ThereÕs no point making an intranet live only to find youÕve got to completely restructure it, so youÕve got to do this early on, in the labs.

What kind of benefits are you talking about?
If you get an intranet right you can make enormous savings; millions of dollars for a large company and thousands for smaller operations. It will cut costs, cut training costs, improve productivity. A very large organisation should be looking to 1000% return on investment from an intranet and that really is very easily achieved if you take the time to do this correctly. If you imagine that you save each employee twenty minutes a day and times that by the number of employees you are looking at enormous improvements, but youÕve got to get the usability right or itÕs all a waste of time. Usability of applications and services within the organisation is one of the biggest problems that plague the help desk. If you get it right, though, you should be able to make savings here too.

How do you know if youÕve got it right?. How do you measure these benefits?
One of the surest signs of getting it right is how often people use the intranet. If you have people using it effectively all the time then itÕs a success to some degree. More important, though, is measuring the productivity gains and seeing how it improves the employeeÕs ability to undertake their tasks. Organisations should have study groups of ten, twenty people being monitored in their tasks to see the gains they are making. TheyÕre the tangible returns, thatÕs where you see the real benefits. Organisations need to list a number of key metrics right at the start of the project, they really need to nail down these key goals and work with them in mind, look to see how the intranet supports the achievement of these tasks and measure from there.

I imagine the area of mobile workforces is throwing up some usability challenges?
Absolutely correct. The mobile device is the new challenge for usability and nobody seems to have figured it out yet. If you talk to intranet developers they typically work on the basis that bandwidth doesnÕt come into it because everyone is working on the corporate network. But that is so wrong - the mobile workforce is throwing a whole new set of challenges at people and they really need to rise up and meet these challenges. An intranet is about supporting employees wherever they are. If a salesman is sat in a clients office hundreds of miles from his office, he doesnÕt want to be tapping away on his PDA trying to find information from the intranet, he needs to get it easily and effectively. The intranet isnÕt just about whatÕs going on between four walls anymore and organisations really need to focus on this for the future.

Okay, so letÕs say weÕve got the tasks identified, the support they require, the content, the technologies, and weÕve built it. WhatÕs next for an intranet?
Once youÕve built the intranet you to get out there and evangelise. Everybody in the organisation needs to know about the intranet and how to benefit from it and you need to keep working on that. An intranet project never ends - thatÕs a fact. You need to have people working to common templates, common goals and you must ensure that nobody goes off and starts doing their own thing. You have to keep hold of your intranet and keep it continuously evolving in the same way that every organisation evolves. It can be very difficult to keep things under control and to make sure that it works to the benefit of the organisation. But if you show real metal, and really manage this thing you can make a big difference. The intranet can be one of the greatest productivity tools that an organisation will invest in but if they let go of it, it can very quickly turns into something resembling a bowl of spaghetti - twisted, convoluted, complex, messy.

So what would be your final word on the subject?
Organisations must do two things specifically. Firstly, they must consider the usability of an intranet because if people canÕt use it to support their tasks the project has failed. Secondly, they must remember that an intranet project never stops. It is a process of continuous improvement. Humans are very creative creatures and if they get the chance they can easily upset an intranet project, but if you manage them carefully, that creativity can add further benefits to the intranet and it will continue to adapt and grow to meet the organisation's requirements.