Monday, January 23, 2006

Jakob Nielsen on Intranets and Blogs

Intranet Blogs
Jakob Nielsen

Are Intranet Blogs the blog or blog hybrid Killer App?

I think so, probably, running a close second to, not business blogs, but Personal Trivia/Hobby/Friends-Networking Blogs.

I think Friends-Networking Blogs are the Killer App, like Friends/Family Networking, along with Business Transaction/Info, is the Killer App for email.

Who is/are blogging? I think you know the answer.

Not many predatory carnivorous dinosaurs (old economy corporations)...

...but free flying birds (New Economy Entrepreneurs and Hip Companies,

PLUS: The Blog Majority:

self-singing, psychic-exhibitionistic, narcissistic, ego-defining teenagers, mommies, drifters, outskirters, poets, scientists, silent majority ranters and ravers).

The blogosphere has had a few blogo-quakes of giantic scale, causing it to fracture into separate, cyberculture-specific, rules-defined regions.

I see it happening already: the fragmentation of the blogosphere into multiple blogospherias, blogostrata, or blogdoms. Each with its own distinct set of best practices, function configurations, promotion tools, and terminology (special words).

When we say "web", we know it is a non-homogenous mixture of wildly differing sites. Same with "blogosphere", which I am calling a...

"blogiverse": the set of all existing blogospherias, blogs, bloggers, blogging tools and services, meta-blogs, blog hybrids, unblogs, pseudo blogs, and blogoid objects.

We are seeing "blog-like" utilities and functionalities in non-blog sites. We are also seeing non-blog, "website-like" or "wiki-like" features in blogs.

Jakob Nielsen, a prominent web usability specialist, has not said much about blogs, except that it's very difficult to generate any sales or ad revenue from them. I agree, as do Robert Scoble and Shel Israel in their new book Naked Conversations.

Blogs are for telling stories, providing information, and forming mutually beneficial conversations (even market research) with readers.

Also, a blogger can't just put up a blog, write some posts, then wait for readers to show up. Blog authors must go to other blogs and post comments at them. This is absolutely mandatory.

Otherwise, you probably will get zero (0) comments. You reap what you sow. Plant comments at other blogs, harvest comments at your blog. That's how it works, in nearly every case with Public, Corporate, and Private Password Blogs.

Intranet, firewalled blogs, internal corporate communications and collaboration blogs are of great interest to me, and they are possibly the real Killer App for business blogging.

Let's look together at some choice excerpts from Jakob Nielsen's latest Alertbox essay.


Alertbox, January 23, 2006:

Ten Best Intranets of 2006

[VASPERS: Strange post URL, because I thought he had a previous Alertbox on intranet design. I'll have to check his Alertbox directory. Shouldn't this be more specific, as: "...alertbox/ten_best_intranets_2006.html"? ]


This year, we saw increased use of multimedia, e-learning, internal blogs, and mobile access. Winning companies also encouraged consistent design by emphasizing training for content contributors.

The ten best-designed intranets for 2006 are:

* Allianz Australia Insurance, Australia
* ALTANA Pharma AG, Germany
* Bank of Ireland Group, Ireland
* Capital One, USA
* Merrill Lynch, USA
* METRO Group, Germany
* O2, UK
* Staples, USA
* Vodafone, UK

[snip--text deleted]

This year's winners are all large companies, with an average size of 80,000 employees.


It might be that large companies are finally making intranet quality a high priority, and thus their more substantial resources make it harder for smaller companies to compete. One year's results, however, are insufficient to confirm such a trend.

In any case, while smaller organizations might not have the resources to implement as many features, they can apply many of the lessons learned from large companies' design efforts.

[VASPERS: Often, a normal default format, generic template, FREE blog can work fine for groups, divisions, project teams, and corporate wide communications. The blog levels the playing field, allowing small companies to not appear insignificant or peripheral.]


Several winning intranets have special training activities for content contributors, teaching them how to use design templates correctly and how to produce optimal intranet pages. Templates, after all, give users some leeway in applying styles and layouts. Authors therefore need training to employ templates correctly and thus maintain a consistent intranet design.


It's not enough to simply publish rules and design standards; you must teach them as well.

Another continuing trend we saw was the use of task-based information architectures, rather than IAs based on a company's business units.

Navigation systems have become very complete, with good global and local navigation. Companies typically present navigation in the left column of a page, running utility features across the top of the page.

Many of the winning intranets also make excellent use of breadcrumbs to further help users orient themselves in the large information spaces found on today's intranets.


40% of the winners had to custom build their own content management systems (CMS).

This year's most-used products were Apache, Autonomy, BEA Portal, EMC Documentum, IBM WebSphere, J2EE, Lotus Domino and Lotus Notes, Lucene search engine, Microsoft SQL, Oracle database, Verity, and various versions of Windows servers.


Most of this year's winners make significant use of video on their intranets, taking advantage of the high bandwidths usually found on corporate networks.


[VASPERS: I predict that more blogs will move toward multi-media, photos, music, polls, games, video, podcasts, audio.]

Poorly used, intranet videos can substantially reduce productivity. It's important, for example, to correctly set users' expectations so that they only click through to videos they actually want to see.

Merrill Lynch links to videos through a highly effective gateway page that offers a concise summary of the video's event, along with information about the featured speakers. The time required to write such pages is nothing compared to the time it can save thousands of employees.

[VASPERS: That last sentence is why usability is important: it saves time and money in the long-run, and frustrations in the short-term.]

Multimedia doesn't have to entail video; simpler media types also have their place. For example, IBM's employee directory includes audio files with the pronunciation of people's names -- a particularly useful feature in a multinational company.

[VASPERS: I like IBM and their leading edge in using social media/user-empowerment type enhancements in their web platforms.]

Web Trends on Intranets


....Another good example is the IBM intranet's extensive use of weblogs, including a powerful dashboard interface that lets users monitor other blogs, as well as follow-ups to their own postings and comments.

Despite considerable Web hype, however, we're not seeing much business blogging in most companies.

More targeted, task-related tools tend to work better.

Staples, for example, offers a blog-like feature where store managers inform each other about their progress in preparing for advertised sales offers. But, rather than offer this feature in a separate community area, Staples has a simple notepad-like annotation field in the intranet area where managers view the advertising circulars. These are just-in-time, just-in-place notes -- just for this one crucial task.


Training And E-Learning

Another trend this year was an increased use of training areas on intranets. The best designs often locate traditional training options and e-learning in one area. After all, from a user's perspective, what's important is learning -- regardless of whether it takes place online or in a classroom. Many intranets also offer special training areas to help new employees learn about their new companies.


Many tutorials are presented as interactive Flash animations, with a single interface integrating text, images, and moving images, plus simple controls to pace the presentation.

[VASPERS: This motivates me to construct some Blogology Tutorials, very non-Flash lo-fi, simple to use e-learning games or guides for newbies. And my upper shoulders are on fire with agony and pain, a computer abuse symptom, which may indicate the onset of more ligament damage and eventual Blog Activity Paralysis and an insinuous Blog Psychosis. Since I write so crazy when I'm sane, you'll never know what hit me.]

Enhancing e-learning user interface controls in this manner is important: people often feel disoriented or frustrated when tutorials take over their screens and don't allow them the freedoms normally inherent in the Web (and intranet) user experiences.


In general, too few intranets perform careful studies of productivity improvements, and thus rarely have hard ROI numbers. This was true for most of this year's winners. It's more common to measure an intranet's increased use and then say, "If people use it more, it must be better."

[VASPERS: I don't get why business is so slow to figure out such things as Blog/Intranet Evaluation Criteria. I guess they'd rather pay me to do it for them. That's fine.]

On that front, across all winners this year, intranet page views increased an average of 106% after redesign. These are obviously winning designs; in general, it's more realistic to expect intranet use to increase by slightly less than 100% after a redesign for increased usability.

Even so, you can realize even greater usage increases with more specialized applications simply by making them easier to access. For example, Staples has a "profit improvement culture" program for employees to contribute suggestions for making the company more profitable by cutting costs, improving processes, and so on.

When the company placed this submission process on the intranet, the number of employee suggestions tripled. Staples estimates it has saved $200 million based on the ideas generated through this program.

Another way of looking at an intranet's success is to measure the proportion of employees who use the intranet. Among the winners, employee use of the intranet ranges from 75% to 99%.

Obviously, the exact percentage of employees who use an intranet will depend on the types of jobs they perform. Office staff and knowledge workers tend to use intranet features more frequently than people who work on a factory floor or process transactions.

In general, though, you should aim for at least 75% use overall. If less than half of your office-based employees use the intranet, then you probably have a usability disaster on your hands.


It's an eternal question: Should you give your intranet a special brand name?

Among our earlier winners, opinions have been almost evenly split: 59% of intranets were branded, and 41% were simply called "the intranet." This year, however, branding took a major upswing: 80% of the winners use it.

This year's intranet names include: insite, My One Place, On Demand Workplace (ODW), WorldNet, Networking, vitalO2, Staples@work, and vista.

One year is hardly a trend, particularly since only 50% of last year's winners were branded. Also, a great design with no name will beat a crummy intranet with a snazzy name anytime. Consistency in design and page layout does more to brand the intranet than any name.

Finally, there's no need to overdo the branding: intranets are for internal use, and you're not competing against fifty other intranets. We've seen many intranets that overflow with advertising for different business units, or even for the intranet itself. Such heavy promotions backfire. In the best case, users simply ignore them; in the worst case, they drastically reduce user productivity.

Full Report

Our 287-page Intranet Design Annual with 193 screenshots of the ten winners for 2006 is available for download.


[VASPERS: My deletions -- {the "[snip]" 's } -- contain case studies and lots of good inside information on intranets in use and how to evaluate them.

Go visit UseIt [dot] com today, and read not only this full article, but some of his other smart essays, too. Do yourself a big favor: do it right now.]

[EDIT UPDATE: This is *not* a static post, it is a location of dynamic, update content. A living document. A one man wiki. I may jump into it and add more running commentary, as the mood strikes me. Will you see it change from one visit to the next?]

[signed] steven edward streight aka vaspers the grate

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