Intranet Design Annual: The Ten Best Intranets of 2001

If John Donne’s famous quotation was to be updated for the 21st century, it might read, “No man is an island entire of itself, except for intranet developers.” Unlike their counterparts on the public web, those working on Intranets do not have as many opportunities to share information, research competitor’s sites, or learn from the successes of other intranets.

What makes an intranet the “best”? Is it the most usable, the most improved, the one with the best ROI?The Nielsen Normal Group report “Intranet Design Annual: The Ten Best Intranets of 2001” seeks to change that. It is a refreshing look inside ten successful intranets of organizations ranging from multinational conglomerates (Cisco) to small new media firms (silverorange) to educational institutions (Luleå University of Technology).

For those expecting to glean the secret to Intranet design from somewhere within the 111-page report, well, prepare to be disappointed. There are no flashes of brilliance, no never-heard-before ideas, no changing-the-way-intranets-are-designed stories. What the report has, however, are ten excellent case studies, each detailing the evolution of the award-winning design.

Sure, conference presentations and articles in publications talk about intranets and give examples, but they usually approach the subject from a very high level and gloss over the parts that could actually be beneficial to others. On the other hand, the case studies here go into substantially more detail.

Screenshots of the original design (where applicable) are shown, and the project background is presented along with goals and constraints. The redesign process is then explained, with examples of usability methods, timelines, and insight from those involved in the project. Specific issues that came up (i.e. multi-lingual issues, content management, personalization) are addressed, and the results are revealed, along with a few “lessons learned” (which are, for the most part, unique for each company).

For those who do not have time to read the case studies, the three-page executive summary does an excellent job summarizing the major points of the reports, describing the best practices and culling the most important and obvious lessons learned. There is also a two-page overview of the winners that hits the major points of each company’s case study. (While web designers and developers would benefit from reading the entire report, these five pages could be extracted and presented as a beneficial quick read to those in management and non-web job roles.)

While the information is extremely beneficial, the report is not perfect; with only a few pages devoted to each intranet, there is a substantial amount of information that would be valuable to intranet designers that is not included. For example, though most companies developed iterative designs, in most cases only the before and after designs are showed. The reports’ authors often delve into nit-picky comments on visual design, space that could have been better allocated to additional information on the design process, user testing, or real-world results.

Most notably, there is a ratings scale that is sure to raise eyebrows. What makes an intranet the “best”? Is it the most usable, the most improved, the one with the best ROI? The designs were (admittedly) not tested for usability; no ROI calculations are included or discussed; the ratings are subjective values determined by the three authors, and nothing else.

Still, while the scoring system is a bit questionable (though the authors do note that future reports will incorporate user testing as part of the rating process), there is no doubt that the ten intranets presented are excellent applications from which most reading the report will be able to learn. While, by default, “Intranet Design Annual: The Ten Best Intranets of 2001” would have been the best (read: only) publication on intranet user experience, the authors have not rested on that dubious distinction. The Neilsen Norman Group authors have put together a first-rate report which can be an engaging read for anyone involved inthe management, design or development of an Intranet. Designers can learn about the specific details of projects, usability testing tactics, and design issues, while managers can obtain a more high-level view of Intranet strategies. Overall, a worthwhilepublication that looks to only be improved upon in future years.

About the report:
  • “Intranet Design Annual: The Ten Best Intranets of 2001”
  • Kara Pernice Coyne, Jakob Nielsen, and Candice Goodwin
  • Nielsen Norman Group, November 2001
  • (no ISBN)
  • Downloadable PDF
  • 111 pages
  • $54/$154 (report/report, site and intranet license)
  • Available for immediate download at http://nngroup.com/reports/intranet/2001/
  • Target audience: “Anybody in charge of an intranet or its design”
  • Executive summary: Selection Criteria and Process; Overview of the 10 Winners; Common Themes Across the Winners; Summary of the Winners; 10 Individual Case Studies; Future Intranet Design Recommendations, Related to Design Process
Jeff Lash is working on improving the intranet user experience at Premcor. He was previously an Information Architect at Xplane and is the co-founder of the St. Louis Group for Information Architecture.

Posted in Book Reviews, Reviews, Special topic: Intranets | 6 Comments »

6 Comments

  • surfmoc

    March 20, 2002 at 3:57 am

    please leave blatant ads out of this site!

  • heyotwell

    March 20, 2002 at 4:31 am

    Except this one, please, which happens to be a review of a publication. Reviewing Jakob’s $50 pdf report is no different from reviewing Jakob’s $50 book, is it?

  • editor

    March 20, 2002 at 5:29 am

    From time to time we will be reviewing books and publications that we feel are relevant and interesting to the audience of Boxes and Arrows. Our goal is not to necessarily promote one person’s effort over another but to provide guidance to our readers as to those books and pubs we think would enrich their practice as well as to identify items not worth the time.

  • Steven Garrity

    March 21, 2002 at 4:04 pm

    As part of the design team of one of the intranets featured in the report (silverorange), I obviously have a vested interest in the success of the report. However, I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more in-depth criticism – then again, I they did pick what they thought were the best intranets from the submissions.

    I was hoping for some criticism that would help us improve our next version. It is much more difficult to quantify the effectiveness of the interface of an intranet than it would be for something like an ecommerce checkout process. The circumstances of an ecommerce site can be replicated quite easily, as many customers shop only occasionally and would be no more familiar with the interface than short-term test subjects would. With an intranet, though, you are dealing with a long-term usage of a smaller group of users. They become very familiar with the interface and may use it a dozen times a day. This presents a whole different set of design challenges – and is much more difficult to test. The only way to truly know how effective an intranet is would be to observe an entire organization using it on site for an extended period or to use it yourself – and I mean really use it.

    I was pleased to see that Nielsen does recognize the differences in design challenges between public websites and intranets in his books.

    I do think that this report might be helpful for a company looking to develop or outsource an intranet design. And, of course, the report was great press!

  • Lou

    March 25, 2002 at 8:51 am

    My problem with this report: how can we compare apples (e.g., HP or IBM) to oranges (in this case, silveroranges)? More than half of silverorange’s staff was involved in the intranet design (something like 4 of 7 total staff). Which is wonderful. But how can that be compared to what Ford or Microsoft is trying to accomplish with their intranets? I’m certain that the report has a lot of value, but I think this issue emasculates any comparisons.

  • Steven Garrity

    March 27, 2002 at 12:46 pm

    Good points Lou. Also, silverorange is a web software firm – quite a unique situation to be in for developing a web-based intranet.

Sorry, comments are closed.