The opening line of Under Milk Wood by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas says "To begin at the beginning." It seems a good place to start looking by at the homepage of an intranet. Home should be a familiar place to its inhabitants. They will know what is in each room, cupboard, or shelf with at least an initial level of confidence. They will not expect to find packets of pasta in the cutlery drawer—even though the drawer is in the kitchen and is, in theory, a place where you could keep pasta. In our house, the keys to the car hang in the kitchen. The garage would be a very logical place to keep car keys, were it not for the fact that the garage door key is on the same ring as the car key. It is all a question of putting things in places that match the way we run our lives.
Intranet homepages should be created in the same way. Once inside, do we need to be reminded whose house it is? So why, on one intranet homepage I saw recently, was the logo of the organization featured so prominently that users had to scroll down below it to see all the information categories? The company's answer was that the logo was used on the Web site, so it seemed to make sense to feature it on the intranet. If users need to be reminded on a daily, if not hourly, basis of who they work for and that they are using their firm's intranet, then there is little hope for the success of the organization much less its intranet.
The usual intranet homepage format that I see has some navigation in the left and right columns, but news about the organization (and maybe a picture of the office) dominates the center. The news is often about the organization from an external perspective but it also usually includes internal information about the activities of individuals and departments that, in the past, would have appeared in the staff newsletter…and been ignored. People are very selective about news and are only interested in it when it has some impact on them. If it does not, then it can be a total turnoff and a waste of prime intranet real estate.
One piece of Web design folklore is Peter Cochrane's "three clicks" rule. With the current scale of Web sites and intranets, trying to get every piece of content within three clicks away from the homepage is madness. My version of the three clicks rule is that, within three clicks of the homepage, a user should be confident that they are heading in the right direction. This argues for navigation-rich homepages.
A very good homepage design I saw a couple of years ago was on the intranet of Software Spectrum. This had three columns headed: Our Clients, Our People, and Communications. Each subheading had enough sub headings to illustrate what content was likely to be found there. This was complemented by selected departmental links and very clear global navigation, which included the local time in various international offices.
Not only do homepages have to provide highly usable information architecture, but they also must reflect the culture of the organization. To take the example of Software Spectrum: providing the local times of international offices reminded everyone that the company was indeed international, but it also made staff in the small offices outside the USA feel that they were important.
I remember being in a company where there was quite a large voluntary redundancy program being put into operation. On the homepage, the location of program details could indeed be found in the employee information section. But they were listed after links to the cafeteria, sports clubs, and theatre trips. The reason was that this list was organized alphabetically. An unfortunate side effect: Staff affected by the program felt that they were being seen as second-class citizens.
Homepage development needs to be managed with more care than is evident in many organizations. A top-down view that reflects corporate objectives and business processes is a good start but then, as the intranet develops in complexity and size, there will be a need to look back at the homepage and see if it still works. This is where usability testing becomes so important, not only to identify enhancements, but also to make the business case for implementation.
In my experience, organizations tend to give up on trying to maximize the effectiveness of homepages and then attempt to overcome intranet deficiencies with a search engine, or worse they settle for vague notions that employees know where the content is located. If your organization takes that approach I suggest that, when you go home this evening, you try to imagine how you would cope if you found every room in your house contained a bed, sofa, shower, kitchen cabinets, and a wardrobe. Now where are those car keys?