Now that you’ve assembled your intranet design Dream Team, it’s time to start brainstorming the content you’ll want to include on your new home page. Your biggest task during this process is to keep the user in mind; what people already like, what they indicate they want to see, and what your team expects they’ll want are your keys to success. Allowing outside influence, management, or the brand police too much sway will hinder your end product. Always keep this in mind.
In this second part of the series, we’ll be overviewing the content development and design aspects of building out your new intranet home. This process balances pragmatism with creativity, which is typically hard to do. You want to be structured with your content but you also want to create a pleasing end product that people will say they enjoy and think is an improvement over the past.
Plan on some serious brainstorming sessions
Your team needs to meet to discuss a number of topics as you flesh out your design and content. Don’t expect these meetings to be half-hour update sessions. Plan on a number of half-day workshops to first discuss and agree on goals and the content to include.
These sessions should have a leader and scribe; the leader keeps people on task and continuously asks questions to get more information out of the team. The more your team members talk and provide ideas, the more (and better) ideas will come from other team members as inspiration hits them. The scribe is critical for taking notes on what was discussed, what came across as agreed-upon concepts, and who is tasked with what between now and the next workshop.
Each member of the team should walk away with some tasks to provide status updates on at the next workshop. Committee-style writing, sketching, and building out real content just does not work in the real world. Instead, provide basic ideas for each person and have them spend time outside of the meeting to build out their content. Then have the team comment, critique, and provide feedback on the expanded ideas and proposals. Groups do better with a straw man than they do with building out content live on the scene.
I would suggest three or four of these half-day workshops, likely held at least a few days (maybe a week) apart. Then continue meeting weekly or twice per week for an hour each as the content is built out and the designs are started and refined. These recurring meetings will go on for as long as it takes for you to deliver a product; I wouldn’t go longer than two or three months. Yes, done well, this process can take a good amount of time.
Give them what they want, but not too much
To ensure people actually use your intranet home page, you have to entice your colleagues with the carrots that will bring them there. And not just one return visit, but over and over. For that reason, identifying what people like—or will like—is important to the success of your project.
But, you also have to balance the needs of the organization. Your intranet home page should ideally be the central hub for internal communications and getting people to the enterprise information they need, like Human Resources documentation, information technology help, facilities and maintenance support, and other central services.
The page should reinforce the organization’s brand and values and, yes, be the place for the organization to push its propaganda as needed. Believe it or not, though, that propaganda has its place and can make for a better working environment. Just don’t go overboard with how much corporate-level “must-haves” are actually included.
Be sure to sprinkle a little bit of the corporate content in among the good stuff to keep people on track with how the business is doing, where things stand with the strategic plan, how the benefits package is changing this year, and all those aspects that people generally don’t want to seek out, but likely need to see.
Make the most of what you already have
Your intranet is probably already chock full of a lot of great content you can leverage that exists in multiple places. The intranet home page is a good spot to bring this content together into one place, with the option to click through to where it already lives. A central spot with lots of the information someone already wants promotes return customers.
I would be surprised if your intranet doesn’t already host things like the WiFi password, cafeteria menu, people search, job postings, and other popular information elsewhere in the network. Take advantage of these and place them (or links to them) directly on the home page. And, of course, use your metrics from part 1 to identify the most popular sites and pages in your network and make sure they’re quickly findable on your page. For many organizations, the home page is more of a map to what people need than a real source for new information (and that’s okay if it matches your culture).
Fair warning: you may get some push back from the people or organizations that own that content because they’ll lose metrics on their pages or, more likely, they’ll feel they’re losing control. In that case, play nice with those people and invite them to take part in your project; preferably, if the content is that popular, you should consider bringing it into your realm of ownership. If all else fails, have your executive lead sit them down and explain that they can’t stop others from linking to good content (or taking it over).
One last major suggestion on using what you have: keep in mind that your intranet likely has tons of documentation on benefits, best practices, tips and tricks, lessons learned, and the like. Break these down into bite-sized chunks for a regular “Tip of the week” or hero image that states a really useful reminder that then links to the source.
For example, look through your Employee Assistance Plan. This is a document that most people know exists, but almost always forget what is included. A lot of organizations provide free legal services for up to four hours per year. That’s an incredible service, but no one ever remembers! By providing weekly tips, you can remind your colleagues to make the most of the benefits and tools they receive as an employee. And providing this is a proven way to boost your return visitor numbers, not to mention improve employee morale in the process.
Build new content that will improve your return rate
Based on your earlier surveys and user feedback workshops, you should have a lot of ideas of what people want from their home page. Don’t toss those out. Embrace them. Generally, it means you’ll be signing up for building new tools or sources of information, which takes time and effort to do. They will also require resources to maintain. But the investment will likely be worth it to keep people coming back and getting the most out of your project.
This is also an opportunity to improve some everyday business processes that may not work very well or could use a good modernization. Perhaps your expense submission process is lengthy and still paper-based. Help that team by automating it or making it more mobile friendly (consider Microsoft Flow and PowerApps for the job). Or maybe building out a dashboard on critical company metrics could help keep minds on the big picture, which can be incorporated on your home page.
There are a lot of content ideas you can consider adding to your site that you might not already have. Even content that people can easily find elsewhere—including on the internet or right in their smartphone—have value, believe it or not. I have built plenty of intranet home pages where the users requested things like stocks and local weather, even though these are legitimately a Siri or Google Assistant request away. People liked these and used them, so we provided them.
Then, there’s user-generated content. Some very successful tools to incorporate are discussion forums and online trading posts. Tools like Yammer offer a great way to keep people in contact in an ever more mobile world and are easy to drop into a SharePoint page. This virtual water color lets people stay in the know in a more informal way, ask open-ended questions that can get quicker answers than they ever otherwise would, and share successes and praise with the organization as a whole.
The same goes for trading posts—basically internal Craigslist tools—built on simple SharePoint lists. People feel safer selling, trading, or buying from people they work with. Just make sure both of these tools have strong governance and ramifications for misuse; you don’t want people feeling they can get away with non-stop whining on Yammer or building a puppy mill on your trading post. These tools usually take a little time after rollout to gain popularity steam, but they generally do become very popular (sometimes the most resourced tool in the intranet, actually). Your colleagues are human: they are social beings and they like their stuff.
Menus are more important than information architecture
You’ll have to figure out where your content should go. Do you create multiple sites or pages for the various things you create for this project? Do you separate files and resources into separate document libraries? Should you post your communications in the home page site or keep them in the existing communications site and pull them up to the home page?
While not necessarily a commonly spoken response to these questions, I’ll provide some honesty here: where the content lives doesn’t really matter that much as long as you can get to it from the home page and/or you’re bubbling the information up to that page. If you don’t have the resources or time to reorganize your existing content, moving files to new locations, or you’re worried about too many old links breaking if you do move things, that’s fine.
What’s really important is your links are active (not broken), findable, and relevant to your users. That means your global navigation menu and any link lists are critical to your success. And nothing brings about a good fight like your menu structure. It should be smart, easy to use, not overwhelming, and, in a perfect world, consistent throughout your intranet. Plan to spend a good portion of one of your brainstorming workshops to identify important links, ranking them, and removing some as not important enough to merit space in the menu.
I strongly suggest looking into SharePoint Online’s mega menu option, which gives you a lot of flexibility for categorizing lots of links without being stuck with a bunch of levels of fly-outs (which can be infuriating). Just beware that you can have too many links. Too many, and your users get confused and take too much time to find things.
Content is about users, not content owners
As you’re identifying the content and links to include on your page, you’re going to run into a lot of people and organizations that will demand their information belongs on the intranet home page. This is especially true of your link lists and navigation menus. Your brainstorming workshops can identify most of the content that will be required. But once you start beta testing the new site with a select group of users, you’ll hear some complaints that a beloved link or document is missing from the home page. You should, of course, take the feedback and discuss it among the team, but the team needs to be confident when they turn down a request like that.
Some content and links simply don’t belong on the home page. It’s going to be hard to say no to those people. Things like brand standards, corporate mission/vision/values statements, and executive blog posts are generally not things that people use regularly or visit freely, yet they pop up as if they’re required content. They’re not; so don’t waste the space. If you need to defend the decision, cite low metrics. Usually, these items are rarely visited and don’t need to be placed prominently. They should, of course, be accessible somehow, but they likely don’t need to be made available in full right on the home page.
My advice here is to stand your ground on what gets in and what does not. Don’t be a pushover because if you let one undeserving link into your global navigation, what stops you from accepting the next one? And the next one. And the next one. Until everyone starts complaining about there being too many links. Those complaints are more important.
Don’t skimp on mobile friendliness
Even if your organization isn’t big on mobile access to content now, it’s a mistake to overlook making your home page mobile-friendly. A redesign of your home page will likely only come about once every few years at best and by the time the next one comes, it’s likely way past when you should have implemented a mobile-friendly page. As you move forward, assume you want a responsive experience so your colleagues don’t have to continuously pinch their phone screens to grab the link to submit an expense while they’re on the road. And, frankly, you don’t have to do too much thinking about it since all of SharePoint Online’s modern communication site templates are mobile-friendly by default.
Along these lines, scrolling is a way of life now. In the late nineties and most of the aughts, scrolling on a webpage was seen as something akin to mass murder. If you had content “below the fold” on a website, it was basically a given that “nobody would ever see it”. That’s no longer the case—hell, it wasn’t really the case back then either—and anyone who says otherwise is living in the past. The issue at hand was mainly a hardware one: most people didn’t have mice with scroll wheels or trackpads that let you scroll with a finger or two. And now in the day of websites with “infinite scroll” thanks to the ease of moving a web page around with your thumb, you’re doing yourself a disservice by trying to cram everything at the top of your page. Aim for larger and more obvious icons, include negative space and enjoy some large text. You have the room, so use it.
To personalize or not?
An age-old debate on intranet home page design is whether to keep the content general—good for all people—or to go the extra mile to provide space that includes information specific to the person who is logged in. There are really good reasons for both: keeping things general ensures employees stick their heads up once in a while to keep up with what’s going on in the enterprise as a whole, but a personalized option gives them more of a reason to come back.
Thanks to tools like Delve and Microsoft Graph, it’s easier than ever to drop web parts into a SharePoint page that show a user files they’ve recently accessed or people they regularly interact with as a shortcut to those resources. Unfortunately, in my experience, many people don’t always appreciate the unpredictability of what these tools show: “so what if I interact with my manager all the time… she’s not the one I’m trying to contact right now.” This AI-infused features can be really helpful, until they’re not. So keep these concepts in mind during your user feedback workshops. If people really like the idea, maybe your culture is a good fit for these features. Make sure they play with the tools first to prove they actually like the execution. The idea may seem great; the actual application may be less pleasing.
No doubt you’ll find it reasonably easy to develop good content for your intranet. As long as you’re willing to review what you have, ask for direct user input, and reach out to key stakeholders, you’ll likely find a lot of good stuff to reuse or build from scratch.
But your biggest takeaway here needs to be that your team needs to take responsibility for the content development and maintenance of your home page and its support sources. Once they’re chosen, changes to the included content should go through a formal review and approval process. After the launch of your new home page, someone from the team (likely a communications representative) needs to own the page and its content moving forward.
Do not fall victim to a squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease change mentality. Yes, there are things your team might miss along the way. Making updates like that should be quick to recover from. But you will receive constant complaints, suggestions, and “you must include this immediately” type feedback. And that’s okay. Be sure to follow a firm-but-fair feedback review policy.
Your team spent a lot of time developing the content, getting it reviewed, running it through testing, and garnering feedback. You’re the experts. So act like it.
Content is king! Don’t miss the opportunity to repurpose or build great content to include on your intranet home page. Providing good content ensures happy (and return) visitors that find your ultimate deliverable to be a positive change in their day.
I’ll repeat one key thing: content is king! Design, color scheme, layout, brand: they are not king. While I hear all the time that “nobody will come if it looks like SharePoint” or “it’ll get no hits looking this ugly”, these are absolutely incorrect assumptions about an intranet home page.
Consider plenty of websites that are some of the most popular websites on the internet: Reddit, Craigslist, and even Amazon. It’s not their beauty that makes you return. It’s the content you enjoy that brings you back. Now look at it from a more micro standpoint: do you have a favorite hometown newspaper or blog that you check in with regularly? Those types of resources typically don’t have much budget or skill sets to create beautiful displays. And you don’t return to them for their color palette and logo: you stick by them because of the information they report, the updates they provide, the mass communications they ensure you get.
The same is true for your intranet home page: content—not design—is and always will be king.
That concludes part 2, which is all about organizing great content for your home page. In part 3 of this series, we’ll cover best practices, examples, and ideas for building out a great design for your home page.
Please feel free to leave comments and questions below. How did your last homepage redesign go? What worked and what didn’t? Any question? I’ll be sure to respond below!
Skip ahead to ‘Elements of Design’ in Part three.
Or go back and refresh your memory about what Matt said about ‘getting your project organized’ in Part One.
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