Intranet home page design 101: Part 1 – Getting your project organized

So it’s time to redo your intranet or local department homepage. Maybe you’re migrating from an older version of SharePoint or it’s just time for a facelift. Regardless, it’s a great opportunity to learn about the tools available when you take on the task. But it’s important to assemble a good team to work on it.

Your intranet homepage is important. I can’t overstate that. A successful intranet homepage is something most people use daily (or will use once you market it internally). Whether it’s just for clicking a link to go somewhere else or it’s to read up on the company news, your home page can and should be a central hub for everyone, with something relevant to all.

This is the first part in a series on building out your intranet homepage in SharePoint Online. While there is no prescriptive way to complete this task, there are general guidelines and best practices that work for almost all organizations and company cultures. Following some or all of these steps should help you get ahead of any risks or potential landmines.

That said, I provide no guarantees! Your mileage may vary. Use common sense and apply these concepts as best they work for your situation.

Why do you need an intranet homepage?

In a lot of organizations, the homepage already is a central spot. For others, it may not be. And for those latter teams, don’t be discouraged. Just because email is the main source of sending news today doesn’t mean it will be next year, next month, or tomorrow.

You can make a webpage the central hub of authoritative information and, frankly, for an office-type organization filled with knowledge workers and professionals, you should. Websites have history, retain information, provide a powerful search engine, and represent discreet, one-stop-shop setups; other communication tools do not.

With some change management and a few sweet nuggets included on your homepage, getting people to it won’t be that difficult, even if you think it will be. Now let’s discuss some of the steps in planning then cover a few landmines to avoid.

Build a good team

A dedicated team with the skills and resources needed to complete this task is the most important thing you’ll need for a homepage redesign. Read the last sentence again, please.

In many organizations, the team will be made up of experts in their respective fields providing a percentage of their time on the project. In larger organizations, the team will be full-time.

Regardless, the early-stage team will be larger, performing research, reviewing metrics, drafting designs, presenting to management, building, and ultimately finishing the product. Once the page has launched, the support team will be smaller, limited mainly to updates and management.

At a minimum, you’ll want some of the following people: information technology (SharePoint support), communications (planning and support), marketing/branding (design and graphics), and your executive champion. In a perfect world, you have a separate team lead who has at least some experience in all of these roles.

If you have the resources, you should also strongly consider representation from the following professions: change management (communication planning and building excitement), information/knowledge management (content build out and organization), and a representative from the team who runs your external website (context with other web experiences).

Find an executive champion

Critically, you need executive support. Someone with decision-making and budgetary authority must be on this team if you want to succeed. Lacking an executive champion all but guarantees failure because the project will inevitably get back-burnered by one or many of the managers of your part-time team members. Your champion should act as a shield to those effects and push the project forward among the top folks.

Generally, it’s smart to have a member of the C-Suite, but a level down from there is tolerable. Yes, even in a large organization, a C-Suite (or upper-level management) member is important because of the impact and influence your intranet homepage has on your organization and its culture. Think of how many eyes are on the intranet home page in an enterprise environment. And think of the bad outcome if the C-Suite isn’t aware of the updates your team rolls it out and they’re… let’s say, dissatisfied. Not good.

Avoid those problems by making sure you find a high-ranking champion.

Benchmark the status quo

Metrics matter. You likely have an existing homepage. If you don’t, you may have an existing intranet. And if people use it, you can easily discern what’s already popular and what’s not. Your metrics help you identify what to build upon and what to toss. Metrics also will help you define success: you can’t say you improved the situation if you can’t compare end-of-project status to that at the beginning.

Generally speaking, click counts matter. You can get detailed usage metrics for free using Google Analytics. Your IT representative should be able to set this up or put the request in to get it done. With GA, you’ll see how many regular users you have, where they come from, where they go, how often they return, how long they stay, and which content on the page or in the rest of the intranet are most popular.

Next, consider adding a heat-mapping tool to your homepage and any other popular pages or pages you’re redoing. Where GA will tell you what people are clicking and who’s using your page, a heat map will tell you which sections of the pages are most popular. You can try something like HotJar. A basic account will record up to 2,000 visitors per day for free; that’s a lot of good data to start with.

Lastly, you want qualitative input. Engage your users. On a large scale, you can and should put together some surveys to find out which aspects of the current page people like, what they don’t like, what are must-haves, and who’s most interested in the project. You may find some additional team members in this process that are passionate about a good homepage.

Then, lead some internal workshops. Your change management person can lead these and ask similar questions but get more nuanced responses than a survey can provide. This is a short paragraph that describes an intense process; do not underestimate the time and attention required to host workshops nor what it takes to write good survey questions. It’s harder than you think!

Keep a running list of popular content because you will want it later for potential inclusion in the homepage design.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

There’s absolutely no reason to start this project as if nobody has ever done the same thing before. Your organization, while I’m sure it’s unique, really isn’t that different from other corporations, governments, etc. Nope, even the most dysfunctional parts are common.

So don’t move forward like you have to start from scratch. Do some research. Find out what other organizations are doing. It’s super easy!

Wait, no. It’s actually not. One thing you never see publicized is intranet screenshots. Intranets contain the bread and butter of what makes an organization successful, so you rarely catch glimpses because legal teams don’t want to take the (unnecessary, in their eyes) risks of inadvertently releasing intellectual property or processes. And you can’t blame them.

But fear not! You do have options. For one, you can reach out to colleagues and friends in other organizations for ideas or screenshots. You can try to remember what your last company did and run with that. Or you can look up reports on intranet designs. Yeah, let’s go with that last one since the former were effectively light forms of corporate espionage.

I’m going to save actual design recommendations for part 2 of this series, but to get you researching, you should check out two important design resources for help understanding both what is functionally possible and what real-world designs are out there.

Your best bet for understanding out-of-the-box functionality of SharePoint Online is the recently released SharePoint Look Book. The Look Book gives you over a dozen different design ideas using the modern experience in SharePoint. I’m really impressed with it; I just wish they had something like this ten years ago!

For real-world designs, I recommend checking out the Nielsen Norman Group’s Intranet Design Annual Report. Each year has ten or so actual intranets showcased, with insights into the decision-making process, complete with screenshots for inspiration. Take note that usually the best designs include some or a lot of custom development, which I’m not recommending. But SharePoint Online’s modern experience offers a lot of features to help you do your best to replicate what you see. This report is around $500 USD, but it’s a worthy investment and one of the best ways to understand the state of intranets worldwide. Even in a small organization, it’s well worth the cost. Anyone who says it’s too expensive isn’t actually dedicated to the project. (That’s right, I said it. You can show that person to this article.)

Don’t let the marketing/branding teams take over the project

One parting warning I will offer is this: the design, branding, marketing, and external web folks may believe they deserve more influence than they do. While their intentions are always good, their experience is not usually as compatible with an intranet as they think. They typically come from the world of external web design, where organizations spend a lot of time and resources building their websites to be exactly what they want them to be, perfectly branded, using significant resources in the process.

Your intranet homepage is not there to be pretty. It’s there to provide good content. Yes, you should aim for pleasant, user-friendly design. But you want function over form. External web folks have the ability to do whatever they need to because web design impacts sales and self-service opportunities; sales pay for things and self-service tools reduce internal costs, ergo they both positively impact the bottom line and justify the investment into custom solutions.

Your intranet homepage will not (and should not) receive the same investment, to be frank. The workspace you’re working with is not limitless. You’re completing a paint-by-number rather than starting with a blank canvas. Act that way.

Roles need to be made clear to these team members. Branding options in SharePoint are limited, but definitely sufficient! Make sure they’re prepped.

(Much love to all the branding and marketing folks out there. I do and have played both roles in various organizations.)

Conclusion

Your team matters! The most impactful aspect of this project is who works on it. Your teammates—even if they can’t provide full-time support—need to be dedicated, as do their managers. You need an executive champion. You need to do your research and understand the status quo. Finally, make sure to build upon others’ successes. That’s how progress works. Learn from others, improve, and tweak to match the culture.

That concludes part 1, which is all about getting your project going. In part 2 of this series, we’ll cover specific content ideas, design elements, and best practices to get your creative juices going.

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!

Want to know what the series is all about? Read Matt’s first blog outlining his “Intranet Home Page Design 101” series!

Read the next in the series: ‘Building the right homepage’ in part two.

And click here for part three: ‘Elements of design’.

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Intranet projects are a lot of work but are an integral part of internal culture and productivity. Let’s help get you started on the right foot with Valo Intranet. See why our intranet in-a-box solution can not only get you started but bring your digital workplace to new heights!

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