How to make intranets that people actually use

In many organisations, the intranet is a useless vortex of irrelevant, outdated information. It has a notorious reputation for being a ‘necessary evil,’ and most employees would rather ignore its existence than bother engaging with it.

This is a shame because when done well, an intranet can be an important and highly successful communications tool. It’s a chance to communicate your company culture, share important information, make the workplace more accessible and keep people feeling connected.

The trick to a successful intranet is in the design. Here’s how to create an intranet that your staff will actually use, in four (relatively) simple steps:

1. Define its purpose

It’s tempting to use your intranet as an all-encompassing communications tool, complete with a laundry list of functions and features like news updates, document sharing, blog hosting and internal job boards.

And while it is possible to design an intranet that does all of these things, the reality is that it’s unlikely to do any of them well.

That’s why you need to think carefully and critically about the purpose of your company’s intranet. At a fundamental level, an intranet is a place for your staff to access information. But this information could be anything, including:

  • Company news
  • Tools, apps and resources for staff
  • Meeting minutes, agenda and internal communications
  • Internal vacancies and financial reporting
  • HR information, like policies and instructional guides
  • Data, dashboards and analytics
  • Staff contact directory

It’s okay for your intranet to have multiple functions. After all, you want it to be as useful as possible. But you need to articulate a clear focus and purpose to determine what information is available on your intranet, and why.

Jetstar, a low-cost airline based in Australia, did this when it was creating JEN. JEN is Jetstar’s intranet, and its sole purpose is to act as a ‘source of truth’ and a communications portal for staff who are highly mobile and not always connected to the wider company. JEN is primarily used to share news and information, and it’s accessible at any time, from anywhere. It also has an ‘Ask the CEO’ channel, which gives staff a direct line to the company's senior leadership and an opportunity to ask questions.

JEN has many features and functions, but it’s core purpose is to keep a network of geographically dispersed (and sometimes inaccessible) staff connected to the company and its leadership. Articulating your purpose this way will help you work out what information is relevant and how you will deliver it on your intranet.

2. Focus on navigation

Your employees won’t engage with an intranet that is crowded, clunky or simply too difficult to use. So after you’ve thought about the purpose of your intranet, shift your focus to the next most important thing: user experience and navigation.

The 2016 Intranet Design Annual by the Nielsen Norman Group is a great resource for information on intranet design, usability and best practices, and it contains four key pieces of advice:

  • Put menus in sensible places. The top of the page and the left sidebar are where most users expect to find menus. * Resist the temptation to use vague or funny labels. They create confusion and make it difficult for people to find and understand information.
  • Put hyperlinks in texts and images. Where appropriate, this will make it easier for your staff to discover relevant content.
  • Make sure the search works. An effective search tool is key to building credibility, utility and engagement.

For even more guidance, take a look at the Nielsen Norman Group’s ‘Intranet Usability Guidelines'.

3. Make it mobile

With the rise of smartphones and tablets in the workplace - and record numbers of people working from home - people have come to demand technologies and solutions that can keep up with their fast-paced, highly mobile style of working.

You need to make your intranet adaptive (or even mobile-first) if you want your employees to engage with it. Why?

  • Because your employees are already mobile. We all rely on our smartphones and tablets to find and share information, communicate with others and collaborate. Not being able to access the company intranet - and the resources it contains - is a frustrating experience.
  • It keeps everyone connected. A recent study has shown that mobile intranets are essential for bridging the communication and engagement gap between office or desk-based employees and those who work remotely, in the field or across different locations.
  • It’s essential for accessibility. Employees who travel frequently or don’t spend a lot of time at their desk rely on their mobile devices for information, so a mobile-friendly intranet is key to making sure your information and resources are accessible.

4. Create a content calendar

At the end of the day, your intranet is only as good as the content you put on it. If you want to create an intranet that actually engages people, you need to regularly publish new, useful and interesting content.

Developing a content calendar will help you do this. It doesn’t have to be complicated; just think about what you’re going to publish, and mark it on a calendar like this.

And remember: there’s more to content than company news and updates. Be creative and explore other content types, like:

  • Blog posts written by staff or guests
  • Images and videos produced or discovered by your team
  • Polls, quizzes and other interactive content
  • Longer form content, like research papers or white papers

If you’re at a loss for what to publish, the easiest thing to do is to ask your staff what they’d like to see on the intranet. If you keep their needs and interests in mind and align your intranet with your communications strategy, you’ll never be short of inspiration for new content.

Don’t set and forget your intranet

Above all, the most important thing to remember is that your intranet isn’t static. It’s an evolving environment that should - and will - change as your organisation does. Keep this in mind and be prepared to take a phased, iterative approach to the development of your intranet.