Author: Denise Eisner

Denise Eisner is a senior-level content/UX strategist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a senior consultant at Systemscope, Denise’s experience and specializations include content strategy and design, writing/editing, prototyping, usability testing, web analytics, project management and change management.


Special Series: Taming the Intranet Beast, Part Five

Part Five: the Intranet Dream Team

In the final instalment of a five-part series on Taming the Intranet Beast, senior consultant Denise Eisner shows how the dream team can be realized, even in times of austerity.

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s list of best Intranets of 2012 suggests that proper resourcing for an organization’s internal web site needs to approach a ratio of one resource for every 1,000 employees. That figure takes into account some allowances for temporary outside help for particular functions, but on the whole, the ratio seems right.

But can smaller government departments today manage Intranets with one, two, or three individuals? The answer is a qualified yes, depending whether:

  • The individual/team member has the requisite communications, marketing, analytics and business skills to multi-task effectively;
  • The web content lifecycle has been defined and informs what happens to web content from inception to removal;
  • Governance is in place to make strategic decisions;
  • Tactical decisions are made within the Intranet team;
  • The design, structure, functionality and performance measurement components of site management are managed centrally; and
  • Content contributors are relied upon as local editors providing story ideas and web content, not as web experts.

How could these activities be realized when budgets are tight, and likely to get tighter? Consider the future state of a departmental Intranet if nothing changes:

  • Employees waste 90 cents per minute looking for content on a poorly structure site;
  • New content costing upwards of $800-1000 per page (after writing, approvals and publishing) keeps getting adding to the site with no strategy or lifecycle guidance governing its existence; and
  • There is a risk of limited understanding among employees of the department’s top priorities since they are not effectively messaged using the channels that employees want and need.

Given these direct and indirect costs to the organization, maintaining a status quo for the Intranet will cost more, and the performance records should bear that out. A well-conceived resourcing solution plus efforts to shore up governance and strategy offers senior management a more cost-efficient and sustainable approach to managing the Intranet channel.

View the rest of this series:

Special Series: Taming the Intranet Beast, Part 4

Part Four: Get Serious about Intranet Search

In the fourth of a five-part series on Taming the Intranet Beast, senior consultant Denise Eisner asks if search is so important, why are there no resources allocated to it?

Ask a government communications executive what they see as the problem with their Intranet site and invariably the answer is “our search engine doesn’t work.” Colourful variants on that response aside, it’s clear that management understands that search is an important function that users need to find content easily.

Then we ask the web teams and their IT colleagues how many resources they have devoted to search. Answer? None.

That disconnect between acknowledgement of the single most important function on a website and the reality of no resourcing to support it defies logic. So why does this happen?

First of all, search is partly technical. It involves an IT tool. IT largely sees their role with respect to search as infrastructure provider, with little to no maintenance required. Meantime, Communications is not comfortable with new technology that is outside their area of expertise.

Second, search requires understanding of how information should be classified so it can be retrieved. This would be the rightful domain of IM, but sadly not too many departments see it that way. The result is that the metadata is poor or nonexistent and therefore the search results have little meaning.

Third and lastly, search needs constant testing to make sure it is performing as expected. I have yet to see a usability or public opinion research plan that incorporates testing for Intranet search.

So management sees the problem, but no one appears to have the solution? Not quite. Some departments have taken up the cause with vengeance, and rather than wait for the solution to be bestowed upon them, have gone out and procured a decent tool (Google Search Appliance for example), configured it to meet their needs, tested it and then monitored it for performance. Voila: search now works with some degree of predictability. For one department that meant a quasi-full-time resource embedded on the web team, who brought the requisite skills to make it happen. It also meant the full support of management.

Search on an Intranet site can be improved, as long as it’s accepted that resources are required to manage it.

In the fifth and final part of this series, we nominate the contenders for the Intranet dream team.

Special Series: Taming the Intranet Beast, Part 3

Part Three: Build Intranets for Tasks, Not Branches

In the third of a five-part series on Taming the Intranet Beast, senior consultant Denise Eisner shows how putting tasks ahead of employee newsletters is smart Intranet management.

For departmental Intranets, there’s a pervasive site structure model that says each branch should get an equal portion of the real estate in the site navigation, regardless of how many or how few tasks are performed online in that section of the site. This model says that equal standing is the best structure for representing the entire organization.

There’s another common model that says that the more corporate messaging you place on the home page, the more likely that employees will be knowledgeable about departmental priorities and strategic plans.

Industry research and government’s own usability data indicates that neither of these models improve task completion, and instead end up costing the organization in lost productivity. Having employees search for content to complete a task costs government organizations an average rate of 90 cents per minute, making obstacles like two-year-old newsletter articles, untagged PowerPoint presentations and multiple copies of the same HR policies some very expensive roadblocks to completing basic tasks.

What are those basic tasks? For a start, anything that answers the basic questions about pay and vacation would meet the requirements of every employee. Beyond that, well-architected Intranets address such varied tasks as:

  • How do I book a boardroom?
  • What are the requirements for booking my first business trip?
  • Find financial codes
  • Understand the process for hiring
  • Find information about health plans for dependents

A task inventory helps establish known tasks against existing web content assets. Within this spreadsheet (or database or CMS), site managers can weight tasks according to web path analysis from analytics data, user surveys, and card sorting to determine which tasks should dominate the site architecture.

Collaborative tools also fit within this framework but their inclusion must suit the culture of the organization. The gamut of tasks involving collaborative tools includes:

  • Sharing best practices or project updates among practitioners on a wiki
  • Using personal employee profiles to publish skills sets, past projects and contact information
  • Document sharing platforms for special projects
  • Texting tools to cut down on email

At some point it will be obvious to the web team that some branches within the department have relatively less Intranet content than others that correlates to what employees want to do online. Publishing short branch descriptions that link to key documents on a document management system can address these lower-demand areas. (If no such system exists, one possible solution is to provide an email address for document requests for that branch.) Not placing this lower-demand content online frees up the site for content that fulfills employee task requirements.

In Part Four of this series, we break down the benefits of having an Intranet search engine that actually works.

Special Series: Taming the Intranet Beast, Part 2

Part Two: Intranets Are All about Vacation and Money

In the second of a five-part series on Taming the Intranet Beast, senior consultant Denise Eisner highlights two of the top things employees care most about when it comes to Intranets.

The essence of the employer/employee relationship is this: employees are paid for work performed and they get days off from work with pay. Understanding how pay and vacation is given in an organization is often described on departmental Intranets via policies, agreements, guidelines and forms that support how and when employees collect salary or overtime, and when they can take time off.

Unfortunately, surveys of users and heuristic (usability) reviews of Intranets reveal that many of these sites don’t provide the means to do any tasks related to pay or benefits easily or efficiently. The most common issues with Intranets include:

  • Sites that use practitioner jargon, not plain language – Employees describe compensation as pay and leave as vacation. Yet a majority of sites yield to human resources terms because those groups author the content and determine navigation labels.
  • Corporate content is outdated and/or duplicated – The new vacation request form has been posted but the old one is still available. Sound familiar?
  • Few if any of these key tasks are available via the home page – Employees might find pay and vacation content two, three or four clicks in from the home page, which is frequently the default page when the browser opens. Rather than get right to their chosen task, they have to fight the information architecture. This loss of productivity can cost the organization 90 cents a minute per employee.
  • FAQs are not – The use of the frequently asked question has devolved into a convenient format for web content but it rarely reflects what users actually want to know. By not having informative FAQs, HR advisors end up responding to the same questions over and over.
  • Bad forms – Form design is a special practice that takes into account logic models, taxonomy, visual design and functional requirements. The result of bad form design is bad data, delayed processing and a good amount of frustration for all.

Fixing the Vacation and Pay Design Problem

Identifying the key tasks related to vacation and pay and positioning those tasks within easy reach of users will go a long way toward improving Intranet usability. Task analysis, card sorting, and paper prototyping are helpful activities that can uncover most of the common issues with navigation and site structure with respect to these tasks.

However, fixing vacation and pay tasks online is not just an information architecture problem. Supporting these tasks also means analyzing how the task gets completed beyond the Intranet site. If for example a request form gets automatically sent to an email account that is monitored by one employee, what happens when that employee is away? Or, if a vacation form submitted online requires another employee to rekey that information into a legacy system, what processes are in place to prevent errors? Could there be some automation to prevent rekeying in the first place? Web teams are not typically tasked with these considerations, but given the impacts on user satisfaction and productivity, this situation calls for collaborative business process solutions to identify weaknesses, determine roles and responsibilities, design potential solutions and test them before releasing them to employees.

In Part Three of this series, Denise Eisner shows how putting tasks ahead of employee newsletters is smart Intranet management.

Special Series: Taming the Intranet Beast

Part One: the Intranet is an Expensive Help Desk

In the first of a five-part series on Taming the Intranet Beast, senior consultant Denise Eisner explains why not fixing a broken departmental Intranet wastes millions of dollars each year to lost productivity.

Several times each day, an employee goes looking for information that by all accounts should be found on a departmental Intranet. Sidestepping the dubious search engine, the hunt-and-click quest begins, pitting employee against byzantine information architectures, rogue sites, duplicated content and countless out-of-date newsletters. Ten minutes into the task and no resolution in sight, the frustrated employee consults an office mate, who now joins the task for another five minutes. In the end, they both give up, and the unfortunate employee is now left staring at the phone and plotting the next move.

The sad reality is that the answer was likely somewhere on the site but irretrievable due to confusing navigation, absent site governance, poor writing, lack of search engine optimization (or a decent search engine), etc.

This scenario is common among government employees, stemming from a series of poor decisions and inaction about the department’s Intranet. This inaction bears real consequences, not the least of which is that the employee didn’t get to do something other than the Intranet task for a portion of those 15 minutes.

To look at this dilemma in more stark terms, assume an average loaded rate for a government employee at $94,000.00 (C.D. Howe report, page 5). Allowing for work days equal to 46.6 weeks (including three weeks for vacation and 12 stat holidays), multiply 46.6 by days (233), hours (1,747.5) and minutes (104,850), and you arrive at a per-minute employee cost of $0.90. Multiply that cost by 20 (employee #1’s 15 minutes and employee #2’s 5 minutes to help) and you have spent $18.00 to not find information that should be readily available on the Intranet.

Extrapolating this one example to a department makes the Intranet beast even more deadly. If just half of the employees in a 4,000 FTE department only had one information retrieval task a day that did not succeed (and that’s being generous), then the total cost for one day’s worth of fruitless searches is $36,000.00. The yearly tab? Your management should be astounded to learn that lost annual productivity for a department of that size at these rates to find basic information online hovers around 8.4 million dollars.

After this reality sinks in, can you afford not to fix your Intranet?

In Part Two of this series, the Intranet is distilled into the two things that employees care most about and should be fixed first.

Finding ROT Is Only the Beginning

by Denise Eisner

The ROT (Redundant, Outdated and Trivial) web content reduction exercise underway in many federal Canadian government departments and agencies will prove to be a win on several fronts:

• Users will be able to find content more easily;
• Departments will have less inventory to keep aligned with evolving Common Look and Feel standards; and
• Any energy spent on improving content will go toward high demand web assets.

The process typically begins with a content audit, looks at performance metrics to assess usage and then goes through an evaluation process to determine what stays.

But when the audit is over, will the organization know how to:

• Determine what goes on the web, why and for how long;
• Understand web content relative to official records;
• Communicate life cycle guidance and policies to content owners; or
• Identify archival strategies for low-demand content that should not be on the web?

These considerations fall under the practice of life cycle management, which brings together the communications and information management disciplines to formulate appropriate policies and guidance for the organization. It’s a relatively new piece of policymaking that simply requires an understanding of what business rules apply to online assets and then devising operational guidance that is triggered by a business decision to remove content.

If ROT is your department’s diet blitz, consider life cycle management as the ongoing maintenance plan to keep the bloat out of your web presence.

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant within the Government Service Excellence practice.

No One Wants to Follow a Government Department

by Denise Eisner

There’s an interesting yet bewildering range of efforts by federal government to be in the social media sphere. There’s the call to action: “Stay Connected”, “Stay Informed”, or “Get Connected”. There’s the obvious: labelling the area above the commercial icons as “Social Media”. And then there’s “Follow Us.”

Aside from maybe one or two notable exceptions, there’s scant evidence that users want to follow an entire department. Government departments are not task-related. They are large organizations with multiple services that may or may not translate into discrete tasks performed by users with different needs.

What users would follow however (and already are in some cases), are themed updates that correlate with tasks in their personal or professional life:

  • Alerts and recalls
  • Border crossing times
  • Harmful chemical substances in consumer products
  • Air quality readings in my geographic area
  • Vaccination clinic locations and hours of operation
  • Upcoming deadlines for public consultations
  • Tips and deadlines related to business tax filing
  • Deadlines for grants and contributions
  • Updates during natural disasters

Notice that these are highly specialized pieces of information. That’s intrinsic to what social media was meant to do: provide a communal place to share information related to a topic or event that a group of people care about.

Here are several ways to break out of the “Follow me” cycle and turn that into “Let me help you”:

  • Identify key tasks. Your web and/or marketing teams might already have the research on this one.
  • Prioritize which tasks are performed most often by audience groups. There are likely some overlaps between what different groups need with respect to timely information.
  • Brainstorm ways you can deliver value-add information via your Twitter feed or Facebook page that would correlate to users’ top tasks.
  • Determine how to measure Followers and Likes to track performance.
  • Develop a linking strategy from your updates to departmental or specialized site content and track that performance as well.

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant within the Government Service Excellence practice.

Closing the Intranet Hellmouth

by Denise Eisner

Dark, scary portals to hell typified by the Buffyverse’s Hellmouth, or “an area fraught with massive supernatural activity” require slayer-level strength to manage effectively (it also helps to know some nifty martial arts moves). So too, do some organization intranets. The byzantine navigation, mysterious rogue sites on separate servers, and complex pages overrun with management objectives, frameworks and strategies on some Intranets make one want to click away as soon as possible. Or, for some web managers, metaphorically stake the demon.

Short of enlisting superhuman forces, there are five things organizations can do to tame their Intranet Hellmouth:

  1. Focus on employee services – There are two fundamental things people care about when it comes to their relationship with an employer: money and vacation. Manage the top user tasks related to those two areas and your web team will score big on client satisfaction. Is it easy to find the leave request form or is it eight clicks from the home page? Catalogue the top user tasks and let those guide the navigation structure.
  2. Ask real users what they think, not stakeholders – Not everyone in the organization uses the site: some people only use one or two apps or have someone else do it for them. It’s challenging to be all things to all people. Listen to the folks who are your true users. Watch them use the site for insight into behaviours.
  3. Clean out the ROT – Make sure the site isn’t cluttered with redundant, outdated or trivial content. That’s a sure way to waste users’ time. Conduct a content audit and perform mini-audits each quarter.
  4. Be a word count freak – Marissa Mayer at Google recounts how they strive to keep the word count on their home page at 28. That kind of ruthless editing takes leadership and an insane amount of negotiating. But the results at Google speak for themselves.
  5. Stay human – Intranets should not be soulless, corporate bulletin boards. Keep the community vibe going with contests, blogs, surveys and profiles of what employees are doing in and outside of work. That said, manage this activity with communication and information architecture specialists who can apply usability, content and design best practices for professional polish.

Are you sitting on an Intranet Hellmouth? Tell us your story.

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant within the Government Service Excellence practice.