How to improve your SharePoint Intranet
In my time as a consultant I have delivered multiple Microsoft 365 and SharePoint Intranets either via configuration of out-of-the-box functionality or through delivery of our AMT Hub Intranet Solution. Over this time I have seen a variety of common issues that have impacted user adoption. Now it is time to improve your SharePoint Intranet.
In this blog I want to tackle some of the issues I have seen, detailing what they are but also provide some ways to fix these.
Organisation: “We keep the Intranet up to date, therefore it is doing a good job”
Is this really true? Is just keeping an Intranet up to date really meeting the needs of the organisation and its employees? Well for some companies it is, and these are the companies who are happy with ticking the “we have an Intranet” box but who in reality have a failed/failing Intranet.
The issue here is that the organisation does not have a plan or a roadmap for their Intranet, and therefore the only measurement is whether it has been kept up to date. I agree that keeping the Intranet up to date and dynamic is important (we will see that later) but as with any successful plan there also needs to be goals, objectives and milestones.
Treat your Intranet like a product, what would you do? Well firstly you would want to know what your consumer wants and needs, so talk to your Intranet users and provide them the ability to provide feedback. Next, you decide to make a change, so would define what objective that change is going to meet and how you are going to measure it. Finally, you are going to take a decision on whether that change was a success or not, and if it was not then what are you going to do? Well, you are going to go back to the drawing board and revert the change until it can be done in the right way.
We can apply the above to an Intranet.
Lets decide that we are going to move the news to the bottom of the page as we have a video of the CEO that needs to be large and central at the top. Our objective for this change is to ensure that we have a video that gets a certain number of views and a certain number of likes. However, we also need to ensure that the News continues to get the same level of likes, comments and views as before (or even more would be great!). Now in reality, what may happen is that the News gets less views as it is now “below the fold” and we find that users are not scrolling down to find it, so our change is not meeting the objectives. Therefore, our goal setting, monitoring and measuring is enabling a change to be made but it cannot be described as “effective”. In this scenario the change has failed, so our next approach could be to place the news and video alongside one another “above the fold” and then see how that works.
User: “I have no reason to be here”
Ok, sounds a bit deep but we are only talking about Intranets!
If a user or group of users have no reason to visit the Intranet early in its launch, then they will continue to not visit it in the future. This is because visiting the intranet takes time out of a user’s day, and they want to use that time efficiently.
All users will have different reasons to use the Intranet, therefore a successful one caters to all of these needs. Furthermore, whilst meeting these needs the Intranet is also serving up additional content that the user did not realise they wanted.
As an example, a user may navigate to your Intranet to review a specific policy or procedure, during that user journey they will also see some of your upcoming events and news. However, other users may be going on the Intranet to view the events and the latest news, and then realise that they have a specific policy that they are due to read. In both of these examples, that are the reverse of one another, the user is accessing for a specific reason but doing more during that process than first envisioned. If only one of these journeys were catered for then one of your users would have not been adopted to the system.
One of the most useful tools to fixing these issues is the use of personas. A persona is a representation of a collective of individuals to enable you to identify the way the system will be used by them. Performing this analysis task will also ensure that you are talking to a cross section of your user base to understand their wants and needs.
An example of personas that I have used in the past related to an ambulance dispatch organisation. Within this organisation we had users who were desk based and had long lunch breaks within corporate services, we also had users who were desk based during their shift but did not have long breaks and were always consistently busy as they were monitoring the phones. Furthermore, we had to handle frontline workers like paramedics and ambulance drivers who would be rushing from scene to scene with very little time to view an intranet on a mobile device.
Finally, I like to use the analogy of “carrot and stick” when it comes to giving users a reason to visit your Intranet. If a user is only able to book holiday via your Intranet (carrot) the they will definitely visit. If a user must submit their timesheets at the end of each week via your intranet or risk disciplinary (stick) then they will definitely visit. Using this approach alongside the personas will improve user adoption and hit rate, as long as you have that monitored.
Organisation: “We think this is a good idea, so our users will think the same”
This is essentially an extension of the point above. In this approach an organisation is not spending the time getting to knows its users, but instead assumes (and we know it is bad to assume!) that their ideas are right.
This is where the toolkit of business analysts comes into its own, as the use of surveys, interviews, workshops and focus groups can all go a long way to understanding what the user wants, and also enables a trial of different ideas as a concept before committing resource to them.
I always believe that the ability for a user to provide feedback within an Intranet should be included, but also promoted and easily accessible. The end users are your market for success, so their ideas and opinions really matter.
User: “It takes too long to find what I want, if I even succeed in finding it that is”
Ok, so we have a few problems going on here wrapped up into a single comment. A user has come to the Intranet because they want to find something that is expected to be available, but they cannot, so what is the reasoning behind this? There could be many reasons.
The first reason is that the content just does not exist. The easiest way to solve this issue at the time is to generate that content. The level at which you do this, e.g. an announcement versus a full site or page, depends on whether this request is extremely bespoke or is something that a wide range of users (think personas) would benefit from. However, this issue would not arise (or will at least be less likely to) if there is a clear plan of content during the Intranet design phase that adheres to everything learnt via your business analysis techniques.
The second reason is that the navigation is too confusing for the user to locate what they need. This could be due to too many levels of navigation (three clicks to find what you need as a maximum is a common rule) or that there is too much room for interpretation (e.g. All Policies, All Processes, All Procedures as separate links).
The navigation structure should be reviewed to make sure that it makes sense and is easy to work through, once again focus groups will assist in this as well as performing usability tests. When solving navigation issues I always discuss with users that the ability to add links in more than one place is a benefit. Take note of where a user navigates when trying to find something, as this defines the location where they expect to see a link. With this knowledge you can easily place a link in that location or change your naming convention so that another navigational route is taken.
A final reason is that a search interface has not been provided, or has not been configured correctly to enable great results. I have worked with organisations in which a design for the Intranet has been based on the way search engines work, this is due to the approach of removing the clutter and simply asking the user what they want to find and taking them there. The only way we would improve upon this approach is having the Intranet provide what the user wants before they ask for it – but we are not quite there yet!
Search can be improved through the use of metadata and tags, so that items can be refined by their differing keywords. I have written a number of blogs/articles on this subject (as have numerous other consultants) so would advise that this terminology is reviewed further if your search configuration is a key issue.
Organisation: “We need more pages and more writing, that counts as content, right?”
Wrong. The more pages with words that you put in the intranet, then the more outdated content you will have in the months to come.
There certainly seemed to be a trend that we have been moving away from recently, and this is the use of intranet pages with words that define everything. A good example of this is the use of a “welcome to the team…” section on a departmental page. This will always become outdated as the paragraph will only be written because the department is chased for it in preparation for an intranet launch, but then will never see the need to update it again.
My solution to this is to use different web parts to promote content, as these can be kept more dynamic. One example is to use documents that need to contain the information anyway (like policies and procedures) and then easily make these available on pages via links or embedding them.
Another example is to use a structure that works across each department. Imagine that the header of each department page reads “Welcome to <Department Name>, here’s how we can help . . .” and then as opposed to listing lots of text, you actually used Tiles or Quick Links to each item. Take Information Technology for an example, one of their tiles would read “Support” and take you straight to the support portal. This approach uses very few words but still delivers the exact same functionality in a quicker and more efficient manner.
User: “This is boring! And I read that news article 3 weeks ago”
I see this problem over and over again. The key phrase for building user adoption within an intranet is “Dynamic Content”. Imagine logging into BBC Sports each week and reading the same article, about the same match, with the same score and guess what? You still lost! You just would not do this, you would expect the news to be consistently updated with engaging, interesting and relevant stories. So why do people think that their Intranet users do not deserve the same?
Once again this can be resolved through good content planning. It is understood that getting news out of departments can be difficult, so these gaps have to be filled with regular content. A great example I have shared with clients is a “Get to Know” article in which a set of questions is asked to each employee, suddenly you are generating 100 news articles for your 100 user company, that can be released on a schedule. Also lets be honest, these articles would get loads of hits as we are all really nosey in our nature, its why we have Facebook!
It’s still is great to also get news from other areas of the organisation, but you need to go looking for this. Therefore the introduction of processes to gather this from across your business is also important e.g. reporting on project wins.
A further step is to consider content that does not require management within your intranet, a great example of this is the use of a Twitter Feed. Content like this is managed as part of other processes, but can still become a dynamic item on your Intranet home page. Further example include RSS Feeds or Yammer Posts/Conversations.
Organisation: “We can’t just let any user change the site, we need to keep control”
A small item of consideration here. Permissions are important, but lots of successful intranets enable self service for their users. This also includes the ability for content to be owned by different people across the organisation e.g. let departments own their own site and their own news.
When planning your Intranet and its content, you should be looking at which areas require restriction and which areas can be controlled outside of your department, to ensure that other solutions listed in this blog have the time and attention they require to be done right.
User: “Add some news? Ok, now to tell them what I really think”
Ok, so on the flipside of the point above, too little restriction can also be a mistake, so lets find a happy medium. It is probably not a good idea to let all staff have access to all editing functionality. What we recommend is having a set of “Champions” who are trained accordingly in the skills needed to keep their site, content and news up to date.
It is also advised that this training includes guidelines of how to keep within the boundaries of what the Internal Communications and Marketing Teams expect of them, for example, tone of voice, colour schemes and rules around the use of imagery etc…
Furthermore, having a process for sign off or quality assurance is also well recommended. With this in place the content can be generated by a lot more sources, but can also be reviewed and updated to ensure that the intent of the Intranet is not compromised in any way.
Having an intranet that promotes “bottom-up” communication and is led by the end user is extremely positive, but note that policy may need to be in place for this. Think social media policies and IT usage policies.
Organisation: “It is just a website so we can do this . . .”
Another smaller item as we make our way to the end of this blog. Microsoft 365 and SharePoint is a platform, it is also a platform that does have limitations. It is my personal opinion that treating it any other way than this can become a large mistake.
I am not saying that the platform cannot be extended, as of course it can with the use of custom modules, SharePoint Framework development, Power Automate and Power Apps. However, there are a few battles that in the great scheme of things, are not really worth the time and effort to try and win.
For example, a number of users have discussed issues around spacing (padding) between elements on the page, or about things lining up and being pixel perfect (difficult as the site is responsive by default). A lot of this can be done through embedding CSS, but what if Microsoft change the tags that you are targeting, suddenly it is reverting back to normal (best case) or completely breaking as an Intranet (worst case) that leads to a reduction in User Adoption. Not only this, but support costs will then also increase which goers against the improved ROI through using SharePoint in the first instance.
There are a great number of benefits gained through using SharePoint as you Intranet platform, so it is my advice to capture all of these wins and acknowledge the items that are unavailable through minor limitations. In all likelihood when reviewing the few items that you cannot achieve you will see that these are not things that will massively impact the final product or the user journey.
User: “How do I use this thing?”
Please remember to train your users. All organisations have staff with different levels of skill when it comes to technology, therefore you need to adapt to this and ensure that everyone has the training required to enable them to use your system effectively.
Training needs to be considered for all types of employees and the role that they will play. We have already discussed earlier about “Champions” receiving training for modifying content. However, we also have end users at desks, frontline workers on mobile, administrators and maybe even external users. Are we confident that all these users will just be able to adapt to the system, know where everything is and know how to get there? That is quite a big ask.
Have you considered your new starters? How are they going to be trained? Your Intranet should play a large part of your induction and onboarding process. User adoption will definitely take a hit if users who understand the system leave and other users who do not replace them.
Remember that there are also differing ways of delivering training. You could run scheduled training sessions or drop in sessions, both virtually or on premises. You could provide documentation or videos to be reviewed at the end users own pace. I have even suggested that clients use News and Hero Banners to promote training and new features, a weekly “Did you know. . .” article helps with training but also helps with earlier problems with the creation of frequent and scheduled content.
Remember, you may think that the Intranet is easy to use and that it is really intuitive, but nothing beats spending a bit of time with your users and ensuring they are empowered to have the same opinion.
To summarise, it has been an interesting few moments writing about a number of issues and mistakes that I have seen during my time delivering Intranets over the years. My hope is that having an understanding of these at whichever phase of a project you are in will help you make changes and make a difference. Even if your Intranet is live it is not too late, it just means further effort is required to bring back those users who have abandoned the site and allow them to trust in any reinvigoration effort that is completed.
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