A Vision from Down Under
By Michael Poole
We hear this, even in the antipodes, so often and it may be true, especially for anyone under 40.
Why? Well, obviously it provides a way to communicate with friends and acquaintances; but it’s unlikely it would have been as successful if it had followed the design methods that can be found in too many corporate intranets.
One of Facebook’s major features is “consistency.” Consistent styling; consistent behavior; consistent look-and-feel.
Consistency is paramount to the success of all successful social networking sites. In fact, consistency is such a hallmark of these sites that ANY change to the design makes headlines or at least millions of wall posts!
If Facebook was like most corporate intranets, I doubt if users would have returned again and again.
The “public” internet sites of companies are owned and controlled by the marketing department whose whole purpose is attract visitors and ensure that the site is friendly, usable and informative. They usually follow the same design philosophy that has produced Facebook – consistency and ease of use.
Intranets, on the other hand, are usually owned by IT departments and the content is produced and published by individual departments with differing design (or non-design) skills.
Each department will often have a different set of design parameters and styles. Without a set of design guidelines that stress consistency and ease of use, the intranet can easily look like a “mash-up” – or perhaps a “mess-up” – of isolated intranet sites with jarring and confusing inconsistencies from page to page and area to area.
We have all experienced the corporate intranet that changes themes, banners, fonts for each department area. Intranets that use different layouts, even within department areas – some departments may have text links to some forms, buttons for others; one part of the site may work with IE9 – other parts need will not work with IE7; one might use bold, bright colors, another subdued pastels. The variations can be as many as there are contributors to the intranet site.
Rule one for a successful intranet
The intranet should look and behave in a consistent way. Having an intranet that changes its appearance and behavior between sections disorientates users and can introduce doubts into their minds as to whether or not all sections are as reliable and current as each other.
Of course, I can hear some of my readers saying: “Yes, we tried to do that, we had a theme designed, set standards for user interaction, had a template for all pages. We did all that but then we had to integrate a web-based application into the intranet and it all went bad. We could not change the way that application looked or worked, so we just had to compromise and accept it.”
So, many people, though trying to build in consistency into the intranet, are brought to a crashing halt by having to incorporate inflexible and inconsistent applications.
Why has this happened?
Let’s face it, most corporate applications have been around for some time. Many pre-date the internet and most certainly Web 2.0. They have been developed for dedicated user clients – some were even developed for dumb terminals. And when they produced the “web” version they did try for consistency – but it was consistency with the old, pre-web version. As a result, they produced clones of the old client down to the colors, key-strokes, layout etc.
With this design philosophy – consistency with the past – when they developed “new” functionality, they repeated the design errors of the past. And because in the past they had prescribed the layout, theme and style of the application, they did it again with the new functionality. As a result, application portals came so they fitted in with the parent application and not easily, if at all, styled to be consistent with the intranet they would be integrated into.
If you want a graphic (no pun intended) proof of this, look at the majority of ITSM application vendor’s web offerings – nearly all clones of the dedicated client interfaces of the past.
Should this be the way?
The web is designed to be able to be styled and themed in very powerful ways giving developers the ability to produce interfaces and pages that can be easily integrated into any existing style or theme or to any device.
One way to do this is to use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to define the look and feel of an individual web page or a whole site.
This is the strategy that we have embraced when designing not just Kinetic Request forms but the whole Service Request Portal interface. We have empowered our clients to easily integrate both Kinetic Request forms and portals seamlessly into their existing intranets by leveraging the CSS definitions that they use for the rest of the intranet site. The result is CONSISTENCY – consistency of style, functionality and experience, and a reduction of confusion.
By putting the focus on enabling consistency of styling and functionality in the web interface to request management and fulfillment, our users have not had to compromise the consistency of the intranet. The payback is not only better customer satisfaction and better adoption by the users but also a reduction in costs of implementation, user support and training.
It is not the magic bullet – your intranet will never be as popular as Facebook and you will still have to battle to get HR to follow a design guideline – but having the power to enforce consistency is a major step along the way!