Intranet redesign, Phase 4: visual design, HTML and CMS build

News delivery design

With several stakeholders interested in news delivery across the intranet, this was an important part of the redesign.

In the existing intranet, a news story would appear on the homepage with a URL from the latest news section and then drop into an archive, with a different URL. So the same story had 2 different URLs in its lifetime travelling from homepage to archive. A nightmare for analytics and evaluation and back-linking. The news archive itself was just a bulleted list of text headlines, grouped by month, buried in a structure that was difficult to navigate and, to my mind, did not encourage anyone to browse through back-issues.

I wanted to turn this on its head and bring the news stories alive. I wanted stories to link to each other forming a thread. I wanted to eliminate the idea of an *archive* which reeks of a dark, locked away place, underground, filled with cobwebs. I saw news being displayed as a stream of thumbnails. And wouldn’t it be nice if staff could *Like* stories?
News

Devolved news publishing

Also on the cards was a plan to devolve news story publishing to the internal editorial team. Up until this point, the central intranet team handled all intranet content, coding up and publishing manually in Dreamweaver. To get the news stories flowing through the new intranet via the editorial team, we needed a CMS (content management system). And because news would appear on the intranet homepage, it meant that the CMS would have to publish the intranet homepage. Scary, because we’d always had manual control of the homepage.

Technical development starts

Armed with my wireframes and a visual design prototype (built with Fireworks – great for WEB graphics) it was time for the core team to come together ready for the build. Up until this point I had been working very closely with the intranet development manager. Nobody had seen any visual design work or prototypes. This was the point when I presented all my findings to the team and we got our heads together working on the interface.

We had two developers who would build the HTML and CSS template for all sections of the intranet. Then two CMS developers to take the template and build the homepage and news delivery system within the CMS. And I stress again, we were working with a webserver that just supported flat HTML and Javascript on IE6+ browsers.

Team meetings were more scrum than SCRUM and I was probably seen as a tiresome pain in the neck during development. Constantly tweeking parts of the interface. Trying to defend usability design choices. Causing hell for the CMS developers whose inbuilt navigation system would not bend to my contextual designs and pushing them to the limits of programming creativity. Trying to turn their mindsets to new ways of thinking. I still remember roaring at the team during the news section development “THERE IS NO ARCHIVE!” and fighting for pixelspace on the width of the search box. Such is the life of the user experience designer.

Compromises, battles won and lost, we came up with the following main design elements.

Page layout, consistent design & colour coding

We decided that the header bar should stay the same throughout the intranet. This contained the logo, strapline and search box (including people search). Plus a global navigation bar containing the top-tasks and A-Z lookup pages. I was quietly pleased that it would leave no possibility of having any spam banner ads forced upon us from overly keen stakeholders.

Homepage main menu. Simples!
Homepage main menu. Simples!

The left-hand menu on the homepage displayed the top 4 sections.

I added an A-Z box to the homepage to give quick access to any letter plus a scrollable billboard space for internal advertising. The billboard gave the user 10 seconds to do what they came to do from the homepage and then started slowly scrolling the adverts for those who hung around. We managed to get RSS feeds from our public site and the BBC into the homepage and the only bit of personalisation on the intranet; a graphical bookmark link back to a choice of local intranets (implemented with cookies).

We changed the default typeface, increased the font size and line-spacing and improved text flow on the page. We used a three-column approach, left-hand menu, body content, right-hand for document downloads, related pages and external sites, adverts and contact information.

News stories

On individual news story pages the developers came up trumps allowing us to display popup images, scrolling photo galleries and video. A big plus for engagement. And we managed to get voting on stories into the mix through a convoluted use of jQuery, cookies and Google Analytics to store the votes. We added *next* and *prev* on each story to encourage paging back and forth between stories. Back issues were still organised by month but we now had a visual display of stories using thumbnails. And there was no mention of archive 🙂

User-centric dates

Instead of using a typical datestamp on the footer of each page, I took the decision to move to user-centric dates in the style of Facebook. Yes I did sit and watch in wonder as a freshly published page changed its status on the footer bar in real-time from Published just now, to a few minutes ago to 10 minutes ago. Much more human to see, than to read a date and have to remember what day it is now and work out how long ago it was. Little shortcuts in the brain’s workings help the user experience.

Working interface

Here are some example thumbnail images of each section template, showing the homepage, a help page and then each section landing page paired with a themed detail page. Not counting news & features, each section landing page acted as a partial sitemap giving quick access to popular content within sub-sections.

MoJ intranet colours

Accessibility testing

It was at this stage when the first drafts of the site had been built that I tested the intranet template on staff using assistive technology. I sat with people using JAWS and SuperNova screenreaders and Dragon voice recognition. Always a good experience watching (and hearing) the intranet being used from this side of the fence. And great when all the hidden code in the back of the pages works. However, I sat with one blind lady and I was pretty gob-smacked to find out that she was not aware of access keys and how to jump around the site. She’d been relying on her own method of jumping to the H1 tag on a page but was unaware of all the other shortcuts. It was also interesting to sit with another lady using a headset to easily browse the intranet through spoken commands.

After building the templates and CMS system we were then ready to haul over the content, which I’ll cover in my next post.

In this series

  1. Research, surveys and brief
  2. Information architecture and content audit
  3. Wireframe designs and user testing
  4. Visual design, HTML and CMS build
  5. Migration, content freeze/dual publishing
  6. Communications, launch and evaluation

Mentioned sites

Intranet redesign, Phase 3: wireframe designs and user testing

The previous phase of the project gave me 4 main intranet sections with specific content functions and a detailed map of all the content that was cherry-picked to make the migration to the new intranet. There were going to be a fair few chunks of content left ashore, and no doubt a few stowaways.


The top-level, homepage, main navigation options, as voted for by the willing and much appreciated members of staff who took part in the online experiments were:

News & features

Containing 2 types of news; corporate *must read* announcements and feature articles, promoted as the online staff magazine. In addition, this section would be home to the corporate calendar, press and media coverage, the monthly staff magazine, and our holistic section (sports, social, weather, travel, photo galleries).

Guidance & support

Look-up, reference and guidance material, policy and procedures, forms and templates. All the stuff you need in your day to day job.

Ministers & parliament

Content relating to official ministerial business. (Cardsorting put any guidance of this nature into this section, rather than the general guidance and support section.)

Organisation & vision

Content about our structure, goals, ways of working, strategies and initiatives. Promoting internal campaigns.

Contextual navigation

For this next phase, I ran some time trials, using 2 sets of wireframe prototypes (created in Axure) to test the existing navigation against the proposed contextual method. I created a set of tasks for face-to-face user testing, designed to bounce the participant around different sections of the site. Contextual navigation came out way ahead, with task completion times significantly faster than the existing method. Decision made.

I was then able to document a complete intranet navigation structure based on the 4 main sections, plus a supporting section for global pages (A-Z, search, help.)

Wireframe and prototype user testing

The next step in the project was to work out how best to present all this information on the intranet, how the navigation menus would work and to start to implement some of the design ideas from the project brief.

I spent a month making heavy use of a trial version of Axure (are you getting how many cost-effective tools were used in this project??) to create protoypes using the full intranet IA, implemented with the proposed contextual method of navigation.

Having spent some time setting this up in Axure, the product really came into its own when I started the iterative testing. I’d do short bursts of tests with just a handful of people, individually at their desks. Glaring problems immediately came to light and with a few adjustments in Axure, a press of a button gave me a new prototype in seconds. Then more testing and adjustments, round and round, until I was confident in the navigation and layout, and just before the trial license ran out 😉

Early wireframe prototype page (before final cardsorting results.) Note the drippy *Corporate services* label which crashed and burned in cardsorting as a possible name.
Early wireframe prototype page (before final cardsorting results.)
Note the drippy *Corporate services* label which
crashed and burned in cardsorting as a possible name.

Benefits of contextual navigation

One of the most striking effects of using contextual navigation was that it made the intranet seem smaller. Because left hand navigation menus were shorter on every page. Because they didn’t include all the unnecessary baggage of same-level branch options. And I think this made the intranet seem less daunting to people during testing. Wherever they were in the structure, they didn’t feel lost. Golden usability rule; take away choice and you make it easier (therefore faster) for the user.

Bye bye breadcrumb

I also got the idea that the left hand menu could double-up as a breadcrumb, always leading back to the homepage and always showing you the path you have taken. An added benefit (later implemented with colour coding) was that the menu acted as a depth gauge. The less darker menu colours, the nearer you were to the homepage, the more darker colours, the deeper you were in the structure. Removing the traditional breadcrumb that spans across the top of body content saved some screen space and would also speed up migration time since developers would not have to manually code breadcrumb navigation.

Flexible menus

I was very optimistic about all the benefits of switching to this type of navigation It is flexible. It is not rigid. But I found this the hardest part to explain to the developers who were stuck in a rigid mindset of using up to 3 levels of navigation levels and no more. The intranet is not an evenly distributed field of content that falls neatly into ordered layers. Some sections go deep. Others are shallow. But, most are a combination of both. Sections consist of sub-layers of varying depth. So it is illogical to try to force the structure. To try to make it fit. Or to limit the structure to a finite number of levels.

Examples from two pages showing flexible, contextual menus made from the following building blocks: I can go back to this page/section (dark shade, one or more of these) I am in this section (medium shade, just one of these) I can go forward to this page/section (light shade, one or more of these) A bullet point marker to show *I am here*
Examples from two pages showing flexible, contextual menus
made from the following building blocks:
I can go back to this page/section (dark shade, one or more of these)
I am in this section (medium shade, just one of these)
I can go forward to this page/section (light shade, one or more of these)
A bullet point marker to show *I am here*

Information and navigation design completed, I then moved on to visual design, which I’ll cover in my next post.

In this series

  1. Research, surveys and brief
  2. Information architecture and content audit
  3. Wireframe designs and user testing
  4. Visual design, HTML and CMS build
  5. Migration, content freeze/dual publishing
  6. Communications, launch and evaluation

Intranet redesign, Phase 2: information architecture and content audit

Back in the good old days when the IT department allowed me to use DOS (the operating system that I was brought up on,) I managed to do some jiggery-pokery and get a complete intranet file-listing. And a few deft keystrokes later, I was spreadsheet-a-go-go.

dos

Content audit

My previous analysis already told me what was popular content on the intranet. The spreadsheet gave me the complete picture and what kind of state it was in, structurally.

Using our Google Search Appliance, I also generated a listing of all content that Google thought was on the intranet (having crawled from the homepage.) The resultant list contained 6416 entries (HTML, DOC, XLS, PDF) and was a fraction of the DOS listing, meaning that the webserver was filled with rubbish, albeit invisible to staff.

I then spent a long time sifting and sorting, grouping and batching, slicing and hacking. By the end, I had a good idea of what I was dealing with and what would make it into the final mix.

Top-level navigation

I decided that I could group the whole of the intranet into just 4 main sections. Big change. Big simplification. What I didn’t know for certain was what I was going to call these sections. So, with the core team, we came up with a good handful of ideas for the names of each of the 4 sections.

I started involving staff with an online, closed cardsort using all of our ideas for names. I invited staff from all over the organisation to take part. I tested a representative selection of all intranet content. The tests worked by showing the participant an intranet page or document and asking them which of 4 boxes they would put it in. Each question tested one section and the 4 boxes were labelled with a selection of names for that section.

I wanted to test a lot of content, against a lot of possible names with a lot of people, online. I had to find a way to distribute many smaller tests, testing different variations of sections with content while keeping the number of questions to a minimum, to encourage staff to complete the test. I was also working with a webserver with no coding capability (PHP or ASP). So I developed a simple set of HTML pages, which linked from question to question while passing the chosen answers to Google Analytics. I’d be able to filter the analytics for the test questions and answers.

For the intial test page which all participants landed on, I used Google Website Optimiser, setting up an A/B test which redirected participants to one of 12 different pages. Each of the 12 pages started an individual test containing 20 questions. The purpose of Website Optimiser is usually to find the best combination of elements or wording on a page to drive a particular outcome. In this instance, I just took advantage of Website Optimiser’s method of evenly distributing tests.

We advertised for participants across our family of intranets and got a really great response.

Cardsorting stats

Google Analytics report showing bursts of cardsorting activity during 2009
Google Analytics report showing bursts of cardsorting activity during 2009

I like looking back on these analytics. During the online cardsorting sessions I covered over 1000 content items and got nearly 36,000 individual responses. The first batch of tests was in February, designed to elicit our main navigation labels. Subsequent tests then checked that the chosen names would suit all the intranet content. It was a much larger set of tests, again using Website Optimiser for distribution and Google Analytics to capture results.

The Test Tube advert
The Test Tube advert

The “Test tube advert”

I attribute the success of the number of responses partially to the advert that I designed to entice staff to take the test. The advert lets people know what to expect: answer 20 questions. The text acknowledges that people would be supporting us in taking the test and also mentions that this is the second round of tests. There was no first round of tests; the line is there to give a sense of having missed out on something. I also chose *experiments* which I felt was slightly more sexy than *tests*. A bold, clear call to action encourages a click, and the test tubes are just dripping.

Cardsorting results

The stats from the cardsorting gave a clear visual indication of success or failure. Here is an example of results for a single card with the option of 4 placements (boxes). This card got 334 responses with nearly 80% concurrence of opinion. I tested iteratively until I was confident that everything fitted and would work well with staff.

Google Analytics results for a single card
Google Analytics results for a single card

Remaining information architecture

After the cardsorting exercises were finished I then got to work on creating the master IA for the intranet, creating the secondary and subsequent navigation levels. I could then map the initial intranet structure to the newly created structure, producing the content migration plan, ready for phase 5 of the project.

IA is such an important step in any web or intranet development project. And it is important that it is done early in the project, before any page layout or visual design.

In this series

  1. Research, surveys and brief
  2. Information architecture and content audit
  3. Wireframe designs and user testing
  4. Visual design, HTML and CMS build
  5. Migration, content freeze/dual publishing
  6. Communications, launch and evaluation

Intranet redesign, Phase 1: research, surveys and brief

I have been meaning to write up the phases of our intranet redesign project for a long time. I’m going to blog the 6 phases of the project leading up to launch on New Year’s Day 2010. The project took around a year and a half to complete, with a core team of 4 people, working in addition to our day to day jobs of intranet publishing, website builds and the usual internal comms intranet panics. This was a major overhaul project, aiming at a big-bang relaunch.

Phase 1

This initial phase of the project produced a brief containing the aims, scope and deliverables for the project plus a detailed research analysis.

Usability review

Alongside my own usability review, I looked at our existing IBF usability benchmarking reports to feed the expert evaluations into the brief.

Due to multiple homepage redesigns, the existing homepage was inconsistent with lower-level pages, which had retained their original templates. The menu colours and layout were different, the header bar was different. The fonts and layout were different. The main navigation on the homepage promoted navigating away from the intranet and sections which were not the most popular in terms of user tasks. Staff did not understand the four categories of news stories (corporate, media related, staff interest and feature news.)

Homepage template
Homepage template
The typeface, font size and line-spacing of text on lower-level pages made for bad readability and the flow of text made it even more worse. The global navigation bar changed position between homepage and lower-level pages. The search box looked different. The peopleFinder function was only available from the homepage and both people and content search results were poor, both in terms of user interface and content quality.
Lower-level page template
Lower-level page template
There was very little imagery throughout the site and pages appeared bland and cumbersome. Design wise, there was little trace of the corporate brand.

Behind the scenes, the folder structure was haphazard, as was filenaming.

Analytics reports and search logs

I analysed the analytics and search logs to find out which content was popular, unpopular, surplus or missing. I looked at page views, time on pages and search phrases. This analysis gave me a good idea of what the staff were browsing and searching for.  No prizes for guessing the top pages: job vacancies, forms, people search, pay information. At that time we didn’t have a restaurant menu; missing content!

Gerry McGovern, Customer Carewords and contextual navigation

We used Gerry McGovern’s Customer Carewords methodology to survey staff with the objective of finding out what they wanted to do on the intranet in terms of top tasks.

Around the same time, I tuned into a webinar that Gerry was hosting in which he talked about contextual navigation. The practice of only showing menu options relative to the page content. He talked about how the BBC website used this technique and demonstrated how menus adapt, for example, from sports, to football, to first division football without still showing cricket or tennis. I made a note to experiment with this.

Stakeholder interviews

We spoke with stakeholders from across the organisation with particular emphasis on internal communications. There were lots of detailed discussions about news and how we were going to present news articles. The current 4 categories of news needed simplifying.

Brief

Having looked at all the evaluations, research, stats and surveys, we developed a basic brief, summarised below:

  • Improve the overall site design and layout (modern look and feel, improved readability and ease of use)
  • Use the internal brand
  • Redesign the information architecture by auditing and recategorising content
  • Implement a simplified navigation system (test contextual navigation)
  • Simplify the news categories and improve delivery
  • Rectify the flow of stories from the homepage to news archives
  • Redesign the search results interface
  • Overhaul intranet content metadata to give a solid search experience
  • Standardise folder structure and filenames
  • No end date!  Project Manager nightmare! But we knew that we would have to work on the project alongside our day jobs (where anything can happen!) and only decided on a launch date as we prepared for content migration (phase 5).

In this series

  1. Research, surveys and brief
  2. Information architecture and content audit
  3. Wireframe designs and user testing
  4. Visual design, HTML and CMS build
  5. Migration, content freeze/dual publishing
  6. Communications, launch and evaluation

Mentioned sites

Intranet redesign or drip-feed improvements?

I’m noticing a lot of talk around whether to go for a major redesign or implement small improvements little by little.  I thought I’d give my view on the subject.

I’ve been in my current job for two and half years. In that time the intranet has had a rebrand due to major changes in the organisation back in 2007, a homepage redesign in 2008 and a complete site redesign released at the start of 2010.

We are warned against the dangers of “big-bang” redesigns because staff can’t handle too much change all at the same time. Because of this, when we released our new intranet in January, I was expecting either a great big fanfare and applause or a load of boos and hissing. I got neither. It was business as usual, almost as if nothing had changed. The intranet had a complete new look and feel, a totally reorganised structure and navigation system (based on intense user testing) and still there was very little reaction from the user base.

Having spoken to a few intranet professionals, apparently I shouldn’t be alarmed and this is a good sign that staff are just using the intranet as usual. Unsurprisingly, we haven’t had bags of positive feedback, but neither have we had lots of complaints.

I feel that we are now at a point where we can start to make incremental changes. The intranet is now in a state where we have consistency across the board, all the content is organised. It is not perfect, but I don’t see the need for any further “big-bang” redesigns. Now it’s time to tackle the smaller issues as well as plan for future enhancements such as an improved staff directory and integrating feedback and collaboration features.

I don’t see any harm in a big redesign project in itself where it is appropriate. Sometimes it’s just best to start again rather than try to do lots of smaller fixes. So long as it’s not repeated again and again.