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RealTime IT News

Top Ten Intranets Dare to Differ

The virtual envelopes have been opened and the top ten winners announced this week for Nielsen Norman Group's annual Ten Best Designed Intranets competition.

NNG, a well-known usability consulting firm, said the eighth annual competition attracted about a hundred entries worldwide. The ten winners included five organizations from the U.S., with the remainder from outside the country.

With few notable exceptions, the ten winners are mostly large companies. In alphabetical order, they are:

  • Bank of America, U.S.
  • Bankinter, Spain
  • Barnes & Noble, U.S.
  • British Airways, U.K.
  • Campbell Soup, U.S.
  • Coldwell Banker Real Estate, U.S.
  • IKEA North America Service, U.S.
  • Ministry of Transport, New Zealand
  • New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, Australia
  • SAP, Germany

NNG's director of research, Kara Pernice, said corporate intranets have improved significantly since it held the first contest.

"CIOs and the rest of management have come to realize how important intranets are, which is really smart and long overdue," Pernice told InternetNews.com. "A bad intranet wastes employees' time and is a missed opportunity to help with knowledge transfer and getting people up to speed with what they need to know at the company."

Pernice said it's also clear from the entries that companies, at least the ones with good intranets, are investing more resources in them. For instance, in the early years, she said, it was very common for just a single person to be in charge of intranet design.

This year, the smallest intranet design team among the winners had two members, while twenty different people across different departments were involved in the design for British Airways' site.

While Pernice conceded that there was a measure of subjectivity in picking winners, such as a basic impression of whether the intranet's look is appealing, NNG used a wide range of specific criteria based on its usability reports and client studies.

The bar is also raised each year, as companies get more sophisticated in their intranet design, she said.

Three winners came from the financial sector -- two banks and one real estate company. NNG speculates financial institutions have traditionally fared well in the competition because they typically invest a lot more in IT than other companies.

Bank of America
Click on the graphic for a view of Bank of America's intranet

One reason for the investment is that because financial firms deal in complex transactions, training costs for internal applications can skyrocket if the right user-centered design isn't in place for local and remote branches.

Another company with a few dollars in the bank and a heavy investment in IT is SAP, the enterprise software firm that represented the only technology company among this year's winners.

Most of the winners are big firms, with an average of 50,000 employees. A notable exception is New Zealand's Ministry of Transport, with only 200 intranet users.

Several of the winners make use of advanced personalization in their intranets. Pernice said personalization hasn't emerged more broadly on intranets because it's expensive, and if done wrong, ends up being counterproductive.

Examples of effective personalization included Coldwell Banker. When salespeople log in to the realtor's intranet, they are shown personalized data like their individual sales targets, their current progress and leads that are being tracked.

The realtor's employee directory also goes beyond the norm: A special feature, for example, helps agents find colleagues for referral.

"Gone are the days when you're lucky to just get a welcome note from the CEO," Pernice said. "Companies are realizing intranets are a tool to help make money and make the right decisions."

Sometimes a focus on a clear design can be more important than adding a bunch of features not everyone knows how to use. Pernice lauds the intranet by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries in Australia for its simple, clear design.

"They just did a very good job with colors and borders," she said. "You can tell what's a link and what to click on to go somewhere."


As clear as mud

Most companies that enter an intranet design contest might be expected to have, at least, some visually appealing aspects. Pernice said while there was nothing "Frankensteinian" among the entries, a few made plenty of mistakes. Those gaffes include links that "drop a user off a cliff" and go nowhere.

Another no-no, by NNG's reckoning, is overly branded sites. When you're already in Acme Inc.'s intranet, it's not necessary to brand the Acme search box, Acme's news of the day, Acme's Tips For Productivity, and so on, she said, adding that one company had its logo a clutter-filled five times on one page.


Tools of the trade

Pernice said the rise in consumer social networks and multimedia content is also emerging as a driver of intranet innovation.

"If you have YouTube on your Dell desktop at home, you start to wonder why you can't see video of the big company event at another office or the politician meeting the CEO," she said. "I have empathy for the poor IT guys who have to make sure the pipes work and implement all this."

SAP is making it work. The big enterprise software maker dedicates a section of its intranet homepage to "SAP TV" -- with videos on various topics from SAP Cup soccer finals to doing business in Russia.

NNG's report on the finalists points out that some 41 different products were used among the ten winners for their intranet platforms.

"As with every year, we again conclude that intranet technology is an unsettled field with no clear winner," it found.

Still, a handful of frequently used products stood out. Among most-used products this year were Microsoft's SharePoint and the Google Search Appliance. Others frequently used in intranets were Red Hat Linux, Lotus Notes and Domino and the Oracle database.