When we are engaged to work on an intranet project, we are often asked what other law firms are doing with their sites as a starting point for ideas for development. However, law firm intranets can benefit from looking at what is going on outside of the legal sector. Intranets within large corporate organisations are often a lot further ahead in terms of innovation and how they are being utilised. For example, we are seeing the term “digital workplace”, rather than intranet, being used to describe the internal platform which is used to surface up information and systems to support workers in their day to-day tasks.
This article aims to provide a summary of some recent trends in intranet design, how they can relate to law firm intranets and an approach to intranet projects and delivery.
The Nielson Norman Group (NNG) recently published its Intranet Design Annual for 2015. The Annual provides, together with a list of the 10 award-winning intranets for 2015, a list of the trends they are seeing in intranet design. Both the Annual and the awards are based on entries received by the NNG from all around the globe, from organisations of all sizes (the smallest award winner this year being a company comprising of 200 employees and the largest of 230,000) and all sectors (from social housing offices to a multi-national telecommunications company).
Agile or Agile-like approaches are becoming more common place in intranet development. Instead of organisations waiting to re-launch sites with full scale redesign, they are launching specific features gradually over a period of time. The NNG does acknowledge, however, that a drip-feed of changes may be as disruptive to the user as one big-bang approach so all changes should be managed and communicated effectively.
Mobile delivery of intranets in large corporates is often streets ahead of what law firms are doing. It has been a must for them to meet the needs of different types of users. Law firm users are historically deskbased, whereas if you think of an organisation such as BT, it will have a cross section of users which include office workers, call centre operatives, field workers and engineers. All of these people will need to know what’s going on around the business and be able to access the tools they need to do their job, although they are unlikely to be sat at a desk all day in order to do this.
Another example is Barclays Bank, which introduced a mobile intranet aimed at staff in retail branches who did not even have a work email account. The new site, MyZone, provided them with an intranet environment accessible from their own smartphone or tablet. It included links to HR processes, a video channel, product information and more, and gave Barclays a 22 per cent increase in employee engagement within branches in the six months which followed the site’s launch.
Whilst law firms have not tended to have these issues to deal with, there is a distinct change in working patterns. Many people absorb information constantly via smart phones and tablets in their personal lives and are now beginning to expect this in a work context.
The best designs focus on getting the right information to the right people with less user effort. Search results making use of “hover over” effects to display more information to the user before they decide to click through to open an item is a great move forward in achieving this.
We regularly hear feedback from users that they get frustrated with the speed an intranet search result, say a document, takes to open up (often because it is going to retrieve content from a different database or system), and, that even when they open it, the user finds it is not what they were looking for. The “hover over” gets around this frustration and saves the user time. An alternative here could be a preview tool which would give the user an idea of the content before launching an application, such as Word.
Carousels are not a new feature on intranet homepages, but they essentially attempt to make better use of limited space by providing a placeholder to display different pieces of content (generally news) on rotation. There is still the challenge of deciding what content is relevant and important enough (and indeed who makes these decisions) to display on the carousel however…
Gone are the days of frames, shadows and beveled graphics – the award-winning intranets all have flat designs, moving away from 3D buttons to straight-forward actionable icons.
A common gripe we often hear about intranets is around poor speed (performance). There can be many reasons for this. However a flatter design will inevitably make the page quicker to render, and will be especially relevant when thinking about mobile delivery.
Some of the award winners display updates about company performance, share prices and results as a way of engaging with their employees and keeping them updated.
We are not seeing a huge trend towards this in legal but rather bespoke matter or client pages that, subject to the right security and controls, enable partners or client teams to see the status of the latest matters, bills, WIP etc.
Some firms do however also publicise figures showing achievement of billing targets, Pro Bono work or other initiatives as a way of engaging and motivating employees.
Use of video on intranets is on the up. It can be used for a variety of purposes from training to communicating news stories, knowledge sharing and internal marketing. With the surge of YouTube, users are more accepting of less than professional quality video content being the norm, and don’t expect a polished corporate communications style product at all times.
Amongst the NNG award winners, Klick, a digital health agency in Canada, offered knowledge sharing using simple to create iPhone videos . You don’t need to have experienced audio visual teams in place to be able to achieve this.
Eight of the ten award winning intranets in the NNG report had help from external agencies and consultants on their projects. External consultants can bring expertise in particular areas and also ideas and examples of what works well and best practice from other organisations. The winning intranets used outside resource in areas such as user experience research, content strategy, information architecture and integration with third-party tools.
Eight of the ten award-winning intranets in the NNG report provided users with ways to refine their search results, for example by using filters.
Law firms who have invested in enterprise search technology will probably have been using faceted search to enable their users to filter through various content sources. This approach relies on consistent metadata being applied to the underlying content.
NNG has seen an increase in organisations offering search capabilities that interrogate multiple repositories to offer a “one search” experience, with the overall aim of saving the user time.
Federated search is not a new thing within legal. There are established products on the market which provide a federated search solution by connecting to key resources (in particular to legal resources such as Lexis and Westlaw) from just one search. The key thing to note here is that federated search is only as good as the search on the underlying database. If you federate to a database with a poor search engine, you will get the same poor results and may expose the inadequacies of its search even more when the results are shown alongside those from other databases.
Both Megamenus and Fat Footers are tools which surface content and links which may otherwise be buried under an intranet’s layered architecture. Megamenus allow users to see more content by hovering the mouse over the top level navigation. Fat Footers, displayed at the bottom of intranet pages and separated out from the main content areas, tend to repeat links and headings used elsewhere by way of a reminder to users.
Making it happen
It can be difficult to get senior level buy-in for large scale inward facing initiatives, such as intranet development, where the return on investment is hard to measure. Intranet projects often suffer from scope creep and take longer to deliver than they should, with the teams responsible tied-up for months on end. In addition, these are such central systems that ownership of the project and decision making can be hard to nail down.
If you have a site which is up and running, and essentially “not broke”, an alternative approach is to look at developing specific apps or tools which can be added to the intranet or integrated alongside. This can often be a quick win and shows the firm how the site can be evolved by providing it with tools which will really add value, rather than primarily aesthetic redesigns.
For example, using the intranet to automate a simple paper-based form or to surface data (maybe relating to clients and matters) which is hidden away in other systems can make a real difference and save time for users on day-to-day tasks.
Interestingly, although the NNG report does focus on design rather than features or functionality, there is no mention of a trend for collaboration amongst the award winning sites. Is this because the word is no longer on trend? Or are we now coming to the conclusion that collaboration is happening naturally around organisations and that we don’t have to focus on the software needed to enable this. Assessing the culture of the organisation, identifying the business need and the pockets of users within firms where collaboration would really break down barriers, improve communication and overall efficiency may be the keys to success here.
Intranets still have a long way to go to move from news and information portals which push out information to interactive sites without which users can’t do their jobs, but there are plenty of opportunities and ideas out there in inspire this to happen.
Sally Roberts, 3Kites Consulting, January 2015
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