Would you ever consider going to a formal event in
your workout clothes? Whether this hypothetical
faux pas is triggered by indifference to your surroundings
or an experiment in stretching the fabric
of social etiquette, there would be no mistaking the
fact that you’d look completely out of place. And to
drive the point home, you’d be met by the whispers
of bewildered onlookers as you part the mass of
black ties and evening gowns in your sprayed-on
Spandex. There’s a lesson to be learned here: You
need the right look for the right occasion.
Big “I” versus little “i”
The differences between Internet and intranet
design aren’t quite as obvious as wearing sweats to
the Oscars. In fact, you might not be able to tell
one from the other just by looking at them. But for
all their similarities, they have some very subtle, yet
fundamental idiosyncrasies that don’t translate well
from one to the other.
Unfortunately, many web designers—most of
whom started their careers building Internet sites—
have a tendency to apply Internet design principles to
building intranet sites. These designers need to adjust
their mindset and design approach when they apply
their expertise to an organization’s internal website.
Why? Because intranets serve a much different purpose
than their external counterparts.
A firm distinction must be made between commercial
Internet sites and content-laden intranet
sites. Otherwise the resulting intranet will seem overdressed
for the productivity-oriented environment
Commercial Internet sites are used as vehicles
to market, promote, and sell a product or service.
They need to be dressed up with high entertainment
value—rich, high-resolution graphics; Flash or
Shockwave animations; and watercooler content—to
keep users interested and maximize public exposure.
An intranet isn’t used to market or sell a product—
it is the product. Intranet sites aren’t based
so much on entertainment value, but rather on a
utilitarian need to manage and publish large volumes
of content to an organization’s user community. If
Internet design is formal wear for a high-class function,
then intranet design is the aerodynamic skinsuit
worn by cycling time trialists—built for no-nonsense
speed and efficiency.
This doesn’t mean intranets have to be devoid
of pizzazz—you still want users to have an enjoyable
experience—but it’s important that design be used to
complement a site’s content, not overshadow it.
Anatomy of intranet design
Intranets are used primarily as content management
systems. They store and disseminate everything
from human resources information to engineering
schematics to large graphic libraries. Yet just as for
the Internet, designers—though not primary content
providers—play a vital role in the presentation
Contrary to what some of the more processminded
intranet managers may think, design isn’t
a frivolous cosmetic tool used to dress up content.
In addition to contributing to overall user satisfaction,
proper intranet design accomplishes three very
1. Design creates a recognizable brand.
An easily recognizable system brand can be used by
intranet owners for internal marketing. It can be the
basis for the creation of promotional material such
as posters and banners, mouse pads, brochures, and
letterheads. This increases system visibility and will
help promote usage.
An effective brand also helps to distinguish the
officially sanctioned intranet from other unofficial
subsites that may be floating around the company.
Because of the ease with which websites can be built,
it’s possible for an organization’s network to become
fl ooded with less-than-serious, non-work-related subsites.
An intranet brand helps maintain the credibility
of the official system.
2. Design creates navigational structure and
Navigational structure and user interface are perhaps
the most crucial aspects of intranet design.
They not only provide an effective means to get
from point A to point B, they also create a logical
relationship among the contents stored within an
intranet (as opposed to the physical relationship of
files and folders within a web or application server).
Intranet sites are goal-oriented: Users mostly
want to quickly find what they’re looking for and
leave. Navigation must cater to this need. The type
of navigation and interface you choose will depend
largely on the purpose of the intranet and its content
categories. Most intranets have a combination of
standard website navigation and interface types:
- Hierarchical—Traditional parent-child structure
classifies content categories by top- and sublevels,
resembling a family tree.
- Sequential—Sibling, or peer-to-peer, structure creates
a sequential ordering of pages. Sequential navigation
is often used for presentations or instructions
where page order is important.
- Site maps—Site maps provide users with a bird’seye
view of the entire site without having to manually
navigate the structure.
- Query-based—Some intranets have no fixed
menus and are built entirely around a database.
Rather than using a series of static HTML pages,
content is built dynamically by scripts based on user
input instead of navigating a menu.
3. Design establishes standards for presentation
Intranet designers must know their audience,
keeping in mind two key groups: those using the
intranet, and those managing it.
The visual style of an intranet should depend,
at least in part, on the organization’s culture. A more
conservative environment accustomed to dealing
with paper-based documents will probably prefer
simpler, cleaner, no-frills content presentation. Endusers
in a relaxed and creative environment will be
more receptive to elaborate presentation—but again,
it must never overshadow the content.
Design choices, however, play a major role in
the lives of content providers who will be handling
the content on a daily basis. Intranets must be manageable
by nontechnical content providers, so don’t
allow your design to become an impediment to
them. If they have to jump through hoops simply to
add a menu item, they’re likely to either make mistakes
or ignore the rules … or both.