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Midcom: How an Intranet was Reborn

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Expert Web designer Christie Caronis describes the ups and downs of creating her first intranet with multiple linked pages, for a company with more than 1,000 employees.
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When I began my career with my current employer (an insurance company), I had no idea that I would be involved in developing our corporate intranet. I was hired as the Webmaster, and my responsibilities included designing and managing all the external Web sites…nothing about internal projects. In fact, I was offered the position of intranet manager prior to accepting my role as Webmaster—but turned it down. I didn't think I'd like working on an intranet, and more importantly, I knew nothing about developing in a Lotus environment using Notes or Designer.

It's amazing how everything can change when a coworker goes on early maternity leave!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

The Intranet was a Ghost Town

As in many companies a few years ago, our intranet was created and managed by a fine group of developers. These were all very technical folks with all sorts of Lotus training and certifications, and they could write scripts and create databases and make things happen with calendars and forms.

But they weren't graphic artists. Not a trained designer in the group.

PLEASE don't misunderstand me: They knew the difference between a GIF and a JPEG, but they couldn't work PhotoShop to save their lives, and they tended to use whatever clip art was readily available. Sometimes their choice of color or font was, well, unusual, and most of the site lacked consistency. This is certainly not an insult to them; they got the project off to a good start, but they knew the intranet they had created needed some help.

So, what was really wrong with the intranet? After all, it worked, for the most part. You could find information, eventually. There were rarely error messages or broken links. In other words, it functioned…oh, but it was plain, and it was boring. The navigation was quite poor. The menu required expanding with multiple clicks just to see if what you were looking for was even available. Once you found what you wanted, you usually had to click the Back button on your browser several times to return to a main menu or screen. In fact, the Back button became the main way to navigate in some cases. Getting lost was an everyday occurrence.

The site itself was developed using frames. I believe there were six or more frames making up the set. The two top frames were used for information such as our stock quote or links to an industry calendar, and were displayed as part of most pages. Because of this, there was very little screen real estate left for content, so you had to scroll a great deal, especially on smaller monitors. Also, some of this information wasn't really necessary on every page—or even important to some users.

Finally, the intranet had very few features or tools. The only departments represented were human resources and IS, but neither one had much in the way of content. And we didn't offer any external links to frequently used sites, although many departments maintained their own lists. The claims department, for example, had a multiple-page Microsoft Word document with links to hundreds of sites they used regularly. But the intranet didn't let users access that list or others like it. This information was typically kept within departments on shared network drives, since few people used the intranet and there was no fast and easy way to publish to it anyway.

Figure 1 shows how the original intranet looked.

Figure 1

The original intranet home page. Top frames are dominated by open space and unnecessary information, and there's little room for important content.

Not surprisingly, nobody used the intranet…including me. Communication was done either by paper or a broadcast email or voicemail. Since all users could send broadcast email, they often sent messages about lost earrings in the fitness center or free kittens for a nice home. Important messages were kept on users' systems for days, weeks, even months. Some users had literally hundreds of email messages saved. Part of our plan in developing the new intranet was to shut off the broadcast email ability for most users, thus forcing people to rely more heavily on the intranet to stay informed. This solution would also eliminate some of the burdens placed on the network. We could only accomplish this by designing an intranet that people would want to use.

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