Intranet Portals and Scent are Made for Each Other

by Jared M. Spool

Organizations are becoming increasingly dependent on their intranet—the internal web-based network they use to communicate and function. Many organizations are finding the content and functions available growing at a voracious rate.

In some cases, we’re seeing the amount of content available growing at more than a gigabyte each month. How does the intranet designer ensure that employees can productively find the important content and functions, with minimum frustration, with a network growing that quickly? Many designers are turning to Portals—a set of pages that act as a launch point for every dive into the intranet’s ocean of content.

On most intranets we’ve studied, employees start their intranet session by bringing up the portal in their browser. From there, they drill into the institution’s network until they find what they want.

Portals are unique to intranets. The Internet doesn’t have portal pages.

We’ve found that some designers confused portals with a site’s home page, but they actually function differently. Home pages guide users to content within a specific site, but because the intranet is actually a collection of sites, (such as human resources, sales, or individual project information,) they each have their own home pages.

The portal becomes the shell that directs employees to the right site. It does this by consolidating scent across the intranet. The design of the portal can make or break an intranet’s success.

The Way Scent Works

The “scent of information” is a working theory we use to explain how people navigate large information spaces. Users scour pages for strong scent, using those clues to help them know where to click. When scent is successful, the users find what they’re looking for effortlessly. When the scent is poor, the users get lost and become frustrated.

Studying the design of hundreds of large web sites, we’ve identified some basic attributes of how scent works:

  • Users approach information spaces with a specific mission in mind. The best sites design the scent for those missions.
  • Users first scan the page for ‘trigger words’—the word or phrases that will trigger them into clicking on a given link.
  • If they don’t find appropriate trigger words, they’ll often resort to the site’s Search function. (In essence, they are creating their own scent.)
  • As users start to click, scent is more about eliminating choices—things it’s obviously not. As the user continues to click, the scent becomes more about honing the right content.
  • Users deduce part of a link’s scent from its proximity to related links. Groups of links can increase the scent of each individual link contained in the group.
  • Users expect every click to make them more confident they will find their result. When the page that results from a click doesn’t increase the users’ confidence, their frustration increases and they consider abandoning the quest.

While we discovered these attributes studying internet sites, intranets are no different. Working with our clients on their portals has taught us that each of these attributes is just as important as on their public-facing site.

Portal Users Are on a Mission

As we observed employees using their organization’s intranet, we saw a stark trend: Almost always, users only fire up their browser when they have something to do. They have a mission in mind before they even bring up the portal’s initial page.

The design of the portal’s initial page has to service that mission, whatever it is. Well-designed portals do this by putting links to important content and functions (such as registering someone as a building visitor—a common “important” function we’ve seen at many security-conscious clients) right on the initial page.

The remainder of the initial page’s links need to direct users to the likely content. Users need a way to deduce where infrequently needed or less important content and functions are stored. The scent on the page is the critical tool to help employees achieve their objective.

Search Should Be Avoided

Our research in internet sites shows designers should generally avoid relying on Search to help users. Search’s track record is, unfortunately, very poor and usually fails far more often than it succeeds.

On intranets, the pull to use Search is stronger, since it promises an easy way to drive users directly to their content. However, our research shows that users only resort to Search when they can’t find the trigger words on the page. They turn to Search, typing in a query representing the scent they had hoped to find—in essence creating their own links.

Search logs are a great way to identify what scent is missing from your portal. When going through the logs, you want to look at both the queries and the pages from which those queries originated. The scent is telling you where the scent is lost and what link the user desired.

In a recent analysis of one of our client’s search logs, we discovered that 84% of the searches were for contact information on other employees. Only 16% of searches were for non-people-related content. A quick implementation of a “people finder” dramatically reduced employee frustration with the intranet and increased overall satisfaction.

Portals May Be Multiple Pages

It doesn’t take long for an intranet to outgrow a single portal page. Once there’s too much content to fit on the page, the portal has to expand to multiple pages. Each subsequent page represents a logical ‘chunk’ of the intranet content and functions.

The initial page serves as a top-level directory, giving direct links to the most important content and helping employees hone into the subsequent pages specific to the chunk they need. Employees use the design of the initial page to quickly eliminate unlikely choices. The page’s design must clearly communicate what is found in each of the chunks.

Each of the subsequent pages expands on the major chunks, allowing users to see more of the picture of what the intranet holds. This is similar to zooming into a map to see individual streets, where only major highways were visible previously. It’s important that enough information is presented at these lower levels to ensure the user is confident with every click.

Scent teaches us that the most important content needs to be nearest the top of the hierarchy. The best designed intranets have clearly identified those content and functions that employees need and represent them with very clear scent in the portal.

Grouping and Ordering Links

On well-designed portals, links are divided into groups, each representing a logical division, based on how users perceive the content. These groups may not be the same as the organization’s official departments or divisions. Instead, they represent how the employees perceive the various content and functions to be relative to other content on the intranet.

For example, billing might be handled by the accounting group within the finance department. While it might seem proper to locate the function for checking a customer’s billing information under “Finance -> Accounting”, employees needing this function may think of it as under “Sales -> Customers” because of how they perceive the sales process to work.

Card sorting is an effective technique for understanding how to group the links. However, teams shouldn’t be surprised if employees have trouble organizing content they rarely use or need. (In some of our recent projects, card sorts resulted in employees creating rather large “I Don’t Know” or “Miscellaneous” piles, indicating there was much about the intranet content they didn’t know how to classify.) In these cases, teams need to ensure the portal’s design really explains how employees find the content they may only need once in their career.

Link order is also very important. Well-designed portals put the most important links at the very top and order the remaining links by priority and need. In our studies, poorly-designed portals often resort to alphabetical order, which confuses employees as they expect related links to be group together with the most critical functions near the top.

Scent and Portals

As with other types of web pages, intranet portals succeed best when the scent to the employee’s desired content is strong. However, because the portal engulfs all of the content from every site on the intranet, designers must take special care in their design. Time and resources for research and evaluation are necessary to guarantee a successful design.

We’ve seen, far too often, redesigned portals create only more frustration and lower satisfaction, because the team just guessed at what they thought the design should be without the necessary research or evaluation steps to ensure the design really meets the needs of the employees. These redesigns become an unnecessary and completely avoidable waste of valuable design resources. It’s not hard to do design “right”—it just takes planning, forethought, and an understanding of the basic theories, such as the role of information scent.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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