Compared to the private sector, the public sector faces unique usability challenges. At our usability conferences, for example, participants often ask why government agencies should even care about usability. After all, private companies are typically compelled by the realities of profit making; they embrace usability to increase their customer-conversion rates and improve their marketing. Government entities, however, don’t have such profit-oriented motivations.
So why should government agencies care about usability? The answer is that usability’s return on investment (ROI) can be realized outside the realms of sales and profit. If taxpayers are already funding an agency’s mission, diverting a tiny fraction of that funding to improve usability will improve overall agency performance — a desirable outcome. Thus, any time a government organization’s mission includes interacting with the public or disseminating information, website usability can easily be justified.
For government intranets, the answer is even easier: projects that increase civil servants’ productivity are at least as valuable as those that increase the general public’s satisfaction. Most political leaders make it their explicit goal to improve government efficiency, and increasing intranet usability is a key way to achieve this goal.
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To spotlight how improved intranet usability can make government employees more productive , we conducted a design competition to identify the world’s ten best government intranets.
The winners are:
- Defense Finance and Accounting Service (U.S.)
- Department for Transport (U.K.)
- Department of Veterans Affairs Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network (U.S.)
- Department for Victorian Communities (Australia)
- Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (U.S.)
- Government Offices of Sweden (Regeringskansliet)
- London Underground
- National Research Council of Canada, Industrial Research Assistance Program
- Senate Republican Conference (U.S.)
- Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario (Canada)
Nielsen Norman Group has sponsored three previous intranet usability competitions , all aimed at finding examples of intranets that are easy to use and meet user needs. Among those winners were the following government intranets and government-supported intranets:
- U.S. Coast Guard
- U.S. Department of Transportation
- The World Bank Group
After many requests for information about such government-specific intranets, we decided on a design award focused on this very special group.
Clearly, good government intranets are found around the world, in many different types of organizations. In addition to traditional government agencies and ministries, we have winners from the legislative branch and from semi-independent public services.
Impact of Agency Size
Winners ranged from national to regional to state government or government-related organizations. The only local-level winner was London Underground, and London is not exactly a small town. We’ve seen other good intranets from large cities, including New York City, which was featured in our report about intranet portals . Unfortunately, however, most local governments don’t seem to produce good intranets for their employees.
This conclusion is supported by the fact that almost all of our winners are fairly large organizations with an average of 5,200 employees. Still, agencies don’t have to be huge to have great intranets, nor do intranet design teams. In fact, we have two winners with less than 1,000 employees, and two winning design teams with only two members.
By contrast, the eighteen non-government winners of our last two annual intranet design competitions had an average of 88,000 employees. That number is slanted by the fact that Wal-Mart, a mammoth company, was one of the winners. But even if we exclude Wal-Mart, the average size of the remaining seventeen companies was 30,000 employees each, or almost six times the size of the winning government organizations.
Explaining why the best public-sector intranets come from organizations a sixth the size of the best private-sector intranets is difficult. Perhaps midsized government organizations have more incentive to streamline their administration. Or maybe the biggest government organizations are so slow moving that they simply lack intranet maturity, especially when compared to the unified intranets found at many large companies.
Encouraging and Managing Content Contributors
Many of the winning intranets had explicit processes in place to manage content contributors, thus overcoming the bane of many an intranet: content that’s stale, obsolete, or never published on the intranet in the first place.
- Identify a lead publisher (and supporting publishers) in each organization area who’s responsible for content in his or her area (London Underground).
- Train the lead publishers to manage the intranet and to understand principles for online content usability and readability (London Underground).
- For intranet postings, use a simple and easy form to encourage employees to submit information (the National Research Council of Canada, Industrial Research Assistance Program).
- Make it easy for employees to update the staff directory with information about their areas of expertise and special interests so others can find experts quickly (U.S. Senate Republican Conference).
- Set expiration dates for all content and use software to automatically track those dates (Department for Victorian Communities, Australia).
- Centralize content editing to ensure its quality (U.K. Department for Transport).
- Review pages before posting to guarantee compliance with intranet standards (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network).
- Use templates and a content management system (CMS) to provide a consistent user interface for publishing (most winners).
- Rely on automated content feeds from outside sources, such as filtered newswires (Government Offices of Sweden) or medical databases (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network).
A persistent theme among the winners is that usability was dramatically improved by restructuring the intranet’s information architecture to focus on job support. That is, they grouped content and tools that are used together in the same intranet area, even if different departments supply the information. For example, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario created a special Manager’s Page with various forms, procedures, and tips for supervisors. The same intranet also had a professional practices page for nurse case managers.
Unlike our winning designs, many intranets use navigation that mirrors the “orgchart,” and organize their information architecture based on departmental structure. For many organizations, basing intranet structure on workflow is a new concept.
At the workflow features level, many good intranets have a calendar of events . The U.S. Senate Republican Conference takes this basic intranet component two steps further by highlighting critical scheduled votes, and providing remote access to the information through BlackBerry mobile devices. In fact, the Senate Republican Conference intranet has extensive support for remote access, which acknowledges that senators and their staff often roam widely and spend significant time at events outside the office.
In our recent tests of the usability of Web-based About us information , users frequently struggled with government websites because of the sites’ overwhelming use of acronyms and insider lingo. Although such bureaucratese should be fought on public-facing websites, it’s highly appropriate to use specialized terms on government intranets. The Government Offices of Sweden, for example, has a compact navigation bar that provides direct access to individual ministries’ pages by clicking on a one- or two-letter abbreviation for each ministry. While you should never expect a member of the general public to click on “J” when looking for the Ministry of Justice, such abbreviations improve communication efficiency inside an organization where people regularly use such terminology.
Help From Higher Level Offices
Most government organizations belong to a hierarchy that peaks at the level of president, prime minister, governor, mayor, or a similar top-level office. In several cases, this hierarchy helped our winners design better intranets. Thus, one of the explanations for the success of midsized — or even fairly small — government organizations might be that being part of the larger government brings benefits.
For example, the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program took advantage of the look-and-feel design guidelines that the Treasury Board of Canada developed for all Canadian government intranets. This ultimately saved the agency time and money; there was no need to reinvent the wheel.
Similarly, the Department for Victorian Communities’ design team started its project by reviewing usability reports from studies of other government intranets in the State of Victoria. In the private sector, it’s virtually impossible to obtain other companies’ usability research, because it’s highly strategic and thus confidential. Despite traditional inter-service rivalries, all government departments belong to the same larger organization, and should be able to access and benefit from each other’s usability reports.
Based on this analysis, we have two recommendations:
- Governments should develop an overall intranet strategy and general design guidelines , and apply sufficient resources to ensure the recommendations’ quality and usability. They might also develop rough templates and some shared features, but it’s important to remember that at the level of specific page templates and features, each department typically has different intranet needs. Departments should retain flexibility to adapt any centrally provided capabilities to their own circumstances.
- Governments should establish a repository for usability reports , and institute a system for sharing intranet usability findings across departments.
While most countries and states don’t have such activities in place, their benefits have been reported — even by organizations that have only just begun thinking about intranet usability as a cross-government project.
Unfortunately, technology chaos continues to reign in intranet implementations. The ten winners used a total of nineteen different software solutions to run their intranets. This underscores a fact: we’re nowhere near the point where we could recommend, based on usability, a few good intranet packages. Currently, there seems to be no relation between the technology used and the intranet’s quality . In other words, when it comes to intranet software, it’s a matter of how it’s being used, not which packages you buy.
The winners’ five most often used technologies were Microsoft SQL (60%), Microsoft IIS (40%), ColdFusion (30%), Lotus Notes (20%), and Plumtree (20%).
The average winning team employed 3.4 different usability methods during its redesign project. This is a good deal more than the 2.7 methods used by the winners of our annual design competition in 2003. In general, combining multiple usability methods is beneficial, because each makes its own contribution to the final design quality.
One reason government intranet teams employ more usability methods than other types of sites is that they often have to emphasize accessibility for users with disabilities. Several winning designs even performed actual accessibility testing with employees with disabilities, something that’s rarely done in the private sector. As a result of either testing or required guidelines, several of the winners made good changes to their designs to increase accessibility. Most impressively, London Underground has a special accessibility mode that overcomes many accessibility problems for visually impaired users.
Quite appropriately, user testing was the most common usability method, and was used in 70% of the winning projects. These projects used many variants, including tests of the old intranet’s design, paper prototypes or wireframe tests of the new design, and post-implementation testing of the new design. All are recommended steps. Other methods used by at least 30% of the teams include analyzing the server log files, heuristic evaluation/expert reviews , card sorting , accessibility testing , and field studies/contextual observation.
Improvements in Metrics
Compared to many of the best private-sector intranets, the winning government intranets seemed to better track their projects’ metrics, possibly reflecting a tendency in government agencies to closely watch expenses and to have defined processes in place.
As one might expect, the U.S. Defense Finance and Accounting Service, being good accountants, collected the most extensive metrics on their intranet redesign’s financial impact, calculating total savings of 200 staff years . Specific intranet areas realized impressive improvements in usability metrics, including a human resources (HR) page, where productivity increased by 300% following the redesign. Even more importantly, the agency’s management recognized the intranet’s strategic contribution to the organization’s overall productivity. For example, a plan that’s currently underway will reduce the time needed to generate accounting reports from forty-five days to twenty-one days; the project involves more than 200 tasks. This truly ambitious undertaking goes far beyond redesigning individual pages, or even conceptualizing the intranet as a stand-alone entity.
Emphasizing “usability in the small” — targeting specific intranet elements for “quick win” improvements — is also important because it can generate immediate ROI for an organization. For example, the U.K. Department for Transportation saved £130,000 ($228,000) by relocating its employee newsletter to the intranet. Anecdotally, many organizations noted other “usability in the small” benefits, such as increased intranet user morale, after making even small intranet improvements.
The greatest intranet benefits, however, come from utilizing the intranet for business process reengineering. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario, for example, unified information from sixteen spreadsheets into a single intranet tool, dramatically improving caseworker performance.
Analyzing the winners showed that the largest performance gains came from projects that finally delivered good intranets to organizations that previously suffered under miserable ones. For example, London Underground increased the number of employee visits to the intranet from 1,000 per week to 70,000 per week — an astounding gain of 6,900% . Note, however, that increasing intranet use by 100% to 200% is a more common result of improved usability.
Here’s a takeaway if you have a bad intranet that employees are shunning or labeling as useless: don’t despair. Rather than abandoning your intranet, regard it as a prime candidate for improvement. In fact, based on projects we’ve seen, you can generally expect a usability redesign to more than double intranet use . You can thus position the redesigned intranet as a tool to enhance employees’ productivity, leading to their respecting the intranet, and ultimately contributing to it and its success.