I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again.

When it comes to intranet navigation it’s about the topics. It’s not about the channel. I recall having a conversation with someone at Sprint PCS in 1997 about the home page of our new intranet. This individual thought we should have a button for newsletters, another for email announcements, and so on.

I am still, nearly 20 years later, trying to steer clients away from this navigational error.

Happily, Aurora Bedford with Nielsen Norman Group just published a great article on the topic, reinforcing what I’ve been saying for nearly 20 years. I especially enjoyed the way she likens finding content by channel to finding groceries. She doesn’t explicitly discuss intranets, but gives an important hint:

“Format-based navigation can work when the predominant behavior on the site is browsing (my emphasis).”

Intranets are not for browsing, they are for finding specific, topical information. I do not go to my company intranet to kill time while eating my lunch. I go there to find a topic – or a task – and then move on with my work.

This best practice applies to social too!

Organizations often try handling social channels in the intranet as separate communication channels. Sometimes this leads to top navigation links titled “Blogs,” “Wikis,” and “Yammer.” Or, worse yet, the social elements are carved out from the intranet entirely and put in a totally separate space. So, to begin a discussion on a new product page, I have to trek off somewhere else. Instead, integrate the social elements into their topical parents. For example:

  • The travel policy page might also include links to employee hotel reviews/recommendations
  • The role description for an intranet site owner might include top posts from the site owner community
  • An upcoming regional conference page might include the event Yammer feed, which shows the valuable content shared during last year’s conference

Integrating the tools in this way – preferably without the use of the social terms (e.g., “Yammer,” “blog,” “activity feed,” etc.) – may also drive higher adoption of social technologies. Thus, social technologies become a part of how I work and use the site, rather than remaining separate, different and suspect.

Don’t forget about tasks

Clients often hear me refer to topics and tasks. Tasks are an important driver of usage and adoption. If an employee can only do the task on the intranet, this drives them to that task, offering opportunities to surface other content and resources in the process.

When you think about organizing top navigation – as Aurora talked about in her article – don’t forget to incorporate tasks too. What I have to do is just as important as what I have to read. When users look for the tasks they do so by topical name, not by channel. For example:

  • If I need to change my beneficiary because I’ve gotten remarried, I look for “married” or “marriage” or the less likely “life event” or “status change.” I do not look for “employee self-service.”
  • When I want to be reimbursed for my health club fees, I look for “health club reimbursement” or “wellness benefit” or “health.” I do go to “HR forms.”
  • If a client asks to discuss a specific product, I look for resources about that product, not “product slides” or “marketing collateral.”

Finally, what Aurora didn’t mention – probably because she wasn’t focused on intranets – is that organizations should never design their top navigation by the organizational structure. This, like designing by channel (or “format” as Aurora calls it), doesn’t offer the user enough detail to inform their decision about what to pick.

If I don’t know which function is responsible for the topic I seek, I won’t know what to pick. Users perceive low reward for picking the wrong department. So, they just don’t pick one. The braver ones pick, then pick again and again until they finally find what they seek. Others resort to search (along with the 50% who start with search), but if the search engine and tagging aren’t spot-on they’ll be disappointed.

While I’m not scheduled to speak about this particular topic, I’m betting it comes up at next month’s ALI Intranet and Digital Workplace Summit in Chicago. I look forward to talking about it!