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San Francisco, CA 94107
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Design the simple


How good design can bypass problems you can't actually solve

Erik Will

I was recently hired to refresh a mid-sized corporate intranet. The intranet is mature - over 10 years old, with plenty of useful but often orphaned content, and a higher than expected amount of MS Office content. The client—the support team for the intranet—wanted a beautiful updated visual language of course, but they also wanted "better templates" for the content, and improvements to search, and they wanted things to be easier. But there wasn't a lot of specific info on what that meant, so I dove right in to stakeholder interviews: Folks who managed writers, writers, program managers,  HR leads, company news and PR teams, customer support. If they created content, I wanted to talk to them. 

I expected to hear from content owners about the awful design, or the awful content management. But I did not expect to get many earfuls on the poor state of content governance. They didn't call it that per se, but the primary issue stemmed from a problem many people would be really happy to have: The company loves its employees so much that it actively encourages internal mobility to retain them. So an employee writes content, which may become mission critical, then they move on to another possibly unrelated position and no one else is caring for it. It gets out of date, and the only people one can blame are the handful of folks supporting the intranet who don't maintain content at all. And that support team was our client.

How do you "redesign" - how do you manage the cruft into reasonable buckets when the client is unable to pay for a content strategist or IA or lobby for company wide organizational changes that put focus back on the intranet which might fix this problem?

We made search a lot more powerful. We gave them widgets to progressively disclose content. We gave them a very limited, and not overly designed set of templates. They weren't actually suffering from far too many specifically designed designed templates and had a frustrating paralysis of choice. We analyzed the existing contents, the ones most used or cobbled together, and came up with a handful with more extensible add ons that got the job done no matter what.

The primary tool we gave content owners was a very prominent content rating/freshness module widget at the tops of pages. It told the consumer what the current rating was and how old the content was. If they disliked it they could give it a thumbs down, which would fire off a signal to the original author to please come back to fix it, or delegate it to someone who can. It gave them some form of priority and a push notification that something needed to be done.

As for the end users trying to find relevant content in this crufty system, we gave them new and more powerful ways to search. Search is easy for me. I worked extensively on vertical search at Yahoo!, and understand the space fairly well.

We looked at the top search terms, and focused in on the 20 top terms. We created not just specialized search results tailored to those terms, we made them in a tiny modular format that could be shown as a search suggestion so the user could, say, fill out a PTO form, or see a calendar of holidays, or a number of other functional things before they even got to the search results. We also federated their search results from multiple repositories, and gave them clear powerful filters to search by relative recency and document type ("Help: i need that PPT from the CEO from 2011!")

Sometimes the problem isn't a bad or even old design: its bad content, or bad tools, or bad company structure, and while we can't always fix those underlying problems, design based on simple and clear discussions with the people who matter can produce solutions which will make everyone's lives a little easier.