Over the past five years, I've reviewed several hundred intranets and have seen a clear trend: homepage layouts are becoming more and more similar over time. We've now reached the point where one specific intranet homepage layout is so common that it makes sense to anoint it as the canonical design.
I made the following graphic by averaging the screenshots of ten major intranet homepages. Each screenshot has a few deviations, but the graphic clearly shows the tendency toward commonality in the layouts.
Composite image of ten intranet homepages.
Here's the canonical layout for intranet homepages:
Top horizontal bar: colored background, 100 pixels tall. Typically used for logo, global navigation (often as tabs), and a search box.
Left column: colored background, 200–250 pixels wide. Typically used for a navigation bar with detailed navigation and/or a contextual list of options for the current intranet subsite.
Middle area: white background, 400–600 pixels wide. Typically features one wide column (or sometimes two skinnier columns) containing a few photos or illustrations, a list of news headlines, and boxes with "portlets" to the most important intranet features and applications.
Right column: white background, 200–250 pixels wide. Typically used for a stacked set of boxes, some with colored contents or pictures.
Is Intranet Uniformity Good or Bad?
Does it matter that most intranet homepages look alike? Not really, since users only see their own company's intranet design. No risk of confusing two intranets.
The uniformity is also understandable: at some level, intranets all solve the same problem, which is to make a company's internal information and applications easily available to employees. The more we study intranet usability, the more we discover good ways of representing common design issues.
Many intranets are built on portal software platforms that encourage homepage design as a composite of boxed "portlets." The default appearance of these templates is not particularly attractive, but it works. Another reason for intranet uniformity.
At one of my recent intranet usability seminars, a participant asked me whether intranet designers have a future. His concern was that, as portal platforms become more pervasive, they might take over much of the work previously done by a company's intranet team. Will there be any jobs at all down the road?
Emphatically, yes. Intranet designers have glorious career prospects, even as surface design becomes more standardized and more features are supplied by middleware rather than hand-coded.
Currently, most intranets have poor usability because the project is too big for the available personnel. Companies should empower intranet teams to focus on important usability contributors, while relegating the rest to standard software. If you're slaving away on trivial features, it's a bad use of time. Making a more strategic contribution using more powerful tools offers a much better career.
Differences: Colors, Features, IA, and Content
Though layouts tend to be standard, color schemes vary widely. Specific colors are irrelevant to people's ability to use the intranet, but they matter for two reasons: to emphasize company culture and to strengthen consistency across the intranet. In recent years, almost all the redesigns we've seen have had the goal of more closely aligning the intranet's design with the company's branding. Using this goal as a hammer, intranet teams can pound away at inconsistent department subsites.
Intranets display more substantial differences in the features they support, their information space (IA) structure, and their actual content. All of these differ dramatically across intranets, because they relate to company specifics.
Different industries have different mission-critical intranet features. For example, the Mayo Clinic, which was one of the ten best intranets for 2003, has an indicator of bed availability across its hospitals — not a feature you're likely to find on the NedTrain intranet (a 2005 winner). This train maintenance company's killer app is a real-time list of available train parts. Although the two features might initially seem similar, the many differences between hospital beds and spare engineering parts result in completely different feature designs.
Similarly, small, knowledge-intensive companies have different content and different information architectures than huge manufacturing companies, which are in turn different than big government agencies — even if they have the same number of employees. Further, multinational and multilingual intranets are very different than intranets serving a single country, even if the layouts are basically the same.
When evaluating intranets, I often find dramatically different usability in designs that basically look the same if you squint.
So, even when company branding determines an intranet's visual appearance and portal software decides its page layout, companies will still need intranet teams to focus on factors of deeper import: features, content, information architecture, and other aspects of interaction design.