Jakob Neilsen has just announced his 10 best-designed Intranets for 2010, and as always it’s a goldmine of information and advice. I haven’t yet forked out for the full report, but the summary alone offers plenty to think about.
One particular point that will raise eyebrows is the continued advocacy of separate sites for mobile devices. There is an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of such an approach, brought to the fore by Neilsen’s post last February comparing Mobile Web 2009 with Desktop Web 1998, and concluding that a separate site is best. Many of us were not convinced, and as Henny Swan argued at the time:
It also hints at repeating the mistakes of desktop web design circa 1998 where we thought the answer was to design for one browser, use proprietary technology, build text only websites for disabled users…the list goes on. So let’s not make that same mistake and instead fast forward to one of the principles of good web design that dug us out of the dark hole of 1998: progressive enhancement.
Henny described how a ‘one site fits all’ approach can be achieved using media queries, and it’s certainly a far more attractive solution than designing and maintaining separate sites.
But this all relates to websites in general, rather than specifically to Intranets, and I was interested to look closer at the suggestion of a separate mobile Intranet.
Mobile Intranets – a unique case?
Intranets serve a very specific business purpose, and for a defined set of users, so the scope for delivering a useful mobile version is arguably better than with a public site:
- You’ll have a far clearer idea of who would want to access a mobile version, and for what purpose.
- You’ll also have a good idea of the devices being used to access the Intranet, assuming they are company-issue.
- Finally, the potential advantages that a tailored mobile version could deliver to staff are tangible and might justify the time and effort required to build and maintain.
Neilsen points out a couple of potential problems – one being that most staff will already be in an office (and therefore presumably have desktop access) and the other being the possible lack of technical expertise at operating handheld devices. The first point is simply part of the business case – if you have a significant amount of staff needing Intranet access out of the office, then you have a compelling business case. The second point is a training issue – and in fact many companies might equally observe that some of their staff aren’t skilled enough to operate their desktop computer properly either. If the business case exists for such usage, either from a desktop or a mobile device, then training should be in place to support that. Neilsen also observes that devices are becoming far easier to use, reducing this risk.
Neilsen also points to a move towards “anytime, anyplace” access. This is certainly true of many large companies who are promoting flexible working options, and is likely to be a crucial element of any business case for creating a mobile-friendly Intranet.
Working on the move
So let’s assume we do want a separate mobile Intranet. What will it look like?
For a start, how do we access it? Will the user be required to log-in? That would seem sensible – an Intranet is, by its very nature, not for public consumption, and the risk of the employee’s mobile device being lost or stolen means that security must be considered paramount. Measures such as automatic time-outs might also be necessary, as well as preventing log-in details from being saved by the device.
Once logged in, what would we want to see? This is where a bit of research will prove invaluable. Find out what the key tasks are and make them easy to access. Accessing staff directories seems to be an obvious one, for example, as well as receiving any urgent news or alerts. Customisation would be ideal here, allowing people to compile a list of common tasks and links.
My organisation’s Intranet is probably fairly typical in that it has a massive amount of information available as downloads – PDFs, Word documents, Powerpoint presentations etc. Whilst some newer generation devices can handle these quite well, it’s important to remember that they can cause issues when downloading and opening (because of large file sizes, incompatible formats etc). As with any website, any key information should always be available as a web page as well as a download, and a company moving towards a mobile-friendly Intranet must keep this in mind.
Neilsen mentions one team that developed a dedicated iPhone app, rather than building a separate site, to optimise the design for mobile users. This sounds like a perfect compromise, but only if you have full control over the devices that your staff are using, and only if those devices are advanced enough to support such apps. We’re not all lucky enough to get iPhones from our employers, so this may not be realistic for many, but the use of apps is nevertheless a good example of improving usability for mobile users.
Publishing from a distance?
As a web author for my organisation, I can see tremendous benefit in being able to not only access the Intranet on the move, but also to update the pages too. Mobile access to the publishing environment could be a killer feature, either via a browser-based interface or using a dedicated app. Again, the security risks of this are obvious, so measures would need to be in place (such as multiple log-ins or gated publishing requiring third-party approval). But the potential could be huge – especially in emergencies or out of office hours.
One issue that may be harder to conquer is the fact that many Intranets are also a portal to numerous standalone systems and databases. Staff directories, forums, pay systems, HR processes, online forms, room bookings etc – these are very often delivered as separate products and making them available to a mobile device could be far trickier than simply re-formatting some webpages. Any business case would need to look at the practicalities of this and decide how crucial these additional systems are to an employee on the move.
One of the most convincing arguments against designing mobile-specific sites is that devices are constantly updating and advancing, and that there are very few universal standards to design to. Even if you know what devices your staff are using today, it could be that they are upgraded far sooner than your website will be. Any attempt to design a mobile-specific site would need to have sufficient adaptability to ensure that the next corporate upgrade of devices does not leave you with a useless mobile site. I’ve seen huge problems with companies designing Intranets to suit their dominant corporate browser version (for example, IE6) which then holds back any attempt to refresh that browser later on, in the fear that their sites will break (which, in the case of IE6-friendly sites, will almost certainly be the case).
For the reasons explored above, it’s more likely that a mobile Intranet will be a stripped-down version of its desktop self for reasons of practicality, rather than usability, although there is an argument for offering a tailored design to streamline the most common tasks undertaken by staff on the move. This is unlikely to be successful without significant investment of time and expertise, however, so a strong business case is crucial to put focus on what is to be achieved.
Failing that, designing your Intranet with mobile-specific styles, or at least adhering to common best practice and web standards, will help to ensure that anyone logging on whilst away from the desk will still get to what they want.
* Phone Evolution image is a derivative of a photograph by True Blue Titan, used under the Creative Commons licence