Designing a Different Kind of Intranet: An Intranet for a UX Team

By Anirban Basu Mallik

Published: July 21, 2008

Most of us who are working as part of a design team in a services company, a product company, or even a design boutique have to live with a generic intranet. In this article, I’ll describe how to leverage your company’s intranet and how to build a community around an intranet for a UX team.

Exactly Who Are We Designing an Intranet For?

“In addition to the UX team itself, others who might be target users for the UX intranet include business development people and, via an extranet, your clients.”

Depending on the services a multidisciplinary UX team provides, it might comprise interaction designers, information architects, visual interface designers, graphic designers, Web analysts, ethnographers, usability professionals, copy writers, technical writers, instructional designers, prototypers, and developers. In addition to the UX team itself, others who might be target users for the UX intranet include business development people and, via an extranet, your clients. Typically, you would give your clients access to only certain parts of the intranet.

What Are Our Objectives?

Apart from the usual productivity tools and information resources that constitute a successful intranet, a UX team’s intranet must also achieve the following objectives:

  • building an online community
  • offering effective tools for collaborative knowledge management
  • showcasing a UX team’s portfolio—keeping the creative juices flowing within the team and giving Business Development fodder on a regular basis
  • building client relationships by leveraging the team as a brand and cross-selling the team’s services
  • offering project management tools

Figure 1 provides an overview of a UX team’s intranet.

Figure 1—A UX team’s intranet

UX team's intranet

Building an Online Community

“Ideally, a UX team’s intranet should provide a platform where team members belonging to different disciplines—with their diverse profiles—can collaborate on design and research activities.”

Ideally, a UX team’s intranet should provide a platform where team members belonging to different disciplines—with their diverse profiles—can collaborate on design and research activities. Often on large teams—especially in cases where a team is spread across geographies—expertise and knowledge become siloed. One objective of an intranet is to break those silos and involve each and every team member.

Building an intranet can kick-start a new collaborative culture within the UX team. In most cases, a small team has responsibility for building and maintaining an intranet, but imagine the possibilities if you involved the entire team in collaboratively designing and developing your intranet.

Community Initiatives

To build a community and leverage the collaborative power of that community, you first need to give a voice to each member of your team. Give each and every individual a space of his or her own. All team members should have

  • a profile page where they can share some information about their background and inspiration
  • a portfolio where they can showcase their work
  • a blog for sharing their knowledge

Once you’ve created an enthusiastic community, you need to keep the spirit of collaboration going. To do this, you can hold competitions on an ongoing basis. Ask individuals to form multidisciplinary teams and pit them against one another in competitions that test their collective knowledge or in design competitions.

For example, hold a lightboxing bout, as popularized by Veer. In lightboxing, a competition’s organizers select some images and typefaces according to the particular theme they’ve chosen, and individual designers must create designs using only those images and typefaces. A jury or an entire community’s ratings of the entries can decide the winner. To make this exercise even more interesting, you can ask a designer to pair with a copy writer to write a paragraph explaining the concept behind the design.

You can try many things to harness the collective power of the community. For example, you can leverage your intranet as a design forum by putting up an interaction design problem from a current project to which the community can offer possible solutions. All of these initiatives require that you have some kind of reward system. This can be as simple as ratings given by other community members or inexpensive gifts.

Offering Effective Tools for Collaborative Knowledge Management

“One of the most interesting features of a UX team’s intranet is its potential for collaborative knowledge management.”

One of the most interesting features of a UX team’s intranet is its potential for collaborative knowledge management. You might divide the knowledge on the intranet along the lines of the service offerings your team provides. Within each broad topic, you can create more specialized subtopics.

Rather than individuals and teams storing knowledge as files on servers or local hard disks, a team might alternatively have a dedicated Web page or a section on the intranet. However, knowledge resources like whitepapers and case studies often become out of date, because with project pressures, people forget to update them. As a consequence, people eventually stop referring to them.

Instead, build a culture of collaborative knowledge sharing by moving knowledge from individual hard disks or servers to a common platform. Knowledge doesn’t turn stale, because all team members constantly update it and add information from various sources.

Often when people are transitioning from one project to another and are generally bored, your intranet can be a source of entertainment and knowledge rolled into one.

So, what can your team build collaboratively? Many things. Here are just a few ideas.

Using Frameworks

“Often, teams unnecessarily spend time reinventing the wheel.”

Often, teams unnecessarily spend time reinventing the wheel. This is especially true for teams that are spread across geographies. To prevent this, you can create frameworks for technical communications, e-learning, Web design, UX design, Web development, and so on.

I’ll give an example to illustrate how teams can use frameworks effectively to cut down on production time. Consider a scenario in which two teams of UX designers are creating intranets for two different clients. If you already have a basic framework for an intranet—complete with wireframes or templates—each team would simply need to tweak the branding, interaction design, and information architecture to meet the needs for each site. You might even go a little further and create standard types of HTML pages, with CSS styles and JavaScript. The developers would need to modify only those parts of the code that implement unique information architecture, interaction design, or branding.

Often, we need to build style guides for applications. Why not build a generic style guide and use it as a reusable component, changing only those sections that need customization? You can extend this idea to building a pattern library, consisting of design patterns designers can modify or reuse.

Designers often browse a lot of Web sites for ideas. Why not share what you find while browsing? If you find a nice example, where the designer has innovated either visually or in terms of interaction design or information architecture, take a screen shot, add comments, and upload it for other team members on your intranet. For example, you can create a page for a pattern like progressive disclosure, then team members can upload examples that show how designers have used this interaction design pattern across a varied range of applications. The Yahoo User Interface Library is a good example of a UI framework. Similarly, Prototype and Scriptaculous are good examples of JavaScript libraries.

When creating comps of Web pages, hunting for just the right image across multiple vendors can take quite a lot of time. You can collaboratively build a library of images from a variety of vendors. When you come across a good image, why not tag it and save it for your team to use, saving time later on.

Building Collections

Here are some other collections your team might put together collaboratively:

  • inspirational scrapbooks—We spend a lot of time collecting interesting links to Web sites, articles, and graphics for later reference. Then, before we start a project, we look through our folders for inspiration and insight. Why not add a scrapbook section to each team member’s profile page and make them accessible to the entire team?
  • whitepapers, articles, and book excerpts—Individually, we read a lot of articles, whitepapers, and books. I capture the main points of a book chapter or whitepaper in a Word document, for reference later. Why not write excerpts for the benefit of all? Your team could build a repository of notes that capture the core ideas, plus references for those who want to delve more deeply, and reduce the time it would otherwise take to read an entire article or book to get the same ideas. If everyone on the team reads a different book, then uploads their main ideas, your team can quickly build a vast, information-rich database. Blogs can be a good medium for collating this information. All it takes is for one enthusiastic person from your team to suggest a topic. Then, team members can do research and collect information for the blog—either individually or as a group.
  • trends—How about keeping a tab on the latest design trends—from fancy gradient effects, to the buzz around eyetracking, to the latest trends in informal error message writing styles—a-la the famous Orkut? The list can go on and on.

Providing a Showcase for a UX Team’s Portfolio

“A team portfolio plays a very important role in getting more projects.”

A team portfolio plays a very important role in getting more projects. Transforming the intranet itself into a playground for your designers can keep the intranet fresh. Along with their profile pages and scrapbooks, all team members should have their own portfolios that showcase their best projects. In addition to uploading screen shots and design documents, creating case studies of your projects would benefit business development immensely. It would be a good practice to build up a case study with concept sketches and final screen shots, as soon as a project is complete, while the concepts behind the design are still fresh in the designers’ minds. I’m sure the Business Development folks would love that.

You can also dedicate a section of the intranet to an interactive newsletter, in which designers can showcase their designs, developers can show their wizardry with code, writers can display their writing skills, and so on. Each member of a multidisciplinary team must contribute to building the newsletter—perhaps once in three months. The newsletter can serve as an up-to-date marketing piece for Business Development to push to existing and new clients.

Building Client Relationships

“An extranet wrapped around the intranet would help you cross sell to clients.”

An extranet wrapped around the intranet would help you cross sell to clients. Consider two scenarios: In the first, you mail project deliverables to your client; in the second, you send the client a link to an extranet where he can review the project deliverables. The second scenario would enable your team to showcase some similar projects, case studies, or whitepapers that would be of interest to your client or let your client read about the achievements of team members in a sidebar, while still keeping the focus on the project deliverables and artifacts. Perhaps, after reviewing a deliverable, your client’s curiosity would induce him to click a link to a case study and maybe get a new idea that might translate to a new business opportunity for the design team.

Offering Project Management Tools

You can integrate project management tools into the intranet. A lot of communications regarding the review and feedback of project deliverables happen via email. Something akin to what Basecamp offers could add quite a lot of value. Another product, Concept Share, has done a really good job of shifting the review process online. The whole idea is to integrate project-related communications and artifacts into an online platform with a robust search engine. With the rise of process centricity in organizations, management could drill down to any project artifact, cutting across geographies. This would also enable clients to have a better understanding of the progression of a project and do away with many issues resulting from miscommunications. The information is there online for everyone to see.

Conclusion

“The success of such an intranet platform depends first and foremost on building a community of collaboration, in which each individual on the team proactively contributes.”

The main goals of a UX intranet are to bind an entire team together and foster collaboration—not only in jointly developing skills, but in collating information and disseminating knowledge across the entire team. In the Web 2.0 era, collaboration is absolutely essential, and the success of such an intranet platform depends first and foremost on building a community of collaboration, in which each individual on the team proactively contributes. Giving identity to everyone on the entire team through profile pages, blogs, and portfolios helps in achieving those goals. Keeping everyone involved—from the intranet’s creation to the day-to-day updating of its content—lets you build the groundwork for a robust knowledge management framework and sets the ball rolling for a culture of innovation and knowledge-seeking that, over the years, can benefit a team immensely.

9 Comments

This is an amazing article…Like to read more of such articles from Anirban.

An interesting read and an interesting topic. Nice article Anirban.

Very well written, Anirban. If we make such an intranet at work, it will do wonders for the team and, in turn, for the organization as well.

It would be a great storehouse of knowledge and thoughts and showcase the skill sets of the entire team.

Every intranet is different and should support a company’s business. Our intranet supports our production company and concentrates on applications working with process data from production, in technological and laboratory areas, instead of documents or white papers. For inspiration, you can visit my intranet site where, in the tour section, there are some descriptions and screen shots of intranet applications.

Great read, and I like that the underlying goal here is to sell the value to the organization by sharing and collaborating. Even sharing articles with people can be a great way to champion UX both inside and outside organizations.

Good pointers, Anirban, for anyone in a similar position, looking to set up an intranet for a UX team.

However, my experience is that getting team members to collaborate, share tips / links / patterns is not the problem. Rather getting them to do so in a consistent way is really hard!

Do you have any tips for us with regard to getting team members to use said intranet instead of Del.icio.us, Digg, friendfeed, tumblr, ma.gnolia.com, twine, their own blog, or [insert social bookmarking tool here]?

Hi Patrick,

You have rightly pointed out that getting team members to collaborate in a consistent way is the actual problem.

Rather than straitjacketing them, if our intranet can act as an aggregator for all these lovely tips, links, and patterns, I think it would serve these two purposes quite nicely: primarily acting as a perpetual source for knowledge management and also giving your company a voice in the existing world. And that would ideally fuel the desire to contribute.

I wouldn’t recommend having a blog that is accessible only within the company. (Though project-sensitive data might need to be filtered.) In UX, branding a team is also a very important thing.

Simply great, as usual. ;-)

Anirban,

A good writeup. Looking forward to seeing something on user experience.

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