Web Design for the Intranet: Size Matters
The technical nuts and bolts of intranet Web sites -- databases, servers, browsers, and networks -- appear very similar to those of external Internet sites. The similarities in approach to site design also seem obvious. But although we may not have a deep understanding of the reasons why, many of us realize instinctively that Web design on the intranet is, well... different.
Skimming the Surface
If you've ever conversed with someone on this subject, you probably arrived at "yes, its different" relatively quickly. If you started pressing for specifics, however, the conversation probably got fuzzy before too long. Sure, its easy to find generic pronouncements. The Yale C/AIM Web Style Guide [source: "www.cocc.edu/pcasey/manual/sites/intranet_design.html" (offline)], for example, offers up one of the most common time-worn adages:
"Successful intranet sites assemble useful information, organize it into logical systems, and to deliver the information in an efficient manner. You don't want intranet users lingering over their Web browsers, either in frustration at not being able to find what they are looking for, or in idle "surfing" through the local intranet. Allow employees and students to get what they exactly what they need quickly, and then to move on."
This is somehow different from Web design for external sites? I don't think so! Nobody on the Web wants to be frustrated or lost. Now it may be true that users of intranets are generally in more of a hurry, but this is merely one element of the user profile; specific design differences do not necessarily follow. (Consider that perhaps users "in a hurry" would benefit from cultural change rather than a different Web design.) You will probably find other examples online of advice like this -- high-level generalizations about the intranet user community rather than analysis of actual interface design approaches.
Taking the Plunge
I can think at least five differences between intranet and external Web design that I would call generally "interesting." As a designer, you will probably find more detailed differences that apply to your specific situation. You might consider conducting some brainstorming sessions with your fellow designers on this subject for optimal results. But here's one idea to get you started.
Intranets can be found in almost any type of organization -- small, medium, and large corporations, educational institutions, and government just to name a few. Large intranets, such as those of Fortune 500 companies, serve millions of people so naturally these deployments get quite a bit of attention in the media. But from the designer's perspective, this still adds up to only 500 intranets.
In 2000, the U.S Small Business Administration (SBA) and other sources agreed that millions of small businesses exist in the United States alone. Factor in the continued growth worldwide of networked computing, and suddenly the design center of the "typical" intranet looks a lot smaller. Now it just so happens that the SBA defines a small business as one having 500 employees or fewer. This makes for a nice symmetry: The largest 500 intranets serve millions of people but millions of other intranets could be (will be?) designed that serve 500 people each.