It’s rare to think of an intranet as “engaging” or “breathtaking.” Intranets are often large systems built to be efficient and helpful in very specific contexts. However, the process of designing TAURON’s intranet (Tauronet) has been an interesting experience worth sharing.
One of the Largest Business Entities in Poland
TAURON Group, an energy producer and supplier, is one of the largest companies in Southern Poland. Although coal still remains the most important source of energy in Poland, TAURON produces energy in several different ways, including watermills and windmills. The company handles the entire process of producing power, from acquiring coal in the mines, through production in several energy plants, to distributing the power to customers (see Figure 1).
Delivering energy to one quarter of Poland takes more than 26,000 people, including 15,000 office workers. The group has 12 main subsidiaries. The smallest has 17 employees, while the largest (the one responsible for power distribution) has several thousand. This size and organizational complexity made designing an intranet not a small feat.
Challenges to Beat
Our first challenge was to understand the structure of the organization. TAURON’s workforce includes many different professions: office workers, miners, plant workers, technicians, machine operators, and so on. This great variety means that the intranet must meet a wide range of needs and expectations.
Making this challenge more difficult was the fact that some of TAURON’s subsidiaries already had their own intranet systems. Even if they were not perfect and needed a redesign, they worked and people were satisfied with them. Our aim was not to take away any important systems or features that already served their purpose well.
Another challenge was the large team working on the Tauronet. The full project team was around 100 people, including both in-house specialists (such as PR and HR managers and business leaders) and outside consultants for UX and development. It was difficult to create a single, coherent workflow. We proposed a process based on the typical UCD approach. We wanted to:
- Understand the whole situation
- Prepare some blueprints
- Create final designs
As we started to act on our plan, it became more and more apparent that the number of variables at play was even higher than we initially assumed. These factors led us to consider the intranet as a process rather than a static design, a perspective that was one of the most important lessons we learned from this project.
In the first step, we wanted to understand the needs and expectations of TAURON’s employees. To meet people from different groups and subsidiaries, we conducted 10 requirement-gathering workshops over a period of six days (see Figure 2). The work used over 200 flipcharts, and we drove 1,500 kilometers through southern Poland.
The selection of workshop participants was critical. We wanted to meet as many specialists and front-line employees as possible because they are the primary users of the intranet. But we also included an equal number of managers, including top executives. To collect honest feedback about the challenges the employees face, we made sure not to mix employees with managers. This workshop approach worked really well, and after the first few sessions we were able to pinpoint some of the main challenges within the organization.
In addition, we sent out a survey to more than 3,000 employees. The survey results were helpful, though not that surprising: they simply validated our insights from the initial workshops.
Our main discovery was that TAURON was divided into informational silos as a result of the way it was built—by merging a number of smaller companies. Employees were thirsty for knowledge and disliked learning about their own company from the news.
We identified the following key groups of information that had to be shared across the entire organization:
- Employees’ contact information
- Knowledge (for example, news about the company, procedures, instructions, and know-how)
- Tasks and projects on which employees in various departments typically work
To tackle the amount and types of information that had to be included n the intranet, we had to do a lot of organizing and prioritizing. One method helpful to us was a remote card sort. Because we couldn’t ask people to sort over 200 items identified in the analysis stage, we selected the 100 most important items for the sort. Based on the results, we then created complete information architecture diagrams (see Figure 3).
Once the project team reviewed the diagrams, we prepared over 300 wireframes of the system. To ensure the design was usable, we created clickable mockups and conducted two rounds of user testing, improving the design after each round.
After validating the information architecture, we were glad to finally get to the visual design. We had worked with TAURON before and designed its digital presence. However, we had to make sure that the intranet looked different so that the employees could easily recognize when they were inside the system (see Figure 4). Because Tauronet was based on SharePoint technology, we had to understand SharePoint’s limitations and adjust the design accordingly. The graphic design phase of the project lasted over three months before we could pass the specs over to the development company.
When the first version of Tauronet was ready, we tested it with users utilizing traditional in-lab usability testing and eye-tracking methods (see Figure 5). We also conducted ethnographic research during which we observed TAURON’s employees using the intranet in their natural work environment.
Our research uncovered several issues. First, users used abbreviations or nicknames, rather than official names when searching for subsidiaries (for example, “TW” or “wytwarzanie” instead of the full name “TAURON Wytwarzanie”). Finding contact information was frustrating because the search wouldn’t show any results. We needed to make sure that we included abbreviations in the search tool.
Another problem was associated with SharePoint itself. Some elements of the system that were used “out of the box” caused difficulties. For example, most users found the dialog boxes unintuitive. The same was true of the ribbon, because users at the time were not as familiar with it as they are now. Our recommendation was to not rely solely on the ribbon as the only way of operating the interface.
Once our recommendations had been implemented, we repeated the study with a similar group of users. The results showed that the most important issues were corrected.
During Tauronet’s design process we identified a few key considerations that every intranet designer should keep in mind:
- Certain elements of an intranet are much more important than others. While pictures from a holiday party might be fun to look at, contact information and documents need to be prioritized because these are the things that employees need on a daily basis. It’s not necessary to include every nice-to-have feature or the system will be too complex and its performance will suffer. If the intranet slows down its users, it’s no longer useful.
- The intranet should meet user needs and expectations. Despite the user diversity, TAURON’s employees had similar needs and we were able to focus on the most important ones. We also discovered that users prioritized usefulness and efficiency over a tool that was visually attractive.
- You need to be aware that, as a designer, you participate in shaping the organization. For example, when you define the workflow of documents or editor’s assignments, you have an impact on how the employees work.
- It’s important to recommend plain language for the intranet. Our research revealed that many employees found the language in the articles and documents in the system too difficult. As a result, we prepared a manual and conducted a training for a group of thirty intranet’s editors about writing for the digital medium.
- It’s not enough to “just” create an intranet. The employees need to want to use it. To encourage usage, we designed stickers and screen savers. The name “Tauronet” was coined to make the system seem more familiar and be easier to describe. To help employees learn to use the intranet, 20 educational webinars were conducted.
Since its rollout, Tauronet has significantly contributed to improving the effectiveness of individual and group work at TAURON. Almost 20,000 employee profiles have been created and more than 15,200 people use Tauronet every day to find contacts, work on documents, and read group news. The user feedback has been highly positive. Tauronet was also selected as one of the 10 best-designed intranets of 2015, an annual contest organized by the Nielsen Norman group.
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