Overlooking intranet usabilty is extremely costly

Posted on July 9, 2010 by matyeo

Do you know how usability of your intranet is affecting your business?

As more business critical information and applications are accessed via web browsers, it is more important than ever to ensure employees can find and use the content and applications as intended.

The problem is that intranet usability problems have dramatic hidden costs. If managers are made aware of usability problems, they may think that training is the way to fix them, but it is not. Also, features that cannot be used have no value.

Recently we’ve seen a flurry of internal applications migrating to intranets, related to policies, procedures, purchasing, expenses, timesheets, pay, benefits, etc.

When selecting a vendor or considering custom development for an intranet, an extensive set of business, technical, and user requirements are often created. Unfortunately, specific usability requirements are often lacking or missing completely.

Intranets are not islands. Increasingly, people are expecting all web applications to be as easy and quick as those they experience on the Internet. They ask: Why can I book a flight, hotel, and car for my vacation faster and easier than I can fill out my travel expenses or purchase new office equipment?


People’s expectations about internal applications are driven by their Web experiences


What use is having hundreds of features if many of them are not findable or usable? In a Microsoft customer survey [1], users were asked for what features they’d like to see in the next version of Office. More than 90% asked for features already in the product. People just weren’t aware of them or could not find them.

People may assume a quick launch of intranet features is more important than usability testing them. But a feature has no value if it can’t be found or takes too long to use. Why waste money developing features people may not use?.


Self-serve has no value if people can’t use it


Employees often reject these new applications and go back to the old way of doing things. If this is not an option, employees will take up valuable time calling technical support or their peers as they try to figure out how to find or use something. This can have disastrous effects on productivity and morale.

Worse yet, we often see situations where people feel they have accomplished their task but actually they have the wrong answer or have made mistakes. For example, we have seen users make plans to take a training course, not realizing that the information was for a course that took place a few years ago!
These situations can be very costly. We call them ‘disasters’.

Many organizations resort to training to solve usability problems. However, if the task is not done frequently, employees often forget much of what they learn before they need to use it. Anything out of the ordinary is almost always forgotten.
Also, training is a cost, often an unexpected cost, having to be developed only when the problems become obvious.


Training is not the answer


The answer is to provide highly usable applications that people can use without training or with minimal training that is embedded into the application’s interface at the point of need.

As important as highly usable web-based applications are to organizations, why is usability often overlooked? For an e-commerce site, usability of the online store is essential to success. It is directly tied to the bottom line. Unfortunately, the usability of internal applications is rarely measured or tied directly to employee productivity or success.

Through our partnership with Customer Carewords [2], we are able to use the Task Performance Indicator [3] to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of intranet tasks like procurement and expense reporting. The insights obtained are always enlightening to our clients. They get to see the impact of large failure and disaster rates.

They see the wasted time and effort that detracts from people being able to perform their core responsibilities effectively and efficiently. And, in the case of disasters, they realize that people are going away with the wrong answer or having made mistakes which will waste more time and resources to discover and correct.

Why does this happen? Because the usability needs of employees are not adequately taken into account. Vendors sell applications based on feature lists, not whether people can find and use the features. Custom application developers build applications to satisfy their own perceptions of users’ needs, not users’ actual needs. Task performance is rarely measured, yet it is critical to intranet return on investment (ROI).

Your requirements and vendor selection processes are incomplete if you are not assessing the impact of usability on task success. Good intranet management involves setting targets for task performance and measuring against those targets. By not doing so, you are incurring huge hidden costs – wasting valuable employee time, creating undue frustration that negatively impacts morale, and contributing to costly mistakes.


Ignoring usability requirements incurs huge hidden costs


We conducted Task Performance Indicator testing with a large client’s extranet and discovered that only 46% of their partners could achieve their top tasks successfully. They also had a 12% disaster rate. Subsequent analysis indicated that they could be losing as much as $200 million a year due to the poorly functioning website.

Another client was introducing an online timesheet application for its 6,000 employees. They were intending to send everyone on a half-day course. With a mean salary of about $45K the cost of the training time alone was going to be more than $600,000, not to mention the cost of providing the training.

After testing and redesign we were able to eliminate the need for training, plus we saved an average of 2 minutes per timesheet interaction. They estimated each person typically enters information into their timesheet twice per week. The savings in time was equivalent to over 12 person years for an annual savings of well over $500,000. The first year savings in training was $600,000 for a total of $1.1 million, just in the first year. To generate that much cash, a typical business would have to make over $23 million in revenues.

The good news is that many usability issues are relatively simple and straightforward to address with changes to layout, terminology, navigation, defaults, or adding widgets that minimize or eliminate errors – e.g. type ahead to reduce spelling errors, date input using calendars to eliminate format errors, etc.

For off-the-shelf web applications, often small configuration changes can have huge benefits – e.g. simplifying an Advanced Search feature by eliminating many of the fields that only confuse people or are irrelevant to a particular group of users.


What to do

Three steps will help you optimize your intranet application purchases or development:

  1. Observe users doing tasks
    Observe and measure the current system in actual use. Understand the most frequently occurring tasks, the sequencing of tasks, and the language and mental model people use to think about the task.
  2. Identify usability opportunities
    Optimize usability by simplifying the task steps, reducing demands on the users’ memory, providing appropriate defaults, streamlining inputs, preventing errors, and supporting follow-on or repeated tasks.
  3. Set task performance targets up-front
    Test your early prototypes or vendor applications to ensure acceptable success rates and task completion times without training. Set measurable targets for task completion and time-on-task. Factor usability highly into the decision making process. Buying the cheapest application or saving on development efforts often amounts to false economy.


Direct costs of purchase or development are visible and easily quantified. However, the longer term costs on productivity can also be measured relatively easily. Having both parts of the equation means better decision making. Get in the habit of doing those three steps – observe tasks, identify opportunities for improvement, set task performance targets.

For example, imagine if task performance testing identified an opportunity to save 10 minutes each time a particular task was performed but that the additional development effort would require 100 hours. Even in a small company of 60 employees, each using the application only 10 times per year, the extra investment would be paid back in 1 year – not to mention all the other costs that would be avoided.

If you need help evaluating the usability requirements for your organization’s applications or identifying opportunities to optimize self-service web content or applications, contact us at 613-271-3001 or email us [4].

Related articles



Back to Top [9]


Top Neo Tweets

Back to Top [9]

Quote of the month


“If a business mandates process changes and deploys systems users perceive as difficult to learn, use, and remember, the user population will see it as a change for the worse and resist.”

Paul J. Sherman, 2009




URLs in this post:

[1] Microsoft customer survey: https://www.microsoft.com/presspass/features/2006/nov06/11-21officeui.mspx

[2] Customer Carewords: http://www.customercarewords.com/

[3] Task Performance Indicator: http://www.customercarewords.com/task-performance-indicator.html

[4] email us: mailto:info@neoinsight.com?subject=Follow-up about intranet or extranet usability

[5] Are visitors seeing your top tasks?: http://www.neoinsight.com/newsletter/1006.html

[6] Usability catastrophe – Payroll calculator: http://www.neoinsight.com/newsletter/0903.html#0903catastrophe

[7] Top tasks and task-completion are central: http://www.neoinsight.com/newsletter/1004.html#tasks_and_task_completion

[8] Managing websites is about managing, not about websites: http://www.neoinsight.com/newsletter/0907.html#ManagingNotWebsites

[9] Back to Top: #top

[10] http://bit.ly/IntranetAdoption: http://bit.ly/IntranetAdoption

[11] http://bit.ly/cDwlTT: http://bit.ly/cDwlTT

[12] http://bit.ly/EndecaUIPatterns: http://bit.ly/EndecaUIPatterns

[13] gerrymcgovern: http://www.neoinsight.com/blog/gerrymcgovern

[14] http://tinyurl.com/2v2dgq8: http://tinyurl.com/2v2dgq8

[15] http://tinyurl.com/3ag22wy: http://tinyurl.com/3ag22wy

Copyright © 2015 Articles. All rights reserved.