Social Intranet Design and Organizational Identity: Design for functionality and character

by cv harquail on June 15, 2011

In a social organization, the design of digital social tools like intranets should reflect the organizational features that define the organization. These design features, no matter how subtle, can ‘auto-communicate’ and make salient the characteristics that matter most, and help organizations stay authentic.

Especially in the digital workplace, our digital tools create an important shared context that ‘defines’ the organization.

When I taught my MBA elective Leadership 2.0: Leading in a Digital Environment, I had a teaching case about an organization establishing its intranet.

The pressing question: What should the physical interface on employees’ computer screens look like?

The design challenge was to make the home page ‘work’ while helping keep the organization’s defining characteristics in the minds of the user/members.

201106151111.jpgOf course, ten years ago “intranets” were really simple affairs. In this case, we were really discussing the ‘frame’ — the sidebars, top navigation menu, and background image. (Once someone clicked into email, or to the library data base, all that was left was a half-inch frame all around.) There wasn’t much variation in functionality, just in the ways that things were presented visually.

But, even though the available options & decisions were small, these little design choices made a difference.

For example, the out-of-the-box default color scheme was light blue and navy blue. Meanwhile, the organization’s colors were green and white. The default frame had the vendor’s logo, a basic typeface, and generic names for features. In contrast, the organization had its own logo, a defined typeface for its printed visual materials, and its own names for tools and features (e.g., “MixxMail”, not “Outlook”).

Research in organizational identity, organizational symbolism, and office environments has shown that triggering a sense of specific place (e.g., this organization, this community) helps to keep the values of the organization salient while people go about their work. Wouldn’t the same triggering and salience be important as people used their computers as portals/terminals to do any variety of tasks?

With this case in mind, I was intrigued by Toby Ward’s post on Social Intranet Design.

Ward, a noted intranet expert, outlined his 7 Principles of Intranet Design: (summarized from his post)

  1. Less is more.
  2. An intranet is a business system, and the design should fulfill business needs (no creative whim).
  3. Follow a design process that includes thorough input by management & employees
  4. Soft corners
  5. Soft colors
  6. Employees love employee photos, not clip art.
  7. White space is good.

Do these design principles help to reinforce organizational identity?

The 6th principle, ‘Use employee photos’ makes a lot of sense, since this is an easy way to break up space in an attractive way while making the intranet look like it belongs to a specific organization.

But the 2nd principle troubled me just a little bit.

‘Business-like’ design or Organization-specific design?

While I do agree that “an intranet is a business system, and the design should fulfill business needs”, I disagree with the idea that designers should dispense with creative whims. (By whims, I’m assuming ‘insights’).

There is always a way to be both ‘business-like” and creative, especially if that creativity is used to express the organization’s identity. Were I the manager overseeing the intranet design, I’d explicitly request that the intranet’s aesthetics (and functionality) reflect the identity (or corporate ‘brand) of the organization itself.

Every intranet– heck, every organizational tool — should reflect, express and reinforce the values of the organization.

Every digital tool should pass the ‘below the header’ test– if the logo or headline is taken off, users should still be able to “know” that this tools belongs to their organization, that it is ‘of’ their organization.

Otherwise, you run the risk of allowing your organization and its tools to become generic, unspecial, unspecific, less meaningful. You’re missing a chance to evoke, demonstrate and reinforce what the organization stands for .

Have you had any bad experiences with organizations trying to get too unique, or too generic, in their intranet aesthetics?

I’d love some examples either way.

See also:

Logos, Browsers, Brand Identity, and What You Value: The symbols we use to represent our tools also represent the communities that use these tools.

Social Media for Social Change — Inside the Organization?

Authentic From the Start-Up: 4 Tips from Cindy Gallop and IfWeRanTheWorld

Systems of Engagement: Technology for Social Organizations

Image: Peter Jakubik’s Oval Libertine Mirror: “The seductive motif on this mirror is prepared to adore you.”


Catherine Mitis (@cathpm) June 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Worth Reading>>> Social Intranet Design & Organizational Identity – via @commafactory @socialworkplace #intranet

EphraimJF June 15, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful post CV.

Your comments on “creative whims” really struck a cord for me.

While an intranet is a “business system,” it is much more than that. A social intranet is an online landscape that mirrors a company’s physical experience. If a business has a break room and coffee pot where people gather to chit-chat, the social intranet should mirror that.

Imagine a company had a rule: No personal conversations in the office or while you’re at work! All business all the time!

That’s not conducive to a positive workplace and neither is an all-business social intranet.

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