Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Litmus Test for Intranets: Do your users use Bookmarks?

I have a working hypothesis about intranets. If your employees and users create and maintain bookmarks to revisit portions of it, your intranet is not working to it's potential. It is likely difficult to navigate and because of this you may be missing out on the intangible but valuable benefits of the intranet enabled enterprise.

Recently I was working on a job at a large organisation and I had over the course of a few months the opportunity to work with their Microsoft SharePoint-driven intranet. This was a large intranet, stuffed full of content, documents, team pages, project sites and links through to other tools and web applications. I would have been completely lost, but a helpful coworker shared their Internet Explorer favorites (bookmarks) folder structure, and I knew at least what parts of the intranet were important to her and the team.

I am not a huge fan of Microsoft SharePoint but I know it does not lack search functionality; If I knew the names of the web pages I would have been able to find them. If I had been a much better understanding or the organisational structure of the company, and the confidence that SharePoint reflected that, I also would have been able to find them. But I did not know of the specific areas of the intranet that might be useful without asking, and I had little idea about how the intranet or the larger business were organised.

Interestingly enough, months after starting, I was still only using the bookmarks that had been shared with me. I had no idea how the reach the bookmarked pages from the homepage, nor any idea what other useful tools or content might be available that I did not know anything about. No one else in my team did either.

I have since reflected that the collection and maintenance of bookmarks into your intranet by your employees and users is not a good thing; Not only does this spell obvious problems for the inevitable intranet or organisational restructure, it is also a symptom of bad health in your intranet. The average user does not want to create a complicated bookmark folder structures, or even maintain bookmarks at all. What does this say about the intranet?

My hypothesis is this. If your users are managing bookmarks into your intranet:

  • The intranet is too time consuming or confusing to navigate. It is a sign that your homepage is not doing the job it supposed to be doing - taking users where they want to go. 
  • Bypassing the homepage means your users are missing out on the other chief role of the homepage: content discovery. If your users are going directly to their destinations, how will they ever find out about the other ways the intranet can help them? 
  • The user accessing their destinations from bookmarks only sees the intranet as a set of unconnected islands of content. They learn nothing about the intranet - and by extension, the organisation - by jumping between these islands.
  • Likewise, an employee skipping between these islands of content and functionality will contribute, participate and ultimately enrich fewer areas on the intranet. 
If you notice employees and users creating bookmarks into your intranet, you have an opportunity to improve the way the intranet works. You should review your homepage and whether it is really surfacing the tools and content that your users and employees need. Your intranet pages should make their organisation within the larger intranet (and organisation) obvious, using the traditional patterns like breadcrumbs and contextual navigation. Finally, encourage your content creators (and this should be almost everyone) to use hyperlinks to create relationships with other relevant intranet content. These create land bridges that span team and departmental boundaries and further open up the intranet for navigation and exploration. 

Any of these approaches could and be discussed further, but the main purpose of this post was to shine a spotlight on what the act of creating and maintaining bookmarks into your intranet might say about the way your intranet is or is not working for your employees and users. Are your users creating bookmarks into your intranet, and do you agree it is symptom of bad intranet health?


  1. Hi Ben - I have to disagree with your theory that staff using bookmarks is a failure of the intranet. In fact, I think the fact that anyone even bothered creating a bookmark is a positive thing. It means they plan to come back another time to a page that was presumably useful to them.

    Bookmarks are a quick way to access content. Quick is good. Why should staff have to wade through menus or search results every time they want to get to a page they've already been to?

    Of course this doesn't negate the need for a well structured intranet with a good search function and a well designed homepage.

    But bookmarks aren't bad in themselves.

  2. Hi Luke,

    Thanks for commenting. No, bookmarks in themselves are not bad, but I do believe they are symptomatic of an unhealthy intranet.

    I see your point about interpreting a bookmark as a positive sign that there is something on the intranet the user finds value in. But would you agree that point reflects more on that specific content, not the intranet and the way it works in general?

    It is also often the case that usage of specific areas of the intranet are mandated. Employees or users must access the intranet to complete form xyz for their expenses, or publish a document to a specific page as part of their work process. In these cases, the business already knows a resource has value and is seeing usage. A bookmark in that instance does not imply any value - the user has to visit that page anyway - but rather a lack of confidence that the homepage and intranet organisation will quickly yield the required location within the intranet.

    You are right in saying that staff shouldn't need to wade through menu or search results to return to a needed resource. I would argue though that navigating a well designed intranet would not be called 'wading' nor would users need to rely on search to find resources that are more than occasionally useful. These things should be surfaced on the homepage and access to them should be quick.

    There are other pitfalls with encouraging bookmarks or working with raw URLs (ever had a user bookmark and use the UAT site?). My point is not that bookmarks are bad, but that they shouldn't be needed in a well organised and efficient intranet. It should not be 'worth it' for the user to create them.

    I hope that makes some sense. Or perhaps it is overly idealistic. I have had the experience of both intranets that required bookmarks and those where they were never even considered, and I think putting the finger on what makes those intranets different is worthwhile.

  3. Hi Ben,

    I left the same comment on your Linked In thread, and agree with much of what you're saying; It's not an absolute, but generally if users are *relying* on bookmarks, it means you have a poor site, usually because there's no search (or it's ineffective), the architecture is shot, and content is all over the place.

    I've worked with many, many organisations where users have simply 'bookmarked everything I find, just in case I need to use it again'.

    The reason it's not an absolute is because even if you provide a perfect site, users will still use bookmarks, especially if the site you've replaced was as described above. To change user habits it takes a long time, promotion of services, and repeated successes when searching for content.

  4. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for your reply. You are right, there is a culture of bookmarking that carry across from an old intranet to a new one.

    One implication of this (and a good rule of thumb I think anyway) is that you can not rely on your homepage to be the springboard for your intranet. To a lesser extent every page is a potential entry point to the intranet either from a bookmark or a URL sent in an email. An effective intranet page delivers not just the requested content but also the context in which it exists (in the form of links and tools to move them to their next destination).

    Thanks again for your comment.