An Information Architect’s Guide to Intranet Design for Real People

Most users are not as computer literate as you might think. The information architects at 2Plus2 present vital insights on intranet design usability.

By Cathy Dew

Your intranet users are digital dunces.

They are muddle-headed technology-challenged nincompoops.

The people you are counting on to log into the elegantly designed and cyber-staggering employee intranet you have cleverly created are never going to use it.

Why not? You ask.

Because, I answer. They can’t.

Because you designed your intranet for you, and not for them.

I’ve talked before about pinpointing personas. Well, a good way to start to understand your users is to take a look at their technology proficiency. I can almost guarantee you that the average levels of technical proficiency in the U.S. workforce are lower than you think.

Usability Starts with User

I am not saying that your intranet users aren’t intelligent or hardworking or wonderful humans inside and out. And if everyone in your company has a Ph.D. in IT from MIT then close this blog out now and move on with your day.

What I AM saying is chances are pretty good that the vast majority of your company’s employees are not members of the IT intelligencia. They do not belong to the computer systems savant squad. Compared to you – especially if you are actually in IT or have a degree in computer-anything or are under the age of, say, 35 – most of the people you hope to benefit from your intranet probably don’t have the skills to actually use your intranet.

Usability By The Numbers

In the United States, only 5% of the worker-age population has what a 2016 study identifies as strong or high-level computer skills. In Australia and the UK 6% are at the strong level; in Canada and across Northern Europe the number increases to 7%, while Singapore and Japan come in at 8% strong level users.

This means that 95% of the people in the U.S. workforce today are considered to be systems challenged. In fact, a surprising number are not computer literate at all, and one-third can only perform the most rudimentary computer-related tasks. So if you are getting all over-achiever with your intranet applications and are expecting people to do things like schedule meetings using an online app, the fact is that only 5% or so of your users might actually have the skills to do that.

The study, undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, analyzed data collected from 215,000 working adults, aged 16 to 65, in 33 countries. Technologies skills were rated as non-existent, terrible, poor, medium, or strong.

Here’s what the results looked like for the United States adult population:

Non-existent technical ability

One in 5 (20%) of adult participants had no computer skills whatsoever. These people did not rate on even the lowest level, which is called “terrible.” There is literally nothing they are able to do on a computer.

Terrible technical ability

Fifteen percent of the U.S. participants in the study came up with a “terrible” rating on the technical ability scale.

People who rated “terrible” can do simple things like delete an email message in an email app, but not much more. They require that tasks involve the use of only one function within a generic interface to meet one explicit criterion. Goals are singular and they can meet them as long as no categorical or inferential reasoning is required.

Poor technical ability

Close to 35% of American workers received a “poor” rating.

Those with poor technical ability can do things like find all the emails from a particular sender or reply to all. They can accomplish simple tasks using familiar applications, such as email software or a web browser, but not much more.

People with poor technical ability do not generally know how to access information with navigation or commands. Instead, they are able to solve problems only if awareness and use of specific tools and functions is not necessary. They can infer the goal of a task from the task statement and can apply explicit criteria when provided.  Only simple forms of reasoning, such as assigning items to categories, are required; there is no need to contrast or integrate information.

Medium technical ability

Around 25% of U.S. workers studied fell into the medium ability category. This is what typical medium ability people can do:

  • Navigate across pages and applications to solve problems
  • Use tools (e.g., sort functions) to facilitate problem resolution
  • Complete tasks requiring multiple steps and operators
  • Evaluate the relevance of a set of items in order to discard distractors
  • Apply integration and inferential reasoning to problem solving

Users at the medium level can figure out how to use a new online form or find documents based on specific criteria provided by a third party, even incorporating several non-specified steps in completing the task.

Strong technical ability

Only about 5% of U.S. adults fall into the strong technical ability category.

These highly proficient individuals can:

  • Navigate across pages and applications to solve a problem
  • Use tools (e.g., a sort function) to work toward a solution
  • Engage in multiple steps to solve problems
  • Work through impasses and unexpected outcomes
  • Evaluate the relevance and reliability of information and discard distractors
  • Employ skills like integration and inferential reasoning

People with strong technical abilities can figure out, for example, what percentage of emails sent by a certain person covered a discrete subject. These are the people who can figure out, from multiple sources, who can attend a meeting when and then schedule a meeting room without having to seek outside assistance.

Implications for Intranet Design and How a 2Plus2 Information Architect Can Help

Of course your company’s employees could fall anywhere on the terrible to strong spectrum. The important point here is to remember that intranet design without usability is a waste of time and money. And the only way to understand usability is to dig deep into your user personas and design for the best user experience possible.

A primary function of the information architect is to make sure technology and users are optimally matched. The information architects at 2Plus2 employ the most sophisticated tools of the IA trade, to make sure your employee intranet meets the needs of all the stakeholders.

Let us show you the 2Plus2 difference.  Contact us online or call us at 510-652-7700 for a free, no-obligation consultation today.

Cathy Dew
Cathy Dew – CEO + Information Architect
Cathy focuses the company on our mission – Real results. Every time. Information architect and strategist, Cathy is passionate about making software work well – the function, the feel, the result.