My five minute talk on analogy at UX Bristol

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At the end of the excellent UX Bristol back in July, a few of us gave 5 minute talks. These talks are now available to watch online.

I talked about how – when I was running the intranet at the BBC back in 2005 – I was inspired by the transformation programme at London’s South Bank Centre. I found it a useful analogy for the work we were doing to transform our digital workspace.

Useful to a point, I find analogies can become most interesting at the points where they break.

This is a short version of the longer talk I gave at London IA back in November 2010, which Martin Belam blogged about. See also Matthew Solle’s post Conversations Over Coffee for some more background and a little bit of ranting.

Content connections

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Sketch showing a list of content types

How does a piece of content relate to other content?

Learning, conversations, people, places, events, news, policy and procedure…

Not an exhaustive list, and deliberately format-agnostic, but a helpful start when planning and thinking about web and intranet content.

Let there be no cul-de-sacs.

Find, Understand, Share, Extend

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Today is World Usability Day. The theme this year is communication. I’ve chosen to write about something which I find helps teams I work with communicate and explore what we design and put on the web.

Back in 2005, Yahoo! Search announced a “vision statement”.

Enable people to finduseshare and expand all human knowledge.

Somewhat ambitious, sure. A little grand, perhaps. But what a great way to think, not only about search, but also about everything we make on the web.

And it happens to form a handy mnemonic in the shape of the acronym FUSE.

At the time I was working on learning technology and intranet projects at the BBC, and found it was a really useful way to think about everything we designed, built and put out there.

If we design this site, template or widget, if we publish this content, if we make this web app, will people be able to find it, use it (more recently I’ve started using ‘understand’ as well), share it and extend it (which I prefer to ‘expand’)? FUSE?

And on every project I’ve worked in the five years since, it has still come in useful. Whatever becomes of Yahoo!, I for one, have a lot to thank them for.

[For more on FUSE, see this blog post by Tom Coates, not a fan of the acronym! In 2006, the BBC came up with its own version of FUSE – in Find, Play Share (BBC press release, Guardian article) – as its approach to all audience-facing digital output. Both work, but I find FUSE really gets people thinking.]

Don’t let distance get in the way of your user research

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There’s an advertising campaign at the moment for Blackberry, the smartphone company, using the tag line “Closeness has nothing to do with distance.”

These days we can all carry our loved ones around in our pocket or handbag using the various social networking features of the Blackberry – including using it as a phone, presumably.

On several web projects recently, I’ve been conducting user research and usability testing with people in different locations (including other continents) using screen-sharing tools like WebEx and LiveMeeting. So even though we may be several thousand miles apart, we’re both looking at the same screen.

An important aspect of a user research session is building initial trust between the researcher and the respondent, so that the respondent feels comfortable and not too self-conscious. This involves an opening conversation, where I’ll introduce myself and explain the purpose of the research. I’ll then ask the respondent to tell me a bit about themselves, and gradually ask questions which narrow down towards the subject matter of the research session.

In person, you can pick up on all the cues available to you, and adjust your tone, proximity, style etc. to find a good mode for putting the other person at ease.

Using software such as LiveMeeting and talking over the telephone (or VOIP) you lose a lot of those cues.

So to try to help put the respondent more at ease, the first thing I’ll do during the introductions is share my web browser via LiveMeeting (or WebEx etc.) and show my profile page. This could be on the respondent’s company’s intranet, or my LinkedIn profile, or whichever seems the most appropriate.

Then I’ll encourage the respondent to do the same, or I’ll have a browser tab available with their profile page available to share if I can access it.

I find this really helps put people at ease and feel more able to “think out loud” when we move on to usability testing the prototype, web app or intranet site in question.

It’s never quite the same as being there in person, but it’s definitely an improvement to just being a disembodied voice at the end of the line.

Social networking on intranets – have a problem to solve, and expect it to take time, says Jakob Nielsen

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Here are the findings from usability “guru” Jakob Nielsen’s report on Social Networking on Intranets


  • Underground efforts yield big results. Companies are turning a blind eye to underground social software efforts until they prove their worth, and then sanctioning them within the enterprise.
  • Frontline workers are driving the vision. Often, senior managers aren’t open to the possibilities for enterprise 2.0 innovation because they’re not actively using these tools outside of work. Indeed, many senior managers still consider such tools as something their kids do. One of the dirty secrets of enterprise 2.0 is that you don’t have to teach or convince younger workers to use these tools; they expect them and integrate them as easily into their work lives as they do in their personal lives.
  • Communities are self-policing. When left to their own devices, communities police themselves, leaving very little need for tight organizational control. And such peer-to-peer policing is often more effective than a big brother approach. Companies that we studied said abuse was rare in their communities.
  • Business need is the big driver. Although our report discusses specific tools (blogs, wikis, and such), enterprise 2.0’s power is not about tools, it’s about the communication shift that those tools enable.
  • Organizations must cede power. Using Web 2.0 technologies to communicate with customers has taught many companies that they can no longer control the message. This also rings true when using Web 2.0 tools for internal communication. Companies that once held to a command-and-control paradigm for corporate messaging are finding it hard to maintain that stance.


Nielsen talks a lot about integrating the social networking tools in to the rest of the intranet, where useful and possible. My team did a lot of work in this area a few years ago at the BBC.

Communities – start simple, don’t over-design

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Social notworking

In 2002 we built something on the BBC’s intranet called “Learning Online”. I was working with an amazing team of forward-thinking and innovative people.

We designed Learning Online to be the intranet home for BBC employees to manage their personal development, training and career development.

Alongside e-learning, personal development planning and a personalised virtual induction, was a section called MyNetworks.

If you picture MyNetworks as an early prototype for Facebook groups you’ll have a pretty close approximation. But this was 2002, so the concept was still fairly alien to most people.

The idea behind MyNetworks was simple. Create spaces for groups of people who had something in common where they could have conversations, share “knowledge” as documents or images, and plan events.

We had a lot of interest from various people, who set up and “ran” their networks with varying degrees of success.

There was one consistent and recurring theme.

Where a lot of time was spent “designing” a network before involving its members, the network invariably failed.

Often people would put great effort in to the planning of how a network would be run, and how the information in the network would be organised. When the network was finally launched, nobody used it. And those who did found a perplexing empty suite of rooms.

It seems obvious to say it, but the idea of “if we build it they will come” really did not work in most cases.

The less “designed” the network, the greater chance of its success, through participation and involvement of its members using the online tools to support the network, but not to be the network.

Yammer and the intranet beyond the firewall

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One of the hats I wear is Content Producer for Intranets Live, a subscription-based intranet media channel, with a monthly two-hour online show starting on 4 November.

In the first show we’ll be interviewing David Sacks, CEO of microblogging service Yammer, winner of the TechCrunch50 award last month.

Yammer is designed to provide a secure online space where company employees (with the same company domain in their email address) can broadcast short messages to each other.

For example, people can use it to ask questions or to let everyone else know what they’re working on.

Yammer follows in the footsteps of the hugely successful Twitter, which is being put to great public effect in the run-up to the US presidential election.

Philosophically, Yammer – “What are you working on?” within the company – and Twitter – “What are you doing?” publicly or privately – come from different places.

I’ve spoken with some companies who’ve been using Twitter to communicate in teams and groups privately for some time now. They say they can’t see the value in moving to Yammer. Others have said they find Yammer is just what they needed, and is really helping to make the feel part of the company.

Web-based services like these, along with many others, are described as the intranet beyond the firewall.

So I was just wondering…

  1. With employees using more and more web-based services to get their work done and communicate, what now for internal communications and IT managers?
  2. Why should we trust third-party services with our information?
  3. What would happen if the service your company uses becomes a victim of the credit crunch?
  4. What are the best and worst examples of people using microblogging services at work?
  5. Do services like Yammer and Twitter finally spell the end of the company firewall as we know it?
  6. Is all this the responsibility of the intranet manager? And if not, who’s responsibility is it?

Enterprising times – a case for search best bets

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Reading the e-Consultancy interview with Lou Rosenfeld on the importance of site search analytics, I was reminded of when I was product manager of intranet (or enterprise) search at the BBC.

It was back in 2002. People complained that search was broken, but we had neither quantitative nor qualitative data to analyse.

After consulting with my colleague Martin Belam, who at the time was looking after search on, I put in place a system for capturing search engine usage data.

In a nutshell, this included where people came from, what they searched for, and where they went.

We also conducted user research to gather qualitative data about the experience of using the intranet and what it was like to find things on it.

After only a few weeks, the usage data started to settle and patterns began to emerge.

We noticed that search term frequency had a long tail (though we didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time!).

The top 25 search terms accounted for half of all searches. The top 50 terms accounted for 75% of all searches made.

We tried searching for the top 10 terms, including “training”, “expenses”, “ariel” (the BBC in-house weekly newspaper) and “jobs”.

The results were worrying to say the least. Few of them returned the result expected on the first page of search results.

If we could find the most likely link (or links) for each of our top search terms, and return that as the top result, we should be able to guarantee providing most people with what they’re looking for.

So we set about building what became the Best Bets system. (How we did this I will write about another time, but needless to say it involved an SQL database, some asp code and some hacking in to the Microsoft Site Server system.)

We then set about working with the numerous intranet site managers to determine what the best link should be for each of the top 50 search terms. Further usage analysis, research and testing showed that this working. Success! People were clicking on the Best Bets result almost 95% of the time we had a search term match.

Over time we extended to cover the top 100 search terms, then 200.

Regular usage analysis showed us when new terms appeared and we took editorial decisions on whether they should have a Best Bet.

In spite of the success of the Best Bets system, we certainly couldn’t rest on our laurels. This was an improvement for sure, but as we well knew, it was only a part of the overall search and navigation user experience. There was plenty more work to be done!

Any search engine worth its salt these days comes with best bets functionality as standard. My advice is to take the time to study and understand how people are using your search engine. Test the top search terms yourself to see what the results look like.

Maintaining a best bets system is a relatively low cost exercise, and encourages regular monitoring of search usage and behaviour, which in turn will provide excellent information about your users’ expectations and your intranet’s findability performance.

A word of caution from experience: bear in mind that the formatting of the best bet in the search results page should be minimally different from the natural results, otherwise it risks ending up in the user’s blind spot and be regarded as a “Sponsored Link” rather than something genuinely useful.


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Wearing my IBF hat, I’m involved in setting up and running a 24 hour online event in June this year.

It’s called IBF 24 and is being designed as an online conference focusing on intranet innovation.

Starting at 11am GMT on June 18th, the plan is to follow the sun, so there are three consecutive zones each with an eight hour timetable. This means wherever attendees are in the world they should be able to choose a zone that doesn’t require getting up in the middle of the night, unless they want to of course.

There will be live intranet demos from companies who’ve cracked people-finding and established social computing as part of their working environment. Keynote speakers will cover subjects including innovation, search, design and the future of work.

For IBF member organisations, there are 10 places available as part of the annual membership. Non-members need to pay to register.

We’re setting up a site to support the event, more on that soon.

Also we’re looking for ideas to share about how people are using the day to promote their intranet, or some aspect of it, within their company.

If you work on your company intranet this day might provide a good focus for raising awareness within your company of the intranet itself. You could host an intranet day within your company, with awards handed out for the most usable service or site.

Following mentions of “intranet” on twitter

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As mentioned in a previous post, you can ask twitter to text message or instant message you whenever any term you’re interested in is mentioned in a tweet.

As well as tracking East Dulwich, I’ve been tracking a few others including “intranet”

It makes for some pretty interesting reading but was hard to share online until I came across Tweet Scan courtesy of David Sterry the other day.

It’s a twitter search tool with an RSS feed of your search results…

You can filter your search to individual people on Twitter or have it search the entire public timeline.

Also you can add the search to your browser’s dropdown list of search engines.

That’s mighty handy.

And through it I’ve found blogs by Anu Gupta and Jeremiah Owyang, which I’ve added to my intranet reading list.