Why are intranet applications so difficult to use?

Firstly let me make it clear I am referring only to intranet applications BT has bought from software vendors not any applications that BT has developed for our intranet.

When I use an application on the internet such as Google or Amazon to do something or even the BBC site for iPlayer it is always available, easy to use, no training needed, and it does what it claims to do.  If it didn’t the sites wouldn’t exist.

However when I use an intranet application that BT has bought from software vendors, like Oracle, etc, they are not easy to use, need training to use and fall short of the claims they make on how usable they are.

I’m not sure if the software vendors carry out any or enough user testing.  If they do, then maybe they are asking the wrong people.  I wonder if it is technical advice they seek on their applications rather than the user experience?  If not, well………………why not is the obvious question?

It can be very difficult to use intranet applications that have:

  • misleading headings that take you to pages you didn’t expect to find
  • functions placed in strange parts of the screen
  • headings that have strange names (what does ‘per diem’ mean?)

I expect the same experience from an intranet application as I would from an internet application and not have to spend money customising it to meet the basic levels of usability I need to avoid huge (normally hidden sadly) productivity costs.

Am I in a minority of 1 or am I voicing what the silent majority of users think and suffer each day?  Only you can decide!

31 responses to “Why are intranet applications so difficult to use?

  1. Mark, you are definitely not alone 🙂

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot too.

    I believe this problem comes from a time where it was *acceptable* to make work applications that were not easy to use. A time when you had to be an “expert” to navigate and use a particular business system.

    In terms of interaction design, the internet is closing the gap between the usability of tools aimed at the professional and those aimed at the consumer. As consumers we now bring with us the expectation from our other online experiences to our workplace.

    Finally it’s no longer acceptable for vendors to be arrogant and complacent towards their users.

    And it’s not longer acceptable for companies to provide their employees with software that causes people to break in to a sweat at the very thought of having to use it.

    Well thought out user research can reap so many benefits, way beyond the design of a specific intranet application.

  2. Nic,

    Thanks for doubling my numbers and showing I’m not alone. I think you sum it up very well. I also think it is a win-win for application users and software vendors.

    I plan to blog about this issue more in the future. Maybe there will be people in software vendors who read our comments and will engage directly with us?


  3. No, Mark, you’re not alone, by any means.
    Back in may I talked about how user experience changes perceptions of official software commenting that “@san1t1 has discussed elsewhere how bizarre it is to have training to use a purchasing system, pointing out he must have missed the training to use Amazon”.

    We have a rule of one that says we will use one supplier and one system, and unless you can change the way we work to fit the system – or get @psd & the Osmosoft guerilla team to front end these awful systems we’re a bit stuck, I fear – for we shan’t be spending any money.

  4. I agree with Mark, and Nic – blimey that’s nearly twice in a decade when Mark and I have agreed on summat.

    The user experience is all too sadly forgotten on far too many occasions. We have systems in the BBC that are painful and hard to use – expenses being one of them, though that might be intentioanl to discourage people from claiming back what they’ve shelled out. Saves a few quid dunnit?

    Some of the on-line HR systems here are also a minefield and do little, or nothing, to help managers manage their people, which kinda defeats HR’s objectives. Maybe we need a good intranet manager at the BBC to sort it all out 🙂

    Non usable systems are not new. They’ve been around years and I’ve on a couple of previous occasions, stated at IBF meetings, that the IBF have a responsibility for helping intranet managers to overcome this by putting pressure on vendors to deliver usable systems. Nothing has happened yet.

    One voice is quiet – many collective voices get heard. Until vendors wake upto the fact that users expect the same experience as consumers then we’re on a hiding to nothing. Sharepoint anyone?

  5. Steve,

    That is the dilemma BT and other organisations are in. We need Procurement to take a tougher line with business owners on the importance of usability.

    I’m going to blog next on why vanilla applications should = good user experiences.

    It’s nice to feel I’m not alone too! 🙂


  6. Intranetmania,

    Careful now. Agreeing with me in public could damage your career.

    The BBC did have with Nic and currently do have a good intranet manager with you. But there is only so much you can do if you’re not involved in the decisions and/or requirements for intranet applications. That’s one thing – not easy I grant you – we can try to fix ourselves.

    I’ve posted this in frustration at not being able to get anyone else to take the action I need to improve my intranet users’ experience. Sadly the IBF have not followed up with action to what we and other IBF members have asked them to do. Very disappointing. 😦

    When the millions of users of poor intranet applications have commented it we may get the software vendors to think differently.

    We can but hope!


  7. Hi guys

    I’m a user experience and usability specialist, but in a past life worked in quality assurance roles on a number of full lifecycle application development projects. While I most definitely don’t condone poor usability of intranet software applications, I can certainly understand how it has happened. Traditional software development methodologies just haven’t included user-centred design(UCD) activities – there’s only been relatively recent recognition of the value of UCD techniques in software development and associated value. The lifecycle for traditional SDLC is/ was typically, & at a high level, business requirements => functional specification => technical specification => build => unit test => function test => integration test => user acceptance test. As such, there was typically very little user involvement right up until the end – at which point there is very little scope for change to improve usability and user experience. Even now, a lot of development methodologies struggle to adequately integrate UCD activities. There are some organisations that are now improving the way that UCD activities are being integrated, particularly with Agile development methodologies, but this still takes considerable commitment to solid user research at the very outset of the project, and ongoing commitment to iterative usability evaluations throughout the development.

    Because vendor applications are quite removed from their users (different contexts of use in every organisation), and are more typically developed from a technical viewpoint, there are even more challenges in them championing user experience. One of the reasons for this is that the brain strengths that it takes to be a good technical developer do not typically translate to the same brain strengths that it takes to be a good user experience specialist – its a bit like the number of people that were strong in both maths & english at school – most are strong in one or the other… (oh, the challenges of being human!! ;-).

    Additionally, the value of usability & user experience can be quite difficult to articulate to ‘non users’ – often it is not until a technical person (and often also project managers etc) are ‘shown’ users struggling with things, that it really sinks in. This is the opportunity that you guys now have, invite your vendors to some usability testing of their applications (they supply the application, you provide the users & tasks).

    Bottom line, however, is there is a shared responsibility here, vendors should be being made aware of the key usability issues of their out of the box products, and intending clients should be defining specific usability criteria in their procurement selection criteria. These criteria will vary from client to client – & so is up to the client to define for their specific context of use. After all usability criteria priorities & user experience is contextual – your user segmentation, tasks and context are not necessarily the same as the next clients. During procurement processes ask preferred vendors to provide an out of box test environment to usability test with your own users, and intended user tasks, for these when choosing products (for some guidance on cheap & easy ways to set up your own basic tests, see Don’t Make me Think by Steve Krug). Invite the vendors to observe the testing. Declining their products based on poor usability will be the most effective way get the message across to vendors to take more care in designing in more user friendly ways.

    Hope this helps….

  8. I feel it a little bit of sympathy for the Tesco checkout girl haveing received feedback from you in the past. 😉

    It shows how service levels can slip and sometime it is only after a while (and the damage is done and irreversible) do you realise what has happened.

    Together we can reverse things but only together!

    The longest journeys start with the first step (or something like that). This blog is that step.


  9. DElizabethB, (or is it just Elizabeth?)

    I agree with what you say. BT has tried to involve software vendors like Oracle with detailed user specs, tried writing clauses into contracts, tried to engage with senior people with usability responsibility. However I have met with no response or very little help.

    So I feel I’ve down my share but Oracle haven’t fulfilled their share………yet.

    My next post will cover what I think could help change things. I just need software vendors to comment as well as great people like you.


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  12. Some thoughts on this…

    It isn’t just the intranet. There have also been some dire internet sites out there… The saving grace is that they either fix the problems or they disappear because no-one will use them. The power of the user is that they can (by and large) walk away.

    Not so with intranet sites. If you want your expenses paid or to order something, then you are stuck with whatever app your company has provided. You can’t walk away.

    Unfortunately, the worst culprits on intranet usability are usually the big software vendors, which may be because their systems were (a) never that easy to use in the first place, and (b) they most definitely weren’t designed to operate on the web. So the big players are playing catch-up, slowly.

    Meantime of course, there are people out there writing new-style systems for the web world. Cloud computing and all that. And some of them have figured out this usability thing. For example, Really Simple Systems (RSS) developed a really simple customer management system, very easy to use, very intuitive.

    Sooner or later, the vendors will have to wake up to designing really simple systems for internal business operations, or they will find that there are new kids on the block like RSS who are walking off with all their customers.

    • You make a good point about the differences between internet and intranet applications. Intranet users are stuck with them – whether they like them or not. My next post will be about an example with Oracle which shows it is more difficult to make an intranet application more usable than it need be.

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  15. This thread has been a highly interesting read so far. Especially, since we are looking to develop our intranet and in the process likely to drop our fairly simple CMS-tool that was developed in-house in 2003. Here, however, simple means limited options for providing intranet 2.0 content.

    For us this means that we will need to look at outside vendors. Our intranet benchmark research clearly identified MOSS 2007 as the most favoured intranet platform when it comes to recently updated intranets. However, we’re not totally convinced of the usability benefits, especially when new features get added-on. Thus, we’ve sought other options and have looked at Google, who really do master usability, well at least what comes to the Internet. Besides Google’s brief presentation to our company, it’s been difficult to find other companies where Google has provided a complete intranet package for the company, while it’s fairly simple to find companies using Google-search and other features that compliment their intranets.

    I thought I’d use this opportunity to ask about finding the right vendor?
    And is it misleading to expect a vendor that is successful at internet usability to also do the same when it comes to the intranet e.g. Google?

    • Jenni,

      You need to be very clear on what you need your CMS to do for you and what the benefits are. James Robertson has just posted an excellent post about this http://www.steptwo.com.au/columntwo/who-is-choosing-the-new-cms/ which I highly recommend.

      BT has used or tested Opentext’s Obtree or Livelink WCMS, Interwoven’s TeamSite, Microsoft’s Sharepoint, Oracle’s UCM and WordPress………..to name just a few. So far WordPress for usability is way ahead of the others. Whether it can manage really complex sites and multiple users is the next stage of our testing but for micro sites it seems ideal.

      Happy to discuss further offline if you want to email me (mark.morrell@bt.com).


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  18. First, the web wasnt designed to be a application or transaction system, it was supposed to be a information giver, you can give it all sorts of names web 2.0 etc etc etc, but it is nigh on impossible to squeeze a thick app into thin app functionality, it is business needs that has forced it down this route, look at livelink and the like its very klunky, if you try to stack that up with the expierience say from a XP / Vista desktop it just aint gonna work no matter how much you try. It has to be acknowledged that the web can have its uses but for it to work as a normal application it has to be accepted that the UI is just not going to cut it, its a different beast, okay there are exceptions like Amazon, but Oracle has been trying for years to get there back end (Database) into the front end (Web World), if it is clunky after lets say 5 – 6 years of development you cannot hold out much hope in the next weeks a months this is a long time in the internet world.

    Dave Collins

    Munich Germany.

    • Dave,

      Thanks for your comments. good to hear from you. 🙂

      I don’t see why more enterprise applications can’t be simpler like Amazon’s interface. I find software vendors mistake improving usability to mean more features rather than making the existing features easier to use.

      I would even go so far as to say ‘more is less’ and just give users a limited number of easy to use features for the vast majority of tasks with extra features discreetly placed for the minority of power users.

      I think Oracle is improving because there are new kids on the block who are giving customers what they need to improve productivity by user interfaces that are simpler and easier.

      I agree it takes time. Too long for me though. I’m impatient!


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