Beyond the Firewall: Assessing Corporate Intranets

By Poling, Nikki | Information Outlook, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Firewall: Assessing Corporate Intranets


Poling, Nikki, Information Outlook


Is your Intranet Effective?

ALISON HEAD ENTERED THE FIELD OF LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SCIENCE with an interest in information-seeking behavior. She wondered how people formulated research queries and sought answers--how they found the information they needed in life. That was her focus when she was a graduate doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1980s.

Later, as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, Head became more involved with the Web. Her interest in human-computer interaction was piqued when she realized how closely the fields of information-seeking behavior and human-computer interaction were related. With this focus in mind, she wrote a book, Design Wise, and started her own company, Alison J. Head & Associates (http://www.ajhead.com), in 1998. Hewlett Packard was her first client.

Most recently, Head finished a study (with Shannon Staley) analyzing the usability of intranets in seven different companies: Bechtel Corporation, Chevron Corporation (now ChevronTexaco Corporation), Fireman's Fund Insurance Company, Gale Group, Gilead Sciences, Sun Microsystems and Synopsys. The 110-page study, On-theJob Research: How Usable are Corporate Research Intranets?, presents 32 usability findings and makes 24 design recommendations. It is now available through the Special Libraries Association. Head will also speak about her findings during a Hot Topic presentation at SLA's 2002 Annual Conference in Los Angeles.

"I thought it was important for a professional organization like SLA to have some visibility and presence in the assessment of research intranets," says Head. "The organization needs to move into this area and talk about how these new tools work, with the hope of creating more usable sites."

Information Outlook Assistant Editor Nikki Poling presents Head's thoughts on the study and its applications in the following interview. Afterward, you may need to ask yourself, "How do I begin the process of finding out how usable my corporate intranet is ... or is not?"

Nikki Poling (NP): What is a research intranet?

Alison Head (AH): There's really not a formal definition out there. For purposes of our study, we defined a research intranet as a collection of different online research resources. It includes both commercial databases and links on the Web, along with internal information-rich content, like company news and company reports. Research intranets aren't just confined to department sites. They are company-wide sites that are available to all employees. And they are, of course, secure and internally firewalled.

According to this definition, we found that there were different types of research intranets at companies. At some companies, we found huge gateway sites. At other companies, they were precision research tools with a collection of very expensive-to-use commercial databases and resources for market research. But actually, we found that most research intranets were a hybrid of these two main types.

NP: Why did you decide to do this particular usability study?

AH: My company had been doing a lot of work on information resources for the Web--design evaluation and usability testing. The work was fascinating but I was limited by how much of these findings I could share with the rest of the information-professional and usability communities. The findings were proprietary and confidential--they belonged to the company, not to me. Some companies were generous and let me share findings in conference presentations, but usually I only had enough time to present part of the picture. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to do a study where you could talk openly about what you found out about intranets and their usability? And then you could really impact usability beyond the company level.'

So that was the origin of the idea. I also thought it would be great to see what different companies were doing with their intranets (intranet designs are usually safely guarded behind a company's firewall. …

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