Launching the University’s first intranet has thrown up some interesting challenges, says Intranet manager Steve Wright.
Two weeks ago, we released a beta version of a new intranet for staff and postgraduate researchers. We’ve designed with mobile devices in mind, applied content design best practice, and met accessibility standards.
So far, so commonplace you might say. But it’s been an unusual project for quite a few reasons.
First, it’s totally new. Surprisingly (and it was a big surprise to me when I started here in July 2018), the University hasn’t had a global intranet before. Internal-facing content and information has historically been stored at the local level: on faculty, school or division sites.
That has sometimes raised the sort of duplicate, outdated, siloed content issues you might expect. It’s also sometimes meant content intended for staff being added to the University’s external-facing website, for want of somewhere else to put it. That can lead to a confusing experience for users of bristol.ac.uk. That’s an audience that has very different needs and objectives to our internal one.
So launching a new intranet has also meant trying to change the organisation’s culture. We need to help both content publishers and staff acclimatise to a new way of making information available. Which, like the product itself, is still a work in progress.
How we’re doing it
We’ve taken an approach to digital development which is new – albeit not entirely new – to this organisation. We’ve done it using agile principles, with a multidisciplinary team working closely together. A product manager (me) owns the vision and the roadmap.
The important thing here has been making user needs the key driver of development activity. We did a lot of upfront work, from surveys to interviews to card-sorting exercises. And launching the beta product as early as we could (after about seven months of work) is an extension of that. It provides the feedback loop we need to keep iterating and improving it.
We’re doing this in as transparent a way as possible: our roadmap of short, medium and long-term priorities is available for all staff to feed back on.
Because it’s a new product, built with a new way of working, we’ve had to do a lot of explaining ourselves. What we’ve done on the “campaign trail” of stakeholder engagement has been just as important as what we’ve built in our sprints.
DIY or off the shelf
As the University has invested in Microsoft Office 365, we’re restricted in our choice of tech platform. And while a few years ago the idea of doing anything user-centric with SharePoint would be enough to give anyone heart palpitations, modern SharePoint is a different beast.
Although SharePoint is still far from perfect, Microsoft is actively and rapidly improving it. For us, this has meant lots of decisions about when to stick close to out-of-the-box elements, and when to build something custom. Each of these decisions comes with its own set of trade-offs.
Shopping off the shelf can mean something doesn’t quite match our requirements. Doing it ourselves can risk being left with something broken or in need of productivity-sucking maintenance when Microsoft makes a change.
Which means that while the first thing I do in the morning is make a cup of tea, the second is check the public roadmap for Office 365.
While we’re only two weeks post-launch, initial signs are positive. We’re getting good quality feedback, which will be integral to deciding what we prioritise next.
There’s a long way to go though. This beta product is the first step towards transforming the University’s internal-facing digital ecosystem. We aim to do that before the end of 2020. As part of it, we’ll be addressing all the content and information siloes I mentioned earlier. Not to mention retiring some legacy systems that are even older than our current first-year undergraduates.
But that’s definitely a story for a future blog post.