5 books intranent managers should read (that are nothing to do with intranets)

July 17, 2009

I was in full intranet governance mode, reviewing the articles written by a publisher. “Hmm,” I said. “You’ve not really optimised your writing for the web, I recommend reading some articles by Jakob Nielsen” . “The structure of these articles aren’t really user-centric either, have a look at the book ‘Information Architecture‘ “. “Oh and I have some concerns about the use of graphics, try reading Krug’s ‘Don’t make me think‘ “.

At that point my wife interrupted me. “Firstly,” she interjected in a world weary tone, “It’s not an intranet site, it’s our child’s school diary”. “Secondly, he’s only seven and doesn’t really need to read a book on Information Architecture”.

I considered pointing out she hadn’t covered the weakness of the graphics, the textual element of the page seemed to mainly be about playing a Nintendo and having pizza for tea, yet the graphic showed a child on a bike. Quite a good graphic actually, but not obviously relevant. It didn’t even have a suitable alt attribute. I let it go though, I know that look they were both giving me.

Recommending books and web sites about best practice for web sites is all well and good, but the range of good books is quite small, this set me thinking that there are lots to learn for other disciplines, so here is my five books that have nothing to do with intranets that contain useful lessons.

1. Getting Things Done – David Allen

getting_things_done240x150What it’s about: Personal productivity book, helps you keep on top of the information flow.

Why it’s a good read: Its fun to read, especially the early chapters where he lays out the concepts. One of the main concepts is to get things out of your head and into a ‘container’ you can rely on.

Why it’s useful to intranet managers: Aside from the need to get organised, its a great insight into what we can do to help other people. It reminds us that an intranet manager’s job is basically providing safe containers.

 2. Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

bad_science240x150What it’s about: It’s a collection of articles about science journalism

Why it’s a good read: It’s fun to read. Witty, amusing and insightful reports of where the press (and others) mis-represent science.

Why it’s useful to intranet managers: You need a powerful BS detector, and Goldacre is one of the best. We all know the ‘power of story telling’ and it’s powerful indeed, but if we are ever tempted to take one anecdote and extrapolate that to a general rule of behavior, then this book will innoculate you.

3. Screen Burn – Charlie Brooker

screen_burn240x150What it’s about: A collection of TV show reviews.

Why it’s a good read: It’s fun to read. Brooker is vicious, and his near apoplectic rants on vacuous inanities served up as entertainment is compelling. Absouslutely drills right into the heart of why so much TV is rubbish.

Why it’s useful to intranet managers: If you’ve ever been tempted to add a flash intro screen, you know – “to make a site more interesting” then reading Brooker will innoculate you.

 4. Mind Hacks – Tom Stafford and Matt Web

mind_hacks240x150What it’s about: A collection of illusions, tricks and brain games

Why it’s a good read: It’s fun to read. Full of ‘well I never’ moments when you see explanations of how the brain really works.

Why it’s useful to intranet managers: Perhaps a serious academic work on the psychology of perception would be more appropriate, but that’s going to be boring.  Understanding how a user actually views a screen, and that might not work the way you think it does helps you look at an intranet page and see the problems on it.

5. Irrationality – Stuart Sutherland

irrationality240x150What it’s about: A collection of mass psychology experiments

Why it’s a good read: It’s fun to read. Again, it a book that says, don’t assume people behave logically or systematically.

Why it’s useful to intranet managers: People don’t behave rationally or predictably. This book shows this, and you’ll never be tempted to simply clone a good idea from another context and expect it to work. What you want to find out is actual behaviour – and you get that from observing.

 Anyone got anymore recommendations, the less obvious the better – any fiction that folks should read (1984? grin).


User generated multimedia in the intranet

July 14, 2009

This post discusses the best way to encourage as many people as possible to share video files inside an intranet. We can discuss if that’s a good goal another time, let’s take it as a given.

So, what techniques can intranet managers use to encourage people to make ‘good videos’ (assuming we can define good)? What barriers do we have to deal with and what platforms do we have to sort out to get best business benefit from that effort?

Phew, A lot to cover, it’s no wonder I haven’t posted for months. To make up for it this will be a mammoth posting. Sorry about breaking my own rule about keeping these things short.

So… here’s what I think, though to be honest there’s a lot changing in this space…

Sigh, just when we’ve worked out how to write and organise text on the intranet along comes another challenge.

It was bad enough trying to get people to stop going overboard with eye candy graphics or at least write sensible alt attributes for them, then we encouraged user generated text contributions to blogs and wikis and had to re-examine how we encouraged ‘write for the web’ thinking. Encouraging ‘video creation for the web’ is going to be tough. We don’t really have an equivalent of Jakob Nielsen’s ‘write for the web‘ articles as a foundation.

Video in the intranet

No matter what kind of video is being produced, the golden rule should be ‘make it short’ and if you can’t do that, break it up into short bits. The reason for this is that video is a terrible format for indexing and searching, there are ways around this, but typically they aren’t used. A 40 minute video may be a good introduction to a topic and a viewer would start at the beginning and watch it all the way through if all the material was new to them. Otherwise they’ll want to skip about.

Imagine a few months after watching a video, a viewer wants to be reminded of a particular segment. It will be a pain to find the part they want. A collection of small, well labelled segments is much better. It’s also easy to associate searchable text with each segment.

Types of Video

I’ve broken these into three main types, though of course they can be mixed and you could probably find a few others such as stop motion puppets, computer graphics, etc.

Talking Head

By talking head I mean a shot of someone talking, it may be sitting at a desk or giving a lecture. There is a lot of skill required in recording someone: how to frame the shot, setting up the lighting, the angles you film with, when you should cut away, move the camera, etc. Generally all this stuff is called “Film Grammar“. Unfortunately, a lot of very skilled people have been working on cinematography for a long time. I say unfortunately because everyone is familiar with the work they’ve done – movies, or TV shows. We may not be able to say why the camera work is professional, but we all know what professional looks like.

And don’t be fooled by shaky camera phone clips on you tube to think that unprofessional video is acceptable, we all know if its film of a cat on a skateboard, or a monkey being tickled  then its OK to look home made, An important message from a senior manager shouldn’t look like his/her kids were filming it by accident to send to You’ve Been Framed.

So if you are going to film people don’t try to be ambitious until you have a lot of skill. A short, single, static camera shot in a fairly informal setting might work. Any more than that and you should get some professional support. It’s generally not a good way of sharing a lot of knowledge but it’s nice to see folks.

(First pointless musical interlude)

Obvious to pick this track – it was one of my early favourites from the band, loved seeing them live too.

However this is about user generated video, if I’m suggesting that video of people is of limited use what else is there?


Screencasts are simply a user recording their computer, talking as they do so. It’s very cheap and easy to do – and it can contain very useful information – users of a particular system explaining its features to each other for instance. 

The levels of professionalism can fairly low, people understand it is user to user and won’t mind the occasional umms and errs, Again the rule is keep it short and focus on specific defined topics. In my opinion screencasting is the great untapped resource for enterprises.

Live meeting / webex  / gotomeeting recording.

I guess this is just a special type of screencast, though usually the recording is of someone running through a slidepack, rather than using a system. The production costs are minimal since the presentation was probably happening anyway. The quality might be ropey but that’s not too important. Again, to maximise the benefit and the long term use, splitting it up into topics and labelling them as such is a good practice.

File formats

Here’s is my advice, if you get invited to in a discussion about the best file format (codec) for creating and publishing video on the intranet, make your excuses and run away in the opposite direction. It’s not a decision that has a perfect answer and you’ll just get bogged down.

Flash Video  is probably the best compromise – particularly for talking head video, but you’ll have to do a bit of work getting players embedded into other web platforms and most windows PCs in an enterprise can’t play those files from a desktop (though you can get players).

However some systems (such as live meeting) may not produce this format, and conversion from one format to another can drastically reduce the quality (which is a disaster for screencasts) Much as I hate to say it – (it’s a closed format with poor quality / portability), but Windows Media Video (wmv files) has the best support for creator tools and (typical enterprise) desktop viewer support.

In a few years time I hope the support for HTML5 and theora video makes this a no brainer. But we aren’t there yet.

End user tools

I mentioned creator tools. For video there’s such a range of hardware that’s its tricky to make any comments on standardisation. Whatever comes with the camera I guess.

For screencasts there are a few good free tools, might be tricky to get this past the IT department though.

For flash there is Wink its a nice easy to use tool that does good quality, it outputs to SWF so you’ll have some hosting problems and you might need a Shockwave player container for your CMS.

For AVI / WMV there is Camstudio which is a very simple way to make recordings, but setting up the codec is a pain, my advice is to record a temporary file at highest quality (minimum compression) settings and then process the files with a file processing program like virtualdub or mediacoder

There’s also a few online conversion tools like zamzar but it might not be suitable to send some of  intranet content out past the firewall.

Microsoft labs have a screen recorder called Community Clips,  it works very nicely with office applications, is a breeze to setup and use and produces OK (but not great) quality files of a reasonable size.

For editing or ‘post production’ most PCs have a copy of a thing called Movie Maker  on them, often without a link in the menu, but it’s still there on XP and vista PCs (windows 7 won’t include it). It’s… well it’s rubbish to be honest, but it’s free and can be useful for splitting a file up into chunks.

The important thing here is that to encourage people to add video to your intranet they need the tools to do so. If there are restrictions on what software your people can use, the intranet manager needs to solve that problem and get the IT guys to allow these tools to be used. Professionals can write the business cases to get expensive video editing tools like Camtasia or Adobe Premiere, but this is for occasional, volunteer contributions.

(second pointless musical interlude)

I inculded that for no obvious reason, but I recently saw Dean from Luna do a show which I liked a lot.

How to publish video

Most readers will probably be wondering when I’m going to mention Youtube.

Youtube is a terrible model to emulate on an intranet and even if you emulate it you can’t sit back and expect your YouTube clone to change user behaviour or your company’s culture.

As place to dump files, a YouTube model is OK, but you will find it very difficult, if not impossible to get the critical mass of contributors or viewers this way.

The difference between You Tube in the outside world and a ‘YouTube alike’ in an intranet is that you want to share knowledge, not (just) entertain each other. If you’re bored you might go look around Youtube, and send your mates something funny you find, but you are unlikely to rummage around an internal one as most of the videos will not be all that interesting. The place you want to see a video is where you are actually doing your work, a video showing a feature on a system will work best the closer it is shown to that system. You can have a Youtube clone if you like, but don’t think of it as a destination, make sure it is open and the content on it can be repositioned and shared with the rest of the intranet. The key to success of video is getting it into your existing pages and systems. You might want to think about building video viewers for your CMS for instance.

Alternative publishing models.

I’ve been looking for alternative publishing models of user generated video that would support better business benefit. One style I think has a lot of merit is that on the mathtv.com site. This is lots of small useful clips, the site is extendable and maintainable, and people can find the exact thing they are looking for. I don’t much care for the actual style of the site, but with some tweaks it could turn out to be a platform for, say, a system’s FAQ / tutorial section. Teams using the system could add their own little tips.

I’d be really interested if anyone knows of other video based sites that have designs that would work better for intranet video, please leave a comment if you know of any.

Language is a virus (from outer space)

September 18, 2008

Hey – still not posting often enough, sorry… Anyway – here’s a little off-the-wall musing (do I ever do any other type of musing?)…

Techniques for “Writing for the web” are long established and well proven.

It’s not hard to do and a few points cover it: write short paragraphs with key words at the beginning of them, use headers and bullet point lists, avoid jargon, abbreviations, hyperbole and buzzwords… that’s about it.

It’s also our most frequently ignored best practice intranet guideline. Everyone thinks they know how to write, and ‘communicators’ seem to be unwilling to change their writing to adapt to the medium of the web – so they write with a style that assumes you are reading on paper, or a glossy brochure.

On our intranet we’ve got very well written guidelines about web writing. Most intranets do.

So why do – otherwise competent – writers not write well? I think the style guide is competing against something more pervasive, the house style is defined by a long tradition of previous writing – something can’t be important if it doesn’t have the whiff of officialese, if it doesn’t feel like previous writings. Bad writing is infectious.

Ironically some of the best writing in our intranet is emerging from social media, from less trained writers. Social media doesn’t encourage such a formal style and it doesn’t have the weight of history. But writing style is still infectious and the style adopted in a social media will spread. It’s best to make sure the good kind of writing spreads, so I suggest one of the first things to add to a wiki is a writing style guide. You may not ‘infect’ all the contributors, but you’ve set the tone and enabled the wiki gardners to do their work.


Its been a while since I did a quiz, so here’s a new one:


It’s about voices overs and so kind of fits with the theme about applying the right style to the context. Comments always welcome on the quizzes, so boast about your high scores in the comment box.

Pop music

My music choice for this post is from Laurie Anderson, indeed, the idea of describing web writing as a communicable disease comes from her song that gives this posting it’s title. I love Laurie Anderson, her Big Science album especially, but if you get the chance to see her you should do so, her performance at the Glasgow Concert hall (mid 90s? ) was one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

Sometime the you tube embed doesn’t work so here’s a link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FeyGTmw0I0

Intranets: 1995 vs 2008

August 12, 2008

Apologies for not writing this for a while, I spent a few weeks on hoiday in Ardersier near Inverness.

As a short, I’m back posting I think I’ll go back to the beginning of intranets. It would seem that “intranets” as a term first starts to be used around 1995, in an article by Steven Lawton.

That 1995 article is a fascinating snapshot of how people thought about information, the people being interviewed talk about making things available – rather than allowing everybody to make things available to each other. The 1995 intranet has a gatekeeper publishing model.

I’ve had a few discussions lately that make me think that this concept is still there. intranets are things other people go away and do. That won’t be true for much longer. Actually the thing that is puzzling me is why it is still partly true.

It’s not because people don’t want to take part – nor that companies don’t trust their people, but that we haven’t worked out how to get the best out of a decentralised model, that loose, ‘free for all’ publishing is still quite a poor experience for consumers of that knowledge.

The 1995 intranets were based on 1995 internet, within a few years we learned that there were differences, that we needed to think about governance and user satisfaction quite differently and do different things, the 2008 intranet is now  trying to use models from the 2004-8 internet of social media, user generated content and to do it successfully we need to learn again how that works – but remember 1995, it isn’t a lift and shift.

Anyway, just a quick thought to share, I will get back into the swing of this blog and write something more interesting soon – I must do a quiz too.

For pop music link here is something from 1995..

Hmm, My favourite tune from 1995 was Long Fin Killie’s, ‘Head of Dead Surfers’ but its not on You Tube (though their fine – but not as good – ‘Hollywood Gem‘ is) I also loved Spare Snare‘s ‘Bugs’ but the only You Tube version is a camera phone recording, so here’s Spare Snare doing something else.

Content, the once and future king

June 12, 2008

A few years ago (or several hundred in internet time) there was a saying that “content was king”.

The phrase was used in discussions during the web 1.0 boom where to get market share more and more sites were using eye-candy rather than optimising the content (Boo.com is the poster child for this). I think history shows that indeed content was king.

A recurring theme of current commentators is that ‘collaboration is king’, google the phrase to find it popping up all over the place.

It’s a misleading phrase though, setting up collaboration in opposition to content (there is only one king!)  misses what is the most valuable aspect of collaboration; it produces better content. That’s certainly true about sites where the collaboration is the content – such as focused social networking sites like Ravelry, or  many wiki’s.

Which leads to looking at the collabaration process from the other side, not how many people are taking part, but how good is the content that it produces? We’ve got a decade’s worth of research that tell us how to assess how good content is, we should apply those techniques to collaboration sites and it will tell us how good the engagement / collaboration is. By that standard, I still say Ravelry is the social media site with all the answers.

The usual, rather sketchy, pop music analogy.

Collaborations between musicians seems to fall into two camps, amazing and terrible. As with websites it’s the outcome (the “content”) that defines how well the collaboration worked. This collaboration is, um, not likely to be an anybody’s list of easy listening favourites. (I did initially look for Bonnie Prince Billy’s brilliant collaboration with Shooglenifty, but its not on Youtube), so here’s Sonic Youth and Lydia lunch making a terrifying racket.

Update: for some reason the video isn’t working, here’s the URL http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abFsnnsa_6A


Partnerships quiz

May 19, 2008

New quiz, can you name the celebrity partners?

Partners quiz

I had been thinking of using this quiz as part of a discussion about partnerships within an organisation, what is the responsibility of the IT department, what should comms people do and how does it all work together, especially for things like social media.

I’ll do that another day maybe, because I wanted to mention a strange phenomenon. As I’ve said in previous postings, I’m playing about with on line quizzes to examine issues on engagement and content creation, my reasoning was that there are valuable lessons for all types of publishers when considering what makes a quiz work well.

But its been very difficult to get folks to talk about the ‘meta’ discussion of the quiz, because a quiz has such a strongly defined objective , people have focused on that. My conversations go a bit like this:

  • me: Do you think the way I’ve laid out the questions and answers is optimum?
  • you: Um, I dunno, I didn’t get question seven right.
  • me: Erm, yes, what about where I put the ‘next question’ link?
  • you: And question five, I was sure it was ‘cheese’ but it wasn’t.

What this most reminds me is the difficulty with discussing designs in general, when you are trying to decide on the most effective information architecture, don’t ask other people what they think, you’ll just get a discussion on how the site looks.

Anyway, hope you like the quiz, feel free to discuss either the design or how you got on with the questions, these are just for fun after all. Speaking of fun, of the three quizzes I’ve done

The crooners one has been by far the most popular, getting more page hits than the blog post that linked to it, I think the url must be travelling the internet in emails (guessing from the referring links in the logs) Which is nice. I didn’t think of the quizzes as independant things (I put no contact details in them for feedback), there is probably a lesson there too. 

Pop Music link

Well, folks that know me must have guessed I would eventually do this one – a song I love so much I named my child after it. Being a duet it fits the partnership theme too. One day I’d like to be as cool as Lee Hazelwood.


The Style Council

May 13, 2008

governanceI’ve been thinking quite a bit more about my “governance of the crowd” idea.

I think I differ from most folks who comment on this because I still think social media needs governance. Governance is wrongly perceived as a device to slow down and limit something. We seem to have forgotten why governance became an important issue in the enterprise, it was needed because the free for all that characterised intranets in the late 90s was not efficient and various problems of duplicated, abandoned, orphaned, contradictory, or just badly written sites proliferated.

It may have a radically different publishing model, but we can still judge a wiki in the same way we judge any other web site – is it providing me with the info I need.

But it’s a barrier to entry to force people to go through all the training needed to become a web writing expert, and people are too busy with their day jobs to do it anyway. Much as I would like to, we can’t make everybody read Jakob Neilsen – this isn’t to say that Jakob is usually spot on with what he says.

There is a good model about how this can work already, wikipedia, but most commentators focus in on the amount of content contributors and fail to notice wikipedia has a very well defined set of standards and a good mechanism for allowing the users to flag pages that don’t meet this standards.

The standards can be arbitrary as long as they are consistent. There is no right answer to what font to use on a web page, but picking one and getting everybody to use it helps with the consistency.

With that in mind, here is a quiz on the small details of style.

do it with style quiz

A couple of the answers folks might disagree with (and if you do so, thats what blog comments are for!) the point is its a style guide (in quiz form) that most folks can understand.

And – not to be obvious or anything, but todays pop music link is Paul Wellers post Jam group The Style Council

Now rather overlooked, and often willfully, annoyingly mannered they did some cracking tunes (and a lot of dross). The best tune they did was this one, a stomping Curtis Mayfield homage to breaking down barriers.