What The Thompson Twins can tell us about intranet management

…or how to cheat when trying to assess stuff from design agencies.

In the late 70s – early 80s, I was living in Edinburgh and was a serious music fan, in between occasional studenting I went to see a lot of bands, maybe 3- 4 every week. Many of them were amazing, local bands like Josef K, Fire Engines, Scars, The Associates, The Visitors, The Freeze… and also touring bands like Joy Division, Magazine, Pop Group, Fad Gadget, Birthday Party, The Cramps… I could go on…

But one thing I noticed is that I was useless at spotting which bands would later have success. I once saw a band called The Young Marble Giants who I thought were just gorgeously life-affirmingly special… a band that never troubled the compilers of books of chart placings. They were supported by a band I thought of as wretched, obvious and talentless; The Thompson Twins, soon to be Smash Hits and TOTP regulars.

I’ve been going to see bands for well over 30 years now and I still can’t spot a winner.

I’m better at spotting good intranet designs, but only because I cheat by having a short mental checklist of things to avoid. All intranet managers should have such a checklist for rejecting things that are probably a bad idea. Quite often you will be asked to judge a site based on sketchy details from a design agency. A pdf of a screenshot or a few pages of ‘greeked’ text so that means you have to cut corners and play the odds.

Here’s another comparison: movies – I’m useless at spotting box office success too – if a movie stars Chuck Norris, it’s a safe bet I won’t like it, my checklist then -my heuristic- is that it’s not a good movie if Chuck is in it. Now maybe I’ll be wrong one time in 100 – and I’m not saying that this tells us anything about that movie’s popularity – but it’s a good rule when there are too many good movies and not enough time.

Here then is my checklist:

  1. Will it be easy if I need to add or remove something?
  2. Is there a page heading about one inch down, one inch in?
  3. If I screw up my eyes so I can hardly see, does it look balanced (define balance how you like).

And that’s it really. There are other things I’ll look for in a finished design, valid HTML, semantic markup, headers in sentence case, alt attributes in images etc, but they can be fixed.

The first point is maintainability. You will have to change that design… A real red flag is Flash used as navigation – I know its possible to do this well, just as theoretically it’s possible that someday Chuck Norris makes a good movie. But the flash navigation sites I’ve seen are usually a maintenance headache and an accessibility nightmare.

The page heading thing is basically to cover what I think of as predictability. Every time you click something the most common thought nearly everyone has is ‘ did I click the right thing’ confirm that (by a page title that explains the page) and you’ve won half the battle.

And the screwed up eye thing, well – not sure what the point is, but it seems to work.

Could I have used a checklist to tell if other people would like a Chuck Norris movie – or indeed the Thompson Twins?

Yes and no, I’ve weeded out the dodgy stuff, but I need to now pick the best stuff. The next thing to do is define a “persona” of a person that likes movies with Chuck Norris in them and work out how typical this persona is to my overall audience. For an intranet site I need to think about what typical users know, what their goals are, what else they use. A lot of this stage is less about overall design and more about arrangement and organisation and content creation. Define your personas, check they are accurate representations of your audience, check your personas can achieve their goals. Oh and don’t give them silly names.

But personas and their users stories aren’t a magic bullet see this discussion (via Phillie Casablanca, esp Kerry’s comment – cheers!) you eventually need real people giving you real information. I mentioned the Thompson Twins, I first saw them as a raggle taggle sub scritti politti band… but a year or so later I saw them again, supporting David Bowie. They still sucked, but I could see the rest of the crowd liked them, they had radically changed into a glossy electro-pop confection, they were getting very good (if you like that sort of thing).

The key point here is they evolved after they launched… I don’t know how difficult it is to work out you need to change if even the 50 or so people who saw you supporting Young Marble Giants one rainy night in Dunfermline, and who look like the sort of people to go see almost anything, still think you suck.  But they did work out they should change, and did. Intranet site ‘hand offs’ happen too quickly too often, the site is launched the same day the development guys finish, but you are going to get the most, and best, user information in the first couple of weeks you launch, especially if you don’t have a public beta have a development period that covers the period after launch. Use that period to improve your site, improve you personas and re-write your user stories.

Summary, in case you can’t be bothered reading all that stuff about CHuck Norris and obscure welsh post punk groups.

  1. Assess design quickly based on maintainability, predictability and the screwed up eye thing.
  2. Define user personas and their associated stories, optimise the site for them.
  3. Get it out there and be prepared to fine tune it often during the post-live launch period.

No chance of a Thompson Twins link – sorry, but here’s the Young Marble Giants.
Despite having little success in their lifetime the were pretty influential, Kurt Cobain liked them a lot and Boards of Canada / Ghost Box owe quite a lot to them. This is ‘Final Day’ the sweetest song ever about the end of the world…

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