What five metronomes, two soda cans and a piece of wood can teach us about intranets.

May 3, 2008

I really liked this video – there’s something very satisfying about watching something self organise. (spotted on the music thing blog).

For things to work well together you need a framework that loosely connects each part, the framework needs some flexibility: the cans move slightly because of the average of the metronome movement, and it’s that framework movement that syncs them all.

I’ve often said here that the web 2.0 promoters are usually wrong when they say social media self organises, because the overlook the framework, the metronomes won’t sync if there is no connection, no framework.

However neither will a rigid connection work, which reflects the style of governance that dominates intranets (and seems to be enshrined in the increasingly old fashioned looking BSI standard PAS 124).

I’m going to avoid calling the equivalent intranet syncing “governance”, and say its a framework – though it is a governance, the “governance of the crowd” and it needs to be in place (note, I was so pleased with that last phrase I googled it, as far as I can tell nobody else has used it yet!).

More on what I mean by this framework, how it works and what an intranet manager should do about it another time. meanwhile… enjoy the clicking..

The Crooners quiz

April 22, 2008

The Shakespeare quiz had 14 people complete it. However over 30 people looked at the front page…. was it too intimidating?  Highest score was 7.

Well I’m enjoying doing them so here’s another:

The Crooner Quiz

I’ll get back to posting articles about pop music and intranets soon. But I think there is an interesting lesson about return of investment here.

The concept that got me thinking about quizzes was the puzzle about the time it takes to create content versus how much it engages people, what’s the best effort to value ratio?

If I just wrote a bunch of stuff about 40s crooners in text it would have a low creation cost, it would be fine for reference – but it wouldn’t really engage anybody, if I made a multimedia extravaganza it could take days and days – and that would be for each time I did it.

I recorded roughly how I wrote this one.

5:45 Decide to do a new quiz, argue with my wife for ten minutes about which subject to do, she’s not keen on “mid 80s industrial post punk”.

5.55 Decide to do “Crooners”. Make a start by reading wikipedia and I cut and paste interesting trivia into a text editor.

6.10 Am reminded its my turn to make the tea.

6.55 Get back to the computer, I edit my snippets into questions, grab some images from wikipedia too.

7.00 Finish draft text version which I show to my wife, she’s doesn’t think Johnny Mathis is a crooner and so I replace him, she thinks we should have a Paul Anka question but I can’t find anything interesting to say about him.

7.10 Pasted all the questions to my quiz edit form and its live.

So by my reckoning that’s 30 minutes writing and less that 10 minutes ‘publishing’ now that I’ve written a quiz editor, and even that was longer than it needed to be because, well, I kept getting distracted with reading other things in wikipedia… did you know it was Bing Crosby’s daughter who shot JR? Plus I had the down time of making the tea, and you can’t really have a ‘is Johnny Mathis a crooner’ debate in less than five minutes…

OK so maybe the crooner quiz isn’t the most interesting thing ever written, but it is quite a good effort to engagement ratio… Well it will be once I write a quiz on something people are interested in.

Let me know how you got on with the quiz in the comments – obviously you can boast about your high scores too.

I was going to add in a you tube video of early 80s Edinburgh teen pop/punk group The Questions, but I can’t find any, they were signed to Paul Wellers record label ‘respond’ and backed Tracy who had a hit with ‘the house that jack built’. Its perhaps just as well I din’t find anything, I have a terrible feeling they weren’t nearly as good as I remember.

Quiz update

April 19, 2008

Just a quickie to mention that I finally got around to doing my quiz, you can read up on why I’m experimenting on quiz design in this previous posting.

Here’s a beta of a Shakespeare one – let me know how you get on.

I’ll be doing these occasionally as part of the blog, hopefully more relevant to something I’m talking about.

I was wanting to embed these into the actual blog posting, like with your tube video, but I can’t work out how – anyone help? (iframes????)

Can intranet managers survive on their good looks alone?

April 8, 2008

In the middle of my posting about the ‘boring’ problem, I suggested that difficulty with boring websites in an intranet was that a common solution was to add in some fancy graphics.

However a more common scenario in a large company intranet is to get the design group, or an external agency designer to put the fancy graphics in first, fill the pages with “placeholder text” and ask for sign off / approval.

Usually the design is in powerpoint slides, or static images in pdf format and the approval often boils down to ‘does the sponsoring department think this looks cool’

That’s a bad way to do things.

How to assess a design properly

The important aspects of a design are (in order)

  • Is it functional and efficient
  • Is it accessible
  • Is it extendable
  • Is it maintainable

None of these features are easy to determine from looking at slideware. Often the people originating the design won’t consider these factors, and we end up with a cool looking site which is difficult to maintain looks shabby and ill-fitting after a few tweaks.

Tenuous pop music reference

For the pop music link, here’s an interesting example. Jobraith was a mid 70s glam performer most famous for being a total failure, launched with a huge publicity campaign, the audience stayed away in droves.

It’s not hard to hear why, but it is a fun video for people fond of 70s kitch.

What ? and the Mysterians can teach us about intranet management

April 1, 2008

Try this pop quiz. Fun wasn’t it? I scored 19. I didn’t know the Status Quo chart hits and had obliterated Pookah Makes Three from my memory.

‘Coffee time’ quizzes are a good way to get people to use, understand and return to a website – and learning what makes a quiz work is a good way of learning about your users, a quiz is a microcosm of the issues that arise from all websites.

You can analyse a quiz in the same way you can analyse a website. Work out what makes a quiz good and you’ve worked out how to make your website visitors happy.

There is the interface: what helps and what gets in the way of the objective (answering the questions)? The Guardian quiz uses radiobuttons, and I’ve seen ones that use pulldowns. Radiobuttons are OK here, pulldowns, not so much, but I think the optimum is that the text of the answer is a clicky.

There is the user satisfaction: It’s very hard to resist the temptation to get in the way and try to inject a little too much learning into each question, use the discipline of minimal space to make the words of the question count.

There is the content creation: Make the questions interesting and thoughtful. The Status Quo question in the Guardian is neither. Just as there is a writing style and a writing tone that works well on web page writing, there is style and tone to most good questions. The style should be helpful, a hint is always welcome as it makes a hard question easier but still feels like answering a hard question!

There is maintenance: People will only do a quiz once. If you are using a quiz to encourage returning users change it frequently, so you need to think about how good your quiz creator is. Maintenance and keeping content fresh is often forgotten in intranet projects.

There is the consistency: for a simple coffee time quiz each question should have the same format, in the Guardian quiz it was a short text question and four answers. Is four the right amount for maximum quiz fun? Meh, I think three is slightly better, and you don’t have so many wrong answers to think up. I hate all those ‘pick three from seven’ or ‘all that apply from ten’. Its too easy to get wrong because of the interface rather than not actually knowing.. and that’s just annoying.

And most importantly, remember why you are doing this. That’s how you asses a website and how you asses if a quiz is good. Usually it’s for coffee time fun, you aren’t awarding a PhD. Just trying to attract people, get them thinking a bit, but you aren’t lecturing to them.

There are quite a lot of online quiz creators, but almost all of them offer too many features and so become over complicated – that’s a shame, I think restricting the format to be as simple as possible makes the quiz author focus on the important issues – good questions.

Here’s another quiz example Questionaut –  it’s great fun (warning! its also a great time waster!) , though I’m not suggesting it’s a model to use, the flash bits make it a maintenance problem.

There are a free open source tools for simple surveys that would make good quiz makers (example) but since the aim is to keep it simple its not a difficult thing to write.

Since none of these actually fitted my needs I currently writting my own and I’ll add in an example here once I get some hosting issues fixed. I’ll follow my own very restricted format and you can all see if my theory that “less is more” when it comes to quizzes holds water.

Please add in to the comments any good quizzes you find on the net and we can all talk about what is good and bad in the format. If you find any good online quiz creator applications – especially ones that would work well embedded on an intranet site, let us all know too.

Tenuous pop music link to this is the all time classic 60s garage band standard 96 tears, it has everything a perfect song needs – the monstrous self pity, the brutally primitive farfisa riff, the strange vocal inflection… y’know it doesn’t get any better than this really, stripped down to the basics, and single-mindedly doing the basics really well, that’s what makes things, be the pop songs or intranets work really well, not the bells and whistles…

What Liquid Liquid can teach us about agile agile intranet management

March 27, 2008

Nope, that’s not a typo, I do mean ‘agile agile’. I’m trying to emphasise that if parts of an intranet are being delivered in an agile manner – be it crowd sourced wiki-style content or applications provided via agile software development – then the intranet manager needs to be agile too. Agile management for an agile delivered intranet.

It sounds like heresy to criticise agile methods, and I want to be clear that its benefits outweigh any disadvantages. But there are disadvantages, this is where your governance can bridge a gap. I’m lumping together applications and User Generated Content (UGC) such as wikis, but that’s because they both suffer from a similar problem, feature creep, lack of direction and an inability to differentiate important tasks from less important tasks for specialised (but highly vocal) segments of the user community.

I’ve seen claims that an agile intranet needs no management, that it is somehow self managing, but that’s not been my experience at all. An agile intranet needs an agile governance.

The ‘G’ word, governance, has an unfortunate air of formal, civil service rigidity, and this may be why ‘agile governance’ is perceived as an oxymoron. It doesn’t have to be.

Agile Governance in an intranet:

  • Is an enabler, not an impediment to innovation.
  • Minimises cost and waste, and maximises business value of the intranet.
  • Ensures that the legal, security, operational requirements are covered of the organisation but not in away that reduces point 1 and 2.

We’re still honing our agile governance standards, it will probably take a while to get them right, but I would expect them to include:

  • No anonymous user provided content
  • All systems / sites have an effective feedback process to a named owner
  • An effective removal process
  • An effective dating process, so that users can be confident of relevance
  • All systems / sites meet accessibility standards (and maybe some minimal usability ones?)

Anyone suggest something I’ve missed? I’ve not included what could be called “best practice” because it is difficult to generalise that, but I think there is probably a need for sharing best practice (e.g. my comments on making wiki’s effective) without making that “governance”. There still needs to be measurement of user success and a drive to reduce end-user failure. 

Neither have I said anything about specific technologies, though standardising on a set of platforms is a good idea in terms of support.  It’s just that I don’t think the issue of really getting benefit from agile / social intranet is about picking a technology.  Here’s a link to a blog post that explains why .

I picked Liquid Liquid as the pop music link because of the double name (I could have also picked Talk Talk or Duran Duran). But I like Liquid Liquid best… very interesting band and it’s a shame they aren’t widely known. They were an exciting collision of garage punk and funk blazing a path that still sounds innovative 25 years later. A mate of mine, Keith, runs a popular club night in Glasgow is named after one of their tracks – Optimo. but the link here is to one of their most influential tracks, you’ll probably recognise snippets from later more popular songs.

What The Thompson Twins can tell us about intranet management

March 18, 2008

…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…