Configurable Rock Talk

Institution / client name: Plymouth Rock Assurance Co
Project name: RockTalk: Configurable Intranet
Date: Spring, 2003
Role(s): Interaction Design, Technical Architecture, Programming

The configurable intranet home page showing 8 of 9 possible tile spots used. Note the Employee Directory tile top right and the Photo Gallery tile at top center.

One of the configuration screens illustrating how Employee Classified Ads are managed. The "active?" column permits turning the ad on and off without deleting it.

Plymouth Rock Insurance had an existing intranet with a problem – no usage. I was brought in as a consultant and given the task to, “Make more people use it.” Why weren’t more people using the intranet? Analysis showed that the primary reason was because the content was stale. It was never, or virtually never, updated. Why was the content stale? Because no one did any updating. And why was that? Because the update mechanism, while technically robust, was very cumbersome to use and no one bothered.

At the time, the client did not have a staff member who had the job of being a webmaster or content updater. I decided that if the content was going to be updated, I would need to rely on the good graces of several individuals to spend some extra time outside of their primary tasks to do the updating. That meant three things: the process had to be distributed so that many people could share the task, it had to be incredibly simple to do, and it had to take as little time as possible to go through the process.

I created a list of all the types of content that would need to be updated, and traced each piece of content back to the staff member who generated or first encountered it in electronic form. I asked each one if they would be willing to spend 5 to 10 minutes per week to update the site. I asked the person who was responsible for sending out press releases if she would mind updating the press-release section since all the releases crossed her desk in electronic form already. I asked the HR department to enter a new employee’s name and department in the staff directory. I asked the people who assigned email accounts to add a step to their process in which they would add the email address to the staff directory. I asked the man who assigned telephone numbers to enter those into the database, and I asked the man who took electronic photos of new staff to put a copy of the photo in a common place where someone else could scale and crop it and upload it to the database.

In the process of asking for help, I got a lot of stories about previous attempts to do similar things. Some people said, “I’ll do it, but they won’t.” Ultimately I got bye-in from everyone, and I took note of where breakdowns in the system occurred before so I could avoid them.

In this way, the original task of “make more people use it” transformed into “create a business process for distributed updating of the web site and a simple-to-use tool to allow individual staff members to do the updating in 5 to 10 minutes per week.

Once I translated the original charter into an action statement, I set about standard design techniques. The client asked that I not take up staff time for design, brainstorming, or other types of activities other than the occasional short conversation. I did avail myself of these conversations and started them by asking, “what would make you go to the intranet more.” It became apparent that the one feature that most people wanted was an online staff directory. I developed the remainder of the detailed design using cognitive walkthrough, heuristic evaluation, and other design techniques.

In the spirit of making the content less stale, I also added a feature that would allow someone to easily choose what kind of content should be placed on the home page. I divided the home page up into 9 slots in which any predefined content “tile” could be placed. There’s a tile defined for a news story, an announcement, and a press release. There are special tiles that allow for staff directory lookup, a rotating picture gallery, and a business results chart which could be put on screen every quarter to show the staff how the numbers look.

The project was a smashing success. The staff who had the task of updating the site did so. The content became more dynamic. And daily hits went up from 10 or so per day ultimately to about 1000 per day. An analysis of the hits revealed that about 50% of the use was on the directory page. The next highest percentage use was around 10% for internal job postings – apparently because staff got hiring bonuses for referring friends.

The project went so well, that I was called back to expand the scope of the intranet to include all 8 business subsidiaries.

Portion of configuration screen for entering new employee. Note "upload" button for pictures and pull-down list, dynamically created of existing departments.

phone: 617-697-7527 — e-mail: — ©2007, 2008, 2009 Ben Dubrovsky