Know thy user: The pitfalls of assuming you know your users

by Carmine Porco — First off, intranet managers must come to the realization that their organizations’ employees are in fact their clients. To assume otherwise is to assure failure. Like any client, the organization must understand their constituency by asking them what their problems are, propose solutions, monitor their progress, ask for feedback and continually care and nurture them.
In many of the organizations that we work with, we continually hear the phrase, “we know what our users want”. Upon further questioning on how, the responses often include:
  • “We get e-mail.”
  • “People talk.”
  • “The annual employee satisfaction survey told us.”
Although it is true that many of these mechanisms will supply some feedback, it is definitely not enough. An intranet manager must engage his or her clients (employees) to ensure he or she understands their needs.
Here are some of the more common mistakes we typically see:
  • Assuming: Organizations assume they know their users through non-formal mechanisms or little or no research
  • Quantity: Not sampling enough users; only asking feedback from the Communications or H.R. department
  • Quality: Not sampling enough diversity; only asking for feedback from head office and not from other offices or plants, for example
  • Copying the Jones’: Using Microsoft’s or Cisco’s intranet as a template, whereas the requirements for your client may be completely different
  • The Ostrich Principle: The old head-in-the-sand; “We don’t want to know how bad the present site is, we know it’s bad and they will criticize it.”
  • Fear of feedback: “They will ask for too much and we won’t be able to deliver.”
Many of these mistakes are easily overcome by a simple and effective research plan. Numerous tools and mechanisms can be utilized such as interviews, surveys and focus groups. Check out my colleague's article:
“Gut instincts vs. data – What would you rather present to get intranet buy-in?”

Or refer to Toby Ward’s table for selecting the right research tool:
It’s a fact of business, unless you have formal research training and know how to objectively research your own clients (it’s virtually impossible to be objective about your own subject matter) you must spend the appropriate time and money on gathering user requirements. Consider hiring an objective third party; they will have unbiased opinions and recommendations and they can minimize internal politics.
Building the requirements will make your product that much better.Once you have gathered your requirements and you are sure you have captured the essence of what your clients want, ask them again to avoid the “I know that’s what I asked for, but actually this is what I want”. Requirements change and always will, scope creep is inevitable, but by re-confirming with your clients through focus groups and steering committees you can lessen this risk.
If you spend more on understanding the needs and requirements of your target audience, you will spend less on technology (and reconfiguring and redesigning) in the long run. Throwing technology at a bad solution or process, as we all know, will not solve the problem. Let your clients tell you what they need and don’t assume.

About the author:
Carmine Porco is an Internet and intranet consultant and the GM of Prescient Digital Media. He has worked with and improved several client intranets including BC Lottery Corp, KAO Brands, Manulife Financial, Royal Bank, and others. Contact Carmine to help improve your intranet.