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Bringing Responsive Design to the Intranet
- November/December 2013 Issue Posted Nov 1, 2013 Print Version  
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Responsive design certainly works on the internet, providing a pleasing viewing experience for a website's visitors. It enables site visitors to view and navigate a website clearly and with ease, regardless of the type of device they want to use to access the features of that site.

With responsive design, a website will look as good to a user sitting at a desktop as it does to someone accessing that same site via a smartphone or tablet. Many site visitors are mobile, and companies must recognize the need to cater to the desires and habits of their various stakeholders, from customers to clients-anyone who expects to receive value and insight from that site.

While responsive design has become a key component of an external web strategy, companies must begin to recognize that a similar strategy should be implemented with internal web capabilities. Organizations need to begin to take a closer look at how responsive design can help some other important stakeholders: employees. This involves exploring how responsive design is an effective strategy for organizations' intranets and then implementing such a strategy.

"The value of the intranet is about connecting people to other people and information wherever they are so they can make decisions faster," says Andrew Dixon, senior vice president at Igloo Software, a social business software provider.

The value of responsive design on the intranet is that it makes it easier for people to connect to each other and company-specific information on any electronic device.

Mobility, Engagement Causing Strategy Shift

Why is responsive design on the intranet so important these days? One main reason is simply that the workforce is more mobile, so employees must be able to receive crucial company information whenever and wherever they need to access that data.

Gone are the days when employees spent every minute of their workday in their office, at their desk, using their company's IT-department-issued desktop computer. Employees are, in many cases, using their own devices, from smartphones to tablets. "The current intranet solution isn't a fit for that changing workplace," says Dixon. "In many cases, it may not be available outside the firewall. So what do you do when you want to interact when you're at home or want to connect from a hotel room?"

Responsive design on the intranet ensures connectivity regardless of location and the device employees want to use to access their company's intranet. Both Dixon and Bryan House, vice president of product marketing for Acquia, a provider of open source software, refer to a BYOD world that is leading the charge of responsive design on the intranet; a work culture in which employees purchase and use their own electronic devices means companies need an effective and efficient way in which to connect those employees and their devices. "They're looking for the simplest solution ... responsive is simple," says House.

Efficiency Among the Key Benefits

"A major benefit of responsive design is [centered] around efficiency and reducing maintenance and content creation across channels," says Mike Stutman, senior vice president of strategy for Primacy, a digital agency that guides clients on their digital strategies. "Intranets generally take a back seat to the public-facing digital presence," Stutman notes, having less monetary resources, and are less likely to be redesigned. "But," he continues, "they are getting a lot of use and are adding a lot of business value. From an efficiency standpoint, you need a nimble solution for intranets. Responsive design can help deliver on that."

When you try to fit content meant for a traditional desktop computer display on a smartphone-sized screen, it just doesn't work. Content shrinks and is practically unusable.

There are a couple of different ways to address this issue. One is to configure different types of applications for every device you have-which isn't very efficient, as Dixon points out. "Or," he adds, "you can have a smart design that is responsive. [A smart design] essentially uses media queries to understand what kind of device it's running on, the dimensions of the screen, and it intelligently lays out the user interface so that it maximizes the use of that real estate."

Creating a responsive site also simplifies the creation of the intranet. Companies don't have to create separate apps that work on different devices. One responsive site will work regardless of what device an employee uses to access a company's intranet. "By default, how responsive design works is that you get every single page in all formats," explains Jordan Wilson, associate director of creative technology for Primacy. "Responsive design is a solution. It's not a technology. It's an approach. It's about taking a layout and redisplaying that layout in multiple different ways for different audiences."

House points to an intranet the company built for a large telecommunications client. This intranet was accessed by 50,000 users. "They built their presentation layer of their web application for their intranet from responsive from the beginning," says House. "From their perspective, they took a responsive approach and said, ‘We're going to build one application [and] have a dynamic presentation layer rather than trying to create a unique app approach.'"

A generic app lacks customization and can deter employees from using it. "If you have a generic mobile app that doesn't have your color scheme and doesn't have your brand reflected as a part of it, it's less likely your employees are going to engage with that and use it than if you can design a custom community exactly like your brand, that is laid out exactly the way your company works, and have that appear on whatever device," explains Dixon. "That is another reason why you would use a customized mobile web experience versus a generic mobile app."

How It Functions, What It Looks Like

When designing your intranet with responsive design, you have to think beyond the regular 16x9, 20-inch display, notes Dixon. You have to think mobile and think smaller.

"It's less about what it looks like and more about how it functions," says Wilson. "By how it functions [I mean], it would be simplified. You really can't cram everything you've been doing on the desktop into a mobile interface." As Wilson puts it, "You really need to think mobile first. When you design something, start with the mobile and build out from there. Because you only have so much real estate, you start to prioritize things very quickly."

Igloo Software offers a cloud-based solution that enables users to connect via any device as long as they have a web browser. Explaining that navigation is a tray button that smartphone users are accustomed to using, Dixon says the cloud becomes a drop-down menu from which users can select an area of the intranet they wish to visit. Dixon stresses that the drop-down menus use "readable" fonts, not fonts that are "shrunken-down" versions of the original.

Instead of a traditional, three-column-wide display, content is displayed in a single column. "We don't shrink all the content. We stack it," says Dixon. That way, a user can access all of those items. Dixon says that Igloo also provides a lower-resolution PDF so the document will download more quickly on the mobile device.

If you can create an intranet that is easy to navigate, employees will use it. That's the main objective companies are working to accomplish with these internal-
facing applications. "Success on the intranet is engagement," says House. "If it doesn't have an intuitive, engaging experience and is not easy-to-use on any device, people aren't going to use it."

A Work in Progress

When building your intranet with responsive design, it's best to start small and go from there, House suggests. "There are so many stakeholders. There are so many people who have opinions," he says. "It's so easy to have the end result be a victim of group think and trying to please everybody. If you can prototype and try to come up with something easy and go for the experience and focus on the experience rather than getting everything in there, you'll find the pattern users are going to follow to get that information."

House adds that starting small enables companies to limit cost exposure and reduce risks. "Treat this as an opportunity to test ideas and test new thinking and engage your employees in a way that gets their input and gets them involved in the process, and you can ensure the work is worthwhile," he says.

With anything mobile-related (and not tethered to a company's servers), there are always security concerns. Since intranets are filled with company-specific, proprietary information, should companies be concerned that the flexibility and convenience afforded by responsive design will be undermined by possible security threats?

"Whenever you're dealing with confidential company information, you have to be thoughtful in defining your permissions and policies," says House. "Organizations have enough maturity working with web applications and with the cloud that I don't think there's any fundamentally new or different security than what they're dealing with on a day-to-day basis."

Responsive design enables organizations to tailor intranets to provide an optimal viewing experience on the desktop as well as on mobile devices.

By using responsive design, intranet users can easily communicate with colleagues via mobile devices. Buttons provide streamlined access to areas within the intranet they need to view.

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