Book Review: Designing Intranets by James Robertson

I’ve just posted this review onto Amazon (permalink) and it makes sense to publish it here too.

Book cover of Designing Intranets

A great value distillation of years spent designing and understanding intranets, James Robertson has packed his book with real-world intranet screenshots and experiences.

It’s the kind of book that’s handy to have prominently displayed on your desk or within reach when someone insists their approach is best. The first 50 pages may help correct so many dangerous assumptions, that the book could pay for itself in minutes. That manager over your shoulder might like to ponder why the chapter Developing Page Designs appears almost exactly halfway through the book, and home page design is even further on.

Having helped the reader establish the priorities for the intranet, Robertson introduces a well-tested framework rooted in understanding staff needs. After establishing a brand and strategy, he introduces a user-centred design methodology going through a content inventory, card sorting to “understand how users think”, developing (and then testing) an information architecture, before finally getting onto creating page designs (and then testing them). This is a fleeting introduction to these techniques but, for those readers who require more, Robertson is generous with his recommendations.

Some may be disappointed there is not a universal intranet design that will just work, but here they will find something that genuinely adds value. Experienced designers will find details that illuminate their problems or examples to challenge their assumptions. My largest concern is the book focuses on more traditional intranets, concluding with a few short chapters touching on issues including personalisation/targeting, applications, search, large-scale intranet issues, collaboration and social. The advice remains sound, especially in the context of the book’s advocacy of user-centred design, but that might not be enough for some readers.

With that in mind, I have little hesitation in recommending Designing Intranets. There is something useful to be found on almost any page—whether a principle of good practice, an insight, or one of the many screenshots—to provide great deal of help and context for intranet designers whatever their level of experience.

Step Two Designs: Designing Intranets

[Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from James Robertson]


Pebble, Rock, Stone

This is a blog post that has lived with me for several years, and this version originates from August 2010.

Computing has gone mobile, it has moved over more than half a century from room-filling beasts, through so-called mini computers, to the desktop PC and other static devices, through the laptop and onto the mobile phone.

It couldn’t get any smaller, not without changing the way we connect ourselves to the device, so we have seen the next step with the devices getting bigger. The iPad is not the first tablet, but it will probably remembered as such.

Apple appears to be the winner for now, although we have seen how sales of Android phones have overtaken the iPhone in a way many people did not expect.

Oddly enough, I thought Microsoft had won the game a decade ago when it announced its tablet PC version of Windows XP. While others dismissed the idea out of hand, I thought the concept was exactly what people would want when using a device at home or on the move.

I could picture myself at home, in front of a television, using my tablet for web browsing and for controlling my home theatre. Even then it was easy to imagine being able to combine live television and web on a single large screen, combining digital multi-channels, and really being able to command a complete experience.

So, what have we got, and how can that form the complete experience?

The Pebble
This is your mobile phone, you carry it with you 90%+ of the time. It is a powerful computer in its own right, and behind its cellular phone network are banks of datacentres ready to augment that power whenever you need it. Why do you need anything else?

Of course, data entry is difficult, and you wouldn’t want to watch movies on it. Sometimes you need a lot more on screen than something a few inches across can provide at an acceptable speed.

Therefore you need something a little bigger.

The Stone
This is something you can carry with you most of the time. It might be your tablet, or it might be your laptop. A lot depends on the way you need it to be used – whether always on or for something more precise, for example data entry.

It should pair seamlessly with your phone, perhaps relying on its data connection, or augmenting it, even providing a better aerial.

But your phone can add to this equation too. It can be a secondary display, a handset, a remote control, even a portable keyboard or mouse.

You now have a powerful mobile computing platform, but you aren’t always on the move.

The Rock
This is the most flexible of all three (unless you want a fourth category, the boulder perhaps).

It can be a desktop PC at the office or at home. It could be your television and media centre. It could be something that hasn’t yet been dreamed of.

Immediately you have two secondary displays or input devices (actually we need a name for this kind of device) that can act as remote controls or augment the viewing experience. I for one would love to be able to watch Formula 1 races with the ability to select my own camera views, to move them around the screen or display data of my own choice.

Pebble, Stone, Rock
What is important here is that these devices blend together seamlessly. Once paired, they should just work.

There is no reason that it should be Apple phone, Apple tablet, and Apple TV and not playing well with any other devices. It cannot be beyond the wit of companies that stand to make trillions to work out a series of APIs.

Once upon a time, I dreamed that my lightweight MP3 player could talk wirelessly to a battery-powered hard drive in my bag, and from there to my office and home PCs. That was in the days before 3G communication made the wireless web possible, and before Google and Amazon would deploy for me their cloud computers at a moment’s notice.

From now on, devices should not be isolated. It is pretty dire that Apple could not get iPhone and iPad to play together from day one. If Apple doesn’t lead the way, then Google, or perhaps a few Android/Chrome manufacturers must do so.