How To Test Your Social Intranet’s Usability

One important factor in your social intranet’s success is its usability: how easy it is to use and navigate, how quickly users find what they need, whether it’s intuitive — if users can figure out how things work without needing formal training or a thick how-to manual — and how much fun it is to use.

After all, if your intranet isn’t easy and fun to use, then how do you expect your staff to use it?

The question that’s always on an intranet manager’s mind is: How do I know how usable our intranet is?

Traditional Ways of Assessing Usability

Below are some of the traditional ways of measuring an intranet’s usability, and why they aren’t always very accurate, useful or feasible:


A survey can be done quickly and easily — often using the intranet itself. The problem with surveys is, they can have a limited validity, because we tend to give answers we know are expected of us. Your intranet users may not want to hurt your feelings and tell the truth about how your intranet sucks. Or they may not respond at all.

A survey is also only as good as the questions. You won’t capture insights and observations that you didn’t mean to capture.

Focus Groups

Another traditional way of assessing an intranet’s usability is by organizing focus groups. These are more open-ended and will let you capture many anecdotes and thoughts you may never have expected.

However, focus groups are time consuming. And if your users are spread over different locations, they can be really expensive to organize.

It’s also easy for focus group participants to influence each other’s responses, leading to unreliable results.

Third Party Assessment

You could also hire an external party to come and test your intranet’s usability. An external person or group will have the objectivity to look at your intranet without biases. They may also have the benefit of seeing what works in other organizations.

On the downside, this option is expensive. Consultants usually take a long time to understand your intranet users’ needs, so the entire exercise may take more time than you’re prepared to wait.

A Simple, Inexpensive Way to Measure Your Intranet’s Usability

Here’s another approach you may want to take. This method is fast and easy. Your results may not be quantitative, but you will get valuable insights about how your users think and use your intranet. It is simply to…

Watch over your user’s shoulder!

Watch your intranet users while they’re using the intranet. Tell your user to think out loud, letting you know of every thought that pops into their head as they’re navigating the intranet.

If you have screen capture software, such as Camtasia or Screenflow, you can record everything: your users’ annotations as well as what they’re doing onscreen. These recordings will come in handy later on, when you review your results.

If you decide to do the over-the-shoulder method, keep these in mind:

  • To get significant findings, get a significant sample of your users
  • Have test users do a variety of tasks in your intranet
  • Frequently remind the tester to verbalize their thoughts, because they may forget
  • Remind testers you’re doing this to find bugs and flaws in the intranet. They shouldn’t feel stupid if they can’t find their way around or fail to do their task
  • Resist the urge to step in and help the tester if he or she is experiencing difficulties
  • Don’t take criticism and other negative feedback personally

Do this with a significant sample of your intranet users, and you’ll discover:

  • how they interact with the intranet interface
  • which parts of your intranet are confusing
  • which parts don’t work
  • what questions come up as they navigate the intranet
  • which parts of the pages catch their eye
  • which parts they miss
  • how they try to “figure it out” when they’re stumped
  • and many more
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