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Issue № 88

The Ins and Outs of Intranets

by Published in HTML, Project Management, Interaction Design

Sooner or later, you may be called upon to create or maintain an internal website. If you work for a major corporation, or are contracted at one (as I am), internal sites may comprise the bulk of your work.

Don’t be afraid of internal sites. In many respects, they are very similar to external sites. There are two main differences though.

  1. Internal sites tend to be much larger.
  2. They’re geared toward employees, not the great unwashed masses.

Let’s say you work for Fergus & McFungus Associates, a major corporation that produces lots of useless things that people just can’t get enough of. The CEO, Angus McFungus, approaches you in his usual gruff, callous manner…

McFUNGUS: “Jackson?”

YOU: “It’s Johnson, sir.”

McFUNGUS: “Whatever. Listen Jimson, I need a company website. Fergus & McFungus is going global. Need it yesterday, Jefferson. You uh, you know HTML right?”

YOU: “Yes sir. Remember, you saw my website with the dancing yaks and you-

McFUNGUS: “Of course! See? You’re perfect for this. That’s why I picked you completely at random. Might be a good move for you. Maybe even a raise.”

YOU: “A raise?”

McFUNGUS: “Don’t hold your breath. Jameson let me ask you. Ever done any HTML?”

YOU: “Yes, you asked me that. The answer is still yes.”

McFUNGUS: “Great! This isn’t HTML though. It’s ASP. Is that anything like ASAP? It better be. This company is expanding faster than my waistline.”

YOU: “ASP? Well that’s not exactly HTML. It sort of works wi-“

McFUNGUS: “Glad to hear it. Knew you could handle it. Now move it Jojoba!”

YOU: “It’s Johnson, sir.”

Sound familiar? We’ve all been stuck with an assignment that we knew we could barely handle. You know the routine. Baffle the CEOs with some terrifying technical words so they’re confident you can do the job. Then you run to Barnes & Noble and grab one of those Peachpit or O’Reilly books and cram like crazy.

This may not be the best way to work, but we all do it. The important thing to know in any assignment, is what you’re getting yourself into. This has more to do with what the company wants than what type of code is proper for the job.

Week One: The IT Department

Your first move ought to be making a beeline for the IT department and finding out the scope of the project. Remember, internal sites are for employees. The IT department can tell you how many computers there are, what operating system(s) the company uses, what browser(s), and what monitor size and resolution. That last item may not be entirely controllable by the IT people. Someone will always fiddle with the resolution. Don’t complain; they may have a very good reason for doing so. Failing vision may necessitate using 800 x 600 instead of 1,024 x 768.

Make a point of carefully cataloging everything the IT department tells you. You will need it later on when it comes time to design. (You haven’t started designing yet, have you? Good.) Don’t piss the IT people off or come across as a know-it-all to them. Trust me. Bad things can happen.

Whenever possible, get printouts or electronic copies from IT. Impress them by having them email it to you. They’d prefer this and you now have their email address if something goes wrong.

Make sure to find out the names of all IT supervisors and what roles they will play in the site maintenance. You will most likely be asked to produce templates that IT or some production grunts will be using to make updates with.

One more thing before you leave IT. Find out the level of control and monitoring that management has over the company via the network. Some companies monitor the employees in a way that would make the NSA jealous. I am not trying to make you suspicious of your company’s management. Knowing in advance what is going on will prevent surprises later on. (Strange bits of code may appear in your pages or you find yourself locked out of pages you designed. It happens.)

Week Two: Planning

Now that you have your lists, reread them. Make sure you fully understand them. Understand what limitations you will have. The bulk of America is still running Windows 95/98 on 233 MHz machines with 15” monitors. Are you spoiled on a 500Mhz G4 with a 21” flat screen?

Lucky you. You still have to design for the hamstrung machines that the workers are stuck with.

Now one of the hardest parts. Figuring out how many people are going to be needed to work on this. IT or Human Resources may actually handle this for you. A smaller company may leave this decision up to you. Don’t think you can do it all yourself. You can’t and shouldn’t.

One of the biggest problems seems like one of the smallest. Scanning. It can be a tremendously time-consuming chore. General Motors hired a woman to scan for me full-time. I’d be buried without her. Are you prepared to handle scanning thousands of documents that may need OCR? Or images that need retouching? “Oh so-and-so got fired. Take him out of the photo. And the administrative assistant wants you to change her hair color.”

How about batch-processing software? Can you handle the repetitive tasks that are a constant of internal sites? Maybe it’s time to look into some good macro-writing programs. Adobe PhotoShop and ImageReady have some fabulous macro capabilities (actions) for graphics. Use them. You’ll cut hours out of your day.

Now a big one. Does the company plan on sharing this site with some of their suppliers? Sharing confidential data is common between companies, but it is rare to use the intranet for this. Often a special site, an extranet, is used specifically for this. Pray this is the case. Otherwise you’re looking at a security nightmare.

Week Three: Design

You’ve just finished your seventh cup of coffee and it’s only 10am. As you make a mad dash for the restroom an all-too familiar voice stops you cold:

McFUNGUS: “Joplin? Glad I caught you. This’ll only take an hour or two.”

[At this point the CEO unleashes the most heinous sentence known to web designers:]

McFUNGUS: “Jeffries? I’ve been thinking about the design direction for the website.”

YOU: “You… you have?”

McFUNGUS: “Here’s my vision. It’s based on MTV’s “Real World,” The Ring of the Niebelung and uh… try and work in a spinning globe somehow. Oh and Jillson? Get a hold of that cute little girl from the Pepsi commercials and have her narrate our mission statement in streaming video.”

YOU: …

McFUNGUS: “On more thing Jetson. Don’t go overboard with this. Show some restraint.”

Week Four: Design

Unlike regular websites where global usability is a major concern, internal sites are easier to control. This is because most companies save money and repairs by buying similar computers. Remember that list you got from IT of what operating systems are in use and what browser the company prefers? Get it out now. Here are some cool things to know about designing internal sites.

  1. Since you know what browser everyone is on, you know what coding tricks you can safely use. For example, if the company uses Netscape 4.xx, then you know that the hover tag is out of the question. Use a rollover instead. Are they still using IE 2.0? My condolences.
  2. If you feel compelled to use a certain plug-in, do so. If the company doesn’t have it, ask the IT department if they’ll install it. There’s a good chance they will. It gives them something to use to pad their hours with.
    There is one exception to this though, and that is Flash. I am dead against using it for internal sites. Read on before assaulting my email box.
    You are doing a site to help other employees do their job more effectively. You are not designing to impress them. You are not supplying them with lists of dead lawyer jokes. You are giving them a means to quickly access company records and data. Flash cannot do this faster than a text-based search. Ever hit the back button and watched the 900k .swf file reload from scratch? Is that a productive use of company time? Not in the least. Finally, yes, we’re all amazed by your rendering of a lion morphing into the company logo, but when the legal department is under the gun to get something for the boss, it’s just annoying.
    You may commence with the flaming now.
  3. Bandwidth is rarely an issue on an internal site. This means that you can get a bit more graphic-intensive than you would on the Web.
  4. Writing should be more tailored to the employees. Since only employees are going to be using it, industry terminology can and should be used frequently. You are doing this site to increase employee productivity so use terms that they use.

Months Later: Maintenance

Templates baby. It’s all about templates. You probably know that a lot of these pages will end up being quite similar. All of them (should) have a home button and have one-click access to any section. This is where having a bank of templates comes into play.

Since these pages are so similar, you can insist upon design standards. Make up a guide for the company to follow. Restrict what programs can be used to create pages. Believe me, someone in engineering will try to convince you that their CAD program can do “a perfect HTML export.” It is your duty to kill this employee quietly and painlessly.

Comment tags. Use them liberally. They really help in keep your designs consistent when other pixel monkeys are updating your pages.

Here’s a few examples of the types you should include:

<!— Start header table here. Graphic cannot exceed 600px wide. —>
// This script prevents users from leaving parts of the form blank. —>
<!— Start internal stylesheet here. This overrides some settings in the
external one. —>

Here’s an example of the kind you should not include:

<!—This logo is phat! Shoutz to mah peeps in production and dem fine honeys in Accounting—>

As funny as it is for another coder to read this, eventually someone capable of firing you will see it too. Save that stuff for your blog site at home.

WSIWYG Editors. I’m tied on them. Template creation is infinitely easier on GoLive or Dreamweaver. For simple pages they can be a godsend. But when your site is primarily database-driven, forget it. There is no substitute for knowing the code.

Let’s review. An internal site is employee-centric. It is usually larger than an external one. It’s main purpose is to provide a center for accessing company data, and seeing what projects other employees are working on. The boss will invariably ruin your day with “insights.” And because you are most likely their employee, he or she will be around a lot more to “monitor your progress.”

You have a lot more leeway with code, design, bandwidth and plug-in usage on an internal site.

Templates are a must. Think of other people who will be updating your code. Do you have bad coding practices? They’ll likely be reported to management by other employees. If you want a good review, show your sense of responsibility by making everyone’s job a little easier.

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