Designing an open source social intranet

Guido Stevens | Mar 26, 2014 | intranet · design · plone · open source
Cosent and Netsight are designing an open source social intranet platform.

Netsight have invited Cosent to collaborate on designing a complete social intranet software suite, to be developed in collaboration with the open source Plone community.

A "Plone Intranet" summit in the wake of the 2013 Plone conference listed user experience, that is: design, as the single most important challenge to tackle if we want to strengthen Plone's attractiveness for the intranet market.

As everybody knows, design is not a problem one solves in a committee. We're using a hybrid model of collaboration styles that allows us to combine the design strengths of a core team with the scaling capabilities of an open source community.

The plan is to donate the work we've been doing to the Plone community, so come and join us at the Plone Open Garden 2014 in Sorrento to get involved.

So, what have we been up to?

Last winter Cosent published the Digital Workplace Technology Roadmap.

Following up on that, we've been analysing the competition, both in terms of the user experience their platforms offer but also in the kind of problems they solve, i.e. what markets they're in. We see significant market potential for a Plone-based solution.

Additionally, we've analysed dozens of cases studies of award-winning intranet designs and have clustered hundreds of intranet screenshots to understand common functional areas, or landing pages, in intranets, mapping those against the model provided by the Digital Workspace Technology Roadmap.

Last week, Netsight and Cosent have been sprinting to turn the insights gained from all of that into actionable designs, that can be used to guide software development.

We selected three types of landing pages in intranets for deeper investigation. For each of these pages, we brainstormed specific functions that users would want to use and card-sorted those into families of similar functionality.

Matt and Lewis at the whiteboard

We then picked a single landing page to work on and created several epics with short scenarios about a typical sequence of actions a user would execute to obtain a specific outcome. For example, one of our epics is:

(Team Member) Wendy receives an email from Peter with a list of questions and data that need to be collated before the next meeting of the project board. She forwards the mail into the intranet, where she flags it as a todo for next week on Project X, tags it as "board meeting", adding a note with some initial ideas and could @marcella maybe share her thoughts on this?

For each epic, we created a diagram that sequenced every function invoked as part of the scenario, and then expanded each function step into a full-fledged user story. For example, one of the steps halfway the above epic is the following user story:

Team Member can mention other Team Members in the note (using '@' syntax).

Don't shuffle the stack

Fleshing out those user stories was a lot of work, and involved detailed discussions about our assumptions and choices regarding security architecture and overall strategy. This was done by part of the team, while the other half worked on wireframing possible solutions for the epic. That was a bad idea. They had the same discussions, with different conclusions.

elements of user experience

Moving from epic to wireframing involves jumping a level up the design stack in the Garrett five-level model of the design process. When we brought the finished user stories together with the wireframe sketches we had some major inconsistencies. This appears to confirm the model and indicate that you need to get your foundations right before moving to more concrete designs. In this case, you really need to define your scope in detail, before wireframing solutions.

After re-syncing our minds and merging our work, in the final day we ventured into wireframing territory not for a whole page, but for exploring a set of micro-interactions that form the core of a cohesive social intranet experience. We also deepened our understanding of user needs and elaborated on the personas we're using to drive the design.

All in all, we feel we have not only made significant progress towards valuable design outcomes, but also have prototyped a repeatable design process that tackles very complex design challenges in a systematic way.

We plan to have another design sprint in a few weeks to prepare for Sorrento, and look forward to sharing our work there. See you in lovely Italy!

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