Design Considerations for Internal Websites

Do you have partners, employees, investors, contract workers, or even vendors and service providers you need to communicate with on a regular basis? Are you doing so by pinning memos on the bulletin board in the break room? If the most newfangled method you have for internal communications is email (so 1995!), read on—and consider the benefits of setting up an internal web site.

Why an internal website?

There are several reasons you would want to set up a website for internal users:

  • Collaboration and document sharing: If you have ever tried to work with a group of people on a document via email, you know it can rapidly get very confusing. Having one place for the document to reside, where all users can access it and update it, is a much cleaner way. Some platforms let more than one user work on a document at the same time. You can also add version control, so users’ edits are in sync.
  • Applications: Need a way to track requests, ideas, feedback, or other contributions? There’s an app for that, and if there isn’t, someone can build it.
  • Long-lived communications: Policies, procedures, and other documents that have a long lifecycle are much less likely to get lost when accessed on a website than when distributed by email.

It’s just like your external site. Sort of. Well, not really.

Setting up a website for internal audiences is not fundamentally different from doing so for your external visitors (customers and potential customers). In particular, an internal site needs to have:

  • Appealing design: Although the design considerations are not as stringent as for external sites and need not be updated quite as often, the website needs to have an intuitive design that users will like.
  • Good usability: Internal users can’t waste time trying to figure out where stuff is on the internal site. If you make it hard for them, they won’t use it.
  • Fresh content: You have to keep the content up to date, or it won’t be useful to anyone.

That said, there are some significant differences. Among them:

  • An internal site can be available only on an internal network or can be available on the public Internet. The latter choice is useful if you work with virtual teams, need to provide access to vendors or service providers, or if you don’t have the resources to manage an internally-hosted website.
  • SEO is a minor (or, in the case of sites accessed only internally, nonexistent) consideration. In fact, because this site will probably contain sensitive company information, if it can be reached from the public Internet, you will probably want to make it invisible to search engines. Your web developer knows how to do this.
  • All users need named accounts with strong passwords for access to the site. You also need a real person to manage the user account lifecycle.
  • The audience for an internal website has different needs from external site audiences. Internal audiences need information, and they need it now, without unnecessary bells and whistles.

Implementation Approaches

There are several options when it comes to implementing an internal website:

  • From scratch: Have your friendly neighborhood web designer and web developer build a site for you, perhaps using a MODX or WordPress platform. Depending on the scope, it should cost about the same as an external site. This choice gives you the most control over the content and the widest range of functionality options.
  • Internally-hosted collaboration platform: Use a commercially available collaboration platform, such as Microsoft SharePoint. These types of platforms aren’t quite as flexible as a scratch-built site, but they typically include built-in document sharing and collaboration features that might be important to your organization. Although you can manage this type of platform yourself, there is a bit of a learning curve to get the most out of it. You can also hire an outside expert to get it all set up for you.
  • Cloud-based platforms: Whatever your needs are, there’s a cloud-based service provider to fill it: document sharing, conferencing, real-time collaboration; you name it. This option typically gives you the least flexibility when it comes to look and feel but has robust functionality that is constantly updated and enhanced for you—no need to manage an update cycle to get new functionality and no IT overhead.

Whatever option you choose, make sure you ask for what you need and that the provider is giving you what you asked for. This means going through the same type of implementation cycle as for an external site: requirements definition, prototyping, development, and testing, followed by implementation and ongoing maintenance.

Bring your organization up to date with web-based tools on an internal website, and you’ll never have to rely on that break room bulletin board again.