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Features - Is an Intranet in Your Future? Part III: Defining the Scope and Targeting the Users

By Sabrina I. Pacifici, Published on June 24, 1997
(Archived July 22, 1997)




Sabrina I. Pacifici has been a legal newsletter editor and publisher for the past decade, as well as a law librarian in Washington, D.C. for 18 years.  She is the Editor of Law Library Resource Xchange (LLRX).

Introduction

As discussed in Parts I and II of this article, several factors play a determining role in the successful implementation of a corporate or legal departmental intranet. After the hardware and software have been specified and purchased, a significant planning process still remains to be completed. Before launching into the design and distribution of the intranet, take the time to define the scope of the intranet project, the users to whom it will be provided, and the overall management of the system. Although I can hear a collective, "Oh no, not more planning," let me try and justify why the devil is in the details in regard to intranet implementation. Careful attention to the finer points of intranet development is well worth the effort, and will result in a far better end product.

One step at a time: What is the purpose of the intranet and who are the users?

Before embarking on the project of the user interface and intranet content, be sure to answer two questions which are of critical importance to the success of the intranet. The first question is why do you want an intranet, and what is its purpose? The second question is who is the user community targeted to use this technology? On the surface, the answers to these questions may appear to be obvious, but further consideration will show that this is not always the case. In regard to the first question, I have actually heard this answer: "We want an intranet because all the other law firms are implementing them." Sound familiar? Rather than just following the pack, however, take the time to critically evaluate whether an intranet is the correct application for your specific environment, and to clearly define the user group(s) whom you expect to serve with this application.

Also, take into consideration these issues: is the requisite network backbone and computer hardware and software universally available at the desktop to support an intranet? If not, is the firm willing to make the capital investment to undertake a firm-wide upgrade? Stop, do not pass GO, and do not expect to buy Park Place if the answers to these questions are not a definitive yes! However, if all your technology ducks are in a row, the intranet development and support team is assembled and ready to proceed, and the firm’s higher powers are on board, then you are ready to take the plunge into the fascinating and challenging world of intranet design!

...take the time to critically evaluate whether an intranet is the correct application for your specific environment, and to clearly define the user group(s) whom you expect to serve with this application.

The Purpose of the InfoWeb

The Sidley & Austin InfoWeb serves as a multimedia research resource that facilitates access to information from diverse formats, such as CD-ROMs, online databases, and audio/visual content, from a single cohesive platform. Before implementation of the InfoWeb, attorneys would have to click on separate icons, which appeared on their Windows desktop to launch various research products and service. Now, our department supports and disseminates disparate research resources to attorneys through a single, powerful, user-friendly interface. InfoWeb

It is important to note that the InfoWeb is a supplement to, not a replacement for, the other research technologies we have provided at the attorney desktop for many years, including LEXIS-NEXIS and WESTLAW. Although these two legal database systems can be accessed directly through the InfoWeb, our focus was on capturing and disseminating information that was previously not universally available to all attorneys, creating new information resources, and providing a direct interface to third party online products. For example, in-house, proprietary data which was unique to our firm’s practice areas and cases was often loaded in discrete files accessible to limited individuals through network drives. By providing access to these disparate resources, including legacy work product documents, practice area publications and newsletters, and government produced Web documents, the InfoWeb serves as a powerful tool to enhance the value of our law firm's many resources.

The InfoWeb is an intranet of clearly defined scope. At present, it does not support and disseminate information other than that which is used for research purposes on behalf of our clients. But it is also a system which remains under development, which is continually upgraded and enhanced with new data and applications as our team seeks to insure that this is a dynamic, rather than a static, technology resource.

The desktop information overload dilemma

Before launching into the task of designing the intranet front end, which will be your user’s first and most critically evaluated impression of the system, first focus on the content. Even an intricately designed intranet, which incorporates state of the art graphics and audio/video wizardry, will not compensate for lack of quality content. Therefore, an intranet design project is not merely a "build it and they will come" issue, nor is it one of razzle-dazzle and sound and lights. No one will be in the least bit interested in your intranet, nor inclined to utilize it, if it does not deliver current, comprehensive, accurate information that is targeted to users specific requirements and delivered in a straightforward, easy to use interface.

Now this is not to say that I am against bells and whistles, rather that they have their role, and should be applied with appropriate restraint. Attorneys are already suffering from technology overload at the desktop. Fax, email, the Internet, voice mail, word processing, databases and time billing programs are just a sampling of the technology challenges that confront today’s attorneys when they turn on their computers. Learning yet another new system will not prove palatable if it does not provide a quickly discernible value in return for the time required to use it. So keep it simple, direct and above all, easy to use. Users will be more inclined to withhold the evil eye as you proudly announce a new online system that they have to add to their learning curve if it gives them what the need and want. To paraphrase from the film Jerry McGuire, "Show them the intranet value!"

To avoid the pitfalls of creating an intranet which will illicit groans rather than accolades, try to follow these steps which should assist you on the path to intranet nirvana. Step one is to insure that you routinely consult with your users and seek their assistance in determining intranet content. Our intranet team regularly meets with individuals and groups from all our practice areas. Some of our attorneys not only have excellent ideas but also have contributed substantial information to our InfoWeb, in the form of hypertext links and practice/client specific databases from their own computers or proprietary areas on network drives.

Attorneys are already suffering from technology overload at the desktop. Fax, email, the Internet, voice mail, word processing, databases and time billing programs are just a sampling of the technology challenges that confront today’s attorneys when they turn on their computers.
If you are getting the impression that an intranet is a labor-intensive enterprise, I will not go out of my way to disabuse you of that notion. Like all technologies, it requires daily "care and feeding." Second, based on the defined scope and mission of the intranet, continually evaluate intranet content for its value. Archiving data, which is of diminished value due to the conclusion of a particular case or matter, is a good idea. The constant requirement for new information required by an intranet places a huge strain on disk space, and archiving can be effectively utilized to make room for such incoming data.

In terms of Internet links, as they have a habit of disappearing into hypertext hyperspace, utilize an application which will insure that the links are valid, or delete them in a timely manner. Nothing is worse than being prepared to find a sought after answer only to see that the link, be it an internal or external one, is not functioning. This "oh darn" factor can be headed off at the pass by a steadfast adherence to an overall intranet trouble shooting routine.

If you are getting the impression that an intranet is a labor-intensive enterprise, I will not go out of my way to disabuse you of that notion. Like all technologies, it requires daily "care and feeding." However, a well managed and administered intranet is worth the effort in that it offers access to a multiplicity of resources through one unified interface. The flexibility of Web browser technology is a powerful tool which can provide the user with a faster and more efficient interface to a wealth of in-house information.

Content and Design as an integrated concept

When considering a design strategy for your intranet, evaluate the areas of information which will be included in juxtaposition to the users you are targeting. In some cases, it is more effective to organize information by practice area or even specific cases if they are of considerable size and have a huge impact on the firm’s work product. Once again, it is crucial to understand how the attorney’s want to access information, and what methods best meet their needs. The creation of multiple access points to areas of information is often advisable, as no two individuals have the same perspective on how to conduct a search for information. This is an important issue to note, and highlights the need to not only having clearly defined hypertext links to information organized by subject and practice areas, but also to implement an intranet search engine. This search engine will allow universal access to information within the intranet through a simple key word search technique.

In short, design and function go hand in hand, so develop content and the interface in tandem, rather than separately. Do several preliminary design runs, and try them out on your users to solicit feedback as to which functions work and which do not. Don’t be afraid to tinker with the design and organization of the content. Intranet development is a process that benefits from a flexible approach, and your users will be more inclined to utilize a system which has taken into consideration their suggestions and requirements.

There is much more to say on the issue of intranet design, so perhaps there will be other articles to come. For now, I encourage all the fledging legal intranet designers amongst our readers to contact me with your experiences, and if you are willing, we can share the lessons of successful intranet design and implementation through LLRX. Hope to hear from you soon!

The creation of multiple access points to areas of information is often advisable, as no two individuals have the same perspective on how to conduct a search for information.