All about task-based & topic-based intranet navigation

By Carolyn Douglas
March 22, 2022
7 min read
intranet navigation

No matter how attractive a portal seems, navigation difficulties are one of the biggest challenges we face, even when it comes to company intranets.

I was recently on a website and found myself cursing under my breath because I could not for the life of me find the “contact” in this website’s menu. All I wanted to do was ask a simple question via email. What led me to this website was a task. I needed an answer to my question, and after slogging through the site content, including the FAQ area, I was not successful in getting my answer. So I looked for an area to contact them. I finally found it, three layers deep under an ambiguous heading.

According to a recent Gallup study, 74% of employees feel they are missing out on company information and news. In such a scenario, it is imperative to keep your intranet navigation user-friendly and engaging. Continue reading to dig in deeper.

Intranet Search vs. Menu Structure

All about task-based vs. topic-based intranet navigation

Unclear and inexact menu labels are still bogging down our intranets and we wonder why employees are frustrated and can’t find anything. Search to the rescue! Well, yes, and no. Enterprise Search on your intranet that is as easy to use and as accurate as popular search engines we use every day will help. However, nothing can give your intranet the boost it needs better than a good menu system. The Nielsen Norman Group is a frontier in intranet UI best practices, and I have followed them since the inception of Intranet Connections in 1999. Their user tests from a focus group study summarized:

“Intranets are improving findability by organizing content by TASK rather than departments, using mega menus to present deep content, and using the added real estate to offer clear cues to orient users, and providing shortcuts to important pages and tools.”

Personally, I am a huge fan of Mega Menus on intranets, and Intranet Connections was the first out-of-the-box intranet software to offer Mega Menus to our customers in order to leverage a more task-based menu structure. We went even further, adding our popular interactive widgets to the Mega Menus, allowing us to not only provide deeper menu structures but also promotional and interactive content to your most visible area of the intranet – your global menu intranet navigation. Intranets contain a tremendous amount of information, and that bloat continues to grow over the years as new intranets morph into mature intranets. The right information architecture (IA) becomes critical in this growth and becomes essential to a successful intranet and a great user experience.

Task-Based or Topic-Based Intranet Navigation

There is much debate on this question. Personally, I like a bit of both. Task-based intranet navigation targets employees with a mission, who need to get something done. Topic-based intranet navigation is suited for employees wanting to find things out. An intranet is a collection of both task-based and topic-based content.

Task-Based Menus

Note: the following two sections speak to the use of Mega Menus, as it does help to supplement what you need in a good AI structure, but you can also use these methodologies in more traditional dropdown intranet menus. Here is the secret of task-based menus: it’s all in how you word them! So simple, which is why I love them. You don’t need card sorting or any other means of research. All you need is yourself. Think about what tasks you use the intranet for. Do you want to sign up for a training class? Are you wanting to file a claim, fill out a mileage report for expense reimbursement, or submit a support ticket to the help desk? Now think about phrasing that in a way that speaks toward your task. For example, instead of “mileage claims” (which is more topic-based) rephrase to make it actionable and see the clicks increase ten-fold! For example:

  • Mileage Claims = “Get Your Expenses Reimbursed”
  • Vacation Request Calendar = “Request Time-Off Here”
  • Support Desk = “Fill Out a Support Ticket for Immediate Help”
  • Intranet Search = “Search For What You Need”

When deciding how to label intranet navigation, think about what would catch your eye most and what would get you clicking. Not all menu items can be action-based, however, a lot can be moved into this arena simply by changing the vocabulary. Mega Menus give you this option, as they allow for more descriptive wording, including grouping task-based menus under headings, such as:

“Find Out About Your Co-Workers”
– Learn more about your department team
– See who just won an award
– Learn how HR helped Susan overcome Breast Cancer

Keep in mind, your users are the glue that holds your intranet together. Make your intranet about employees by including items your employees care about in your intranet navigation. I guarantee the above examples would garner the most clicks on your intranet. People are most interested in their co-workers, so be sure to include an area of your intranet navigation that highlights the human element.

Topic-Based Menus

Topic-based menus are your more traditional method of IA and often follow the working hierarchy of an organization (aka departments). This can be a good thing if departments are well established and employees know that a certain department offers specific services, tasks, and information. Many employees will feel comfortable with a topic-based menu, as it mirrors the company. We are all more comfortable with the familiar. Topic-based menus should take into account how employees think about where they work. For example, do employees think of HR when they need a new computer password, or do they go to the IT department? Knowing this is important when creating your topic-based menus. Just like task-based menus, always think like an employee and use the most common denominator. Dumb it down. Don’t use complex labels. Make it clear and intuitive. Add lots of space between menu options, group them with headers, and don’t make it look busy. Less is more.

Intranet Navigation: Less is More

I cannot stress this enough, but when creating a new menu or upgrading an existing menu, LESS IS MORE. It is easy to get caught up in thinking that you are putting great content right at the user’s fingertips by including every application, will all of its 100 folder names, into one Mega Menu. A multitude of studies have proven that giving people more options overwhelms them. Contrary to what we want to provide – more options for better navigating – the opposite is true. Think carefully about what areas you want to highlight in your Mega Menus, and bring forth the most current and relevant content that is in high demand. You can’t showcase all content on your intranet navigation, so keep it simple, clean, and stress-free for employees.

Get Inspired by Public Websites

A lot of ideas have come from the internet. You see something that you can relate to, and it gives you a kernel of an idea. Take that idea back to your intranet and re-use it to benefit your employees. Before you go about recreating the wheel, let’s see how we can tweak that wheel! Public websites are much different than intranets when it comes to content and needs, but they are a terrific source to follow and mimic. After all, these are the websites your employees interface with after they head home. The more you can make your intranet navigation look and feel like popular websites, the more comfortable staff will feel using it. Stay current by turning to what is working on the internet. I am sure Starbucks has spent oodles of research money to get their menus just right. Take a cue, and learn from their hard work.

Key to Intranet Success

Intranets have many design elements that impact their success, not to mention the content, resources, tasks, forms, and documents. Take the time to put yourself into the shoes of an employee, not an intranet admin, not an IT expert, not an HR manager. Think of how you would use the intranet as an employee and keep it simple. The two best ingredients to intranet success, especially when it comes to intranet navigation.

To get some expert suggestions for your intranet navigation, book yourself a FREE DEMO call now or just take our complimentary internal communications assessment to see how well your internal comms efforts are scaling.

By Carolyn Douglas

Carolyn Douglas, Founder of the software Intranet Connections, started her endeavor of creating intranets out of a passion to cater to employees rather than technology. Her philosophy is your intranet can have all the bells and whistles but without employees using it, your intranet is gathering dust. This commitment to simple and easy to use intranet software, combined with amazing customer service that delivers the best of employee engagement ideas and practices, has secured Intranet Connections as one of the leading intranet solutions since its inception in 1999.