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Why are we doing this? 

When thinking about creating or redesigning a SharePoint Online intranet, it is important to name the “Why” behind the intranet. Usually, I find that organizations know they could use an intranet or refresh a stale design. Still, there is typically some event or change in circumstance that pushes a SharePoint intranet design WANT into an intranet design NEED. 

Some of the WHYs I’ve ran into include: 

  • We’ve recently merged and need to bring together two intranets. 
  • We often acquire brands and/or organizations and need a new intranet to make those team members feel welcome. 
  • We’re changing our brand and need our intranet to reflect this. 
  • The tool/platform we use for our intranet has reached end-of-life. 
  • We don’t like the new version of the tool/platform we use for our intranet. 
  • We think there are cost savings to hosting our intranet on a platform stack we already use for other day-to-day business needs. 
  • We know users are struggling to find information in our current intranet. 
  • We want to engage our users beyond email blasts. 

The WHY driving a new SharePoint Online intranet design will make some of the steps in the process easier or harder.  However, if the driving force is to get off a dying platform, we can’t spend as much time in the discovery and design phases. 

Getting to Know Our Users 

With the WHY in mind, we then can start to review any feedback and past user research. If starting from nothing, let’s find out what the users want to see and get out of an intranet. The research will also inform the goals of our new design. This is most valuable to examine and conduct early in the planning process. 

When I’m involved early in the intranet-planning phases, the pieces of information I want to have available and documented are: 

  • What are the job roles in the organization and how do they relate to the core business? 
  • What do those roles do in the day-to-day operations of the organization? 
  • How do they perform their responsibilities within the organizations’ tools and systems? 
  • How well are those current systems serving the employees and the organization
  • How would we want it to work in an ideal world? 
  • Where things are working well, why are they working well? If not, why? 
Getting to Know your Users - HR page
Figure 1 – Human Resources SharePoint Intranet template

What if we don’t have any of that?  Do we have to hire an outside agency to do this? That is one choice, but there are several low-cost methods that can have a significant impact early on in a SharePoint Online intranet project, even if they aren’t perfectly administered or expertly executed.  A lot of what I run is inspired by the Nielsen Norman Group. I’ve included links to further information below: 

  • Content Brainstorm – For organizations with an existing Intranet, we should draw out the current structure of the intranet. Then we should gather our intranet team. Ask everyone to spend at least 15 minutes thinking and writing down (on physical or digital cards) anything a user would want to find in our Intranet. If we don’t have an existing intranet, we can jump right into the brainstorming.  In the end, we should start to group our content together and decide on our initial approach for how we will categorize and what labels should go with each group. 
  • Card Sorting – With a vision for the architecture, we need to test it. Consequently, card sorting is an exercise where we pull in a representative group of end users, who are given content items and are asked to group and label those items in a way that makes sense to them. This will help us understand our users’ mental models for the information and based on the results we refine our initial information architecture design. 
  • Tree Testing – In tree testing, we show our end users only the category structure of the site. Then ask them to select which category they would explore to complete specific tasks or find information. The results of tree testing give us feedback if our structure, labels, and placements agree with our users’ expectations. 
  • Usability Testing – For usability testing, we create task-based prompts for our users. We ask them to navigate the Intranet to complete the task. We don’t want to tell the users how to do the task, as our goal is to test if they are able to use the SharePoint intranet design without giving them the intended steps.  We should consider the user’s end goal, rather than the end goal of the task when writing these prompts. If we want to see if a user can locate and understand content for instance, we should write a task with a question about the information contained in the content.  

A Shared Vision 

In addition to learning about our users, it is important to engage organizational stakeholders early in the SharePoint intranet design process. We do this to come together on a shared vision for the intranet, prioritize goals, reach an agreement, and support the overall project timeline and allocation of resources. 

But who should we identify as stakeholders? I think of a stakeholder as any person whose contribution and support of the project, could impact its success, or if not involved, significantly hamper the success of the project.  There are all types of stakeholders, and we should consider how different stakeholders might have differing goals and influence. 

  • Executives who affect decisions related to timelines, budgets, and allocating resources and tools needed for the intranet. 
  • Representatives responsible for a group of users (they might manage the group, or provide the group support) 
  • Content Owners are accountable for sites, pages, or sections of the intranet. 
  • Individual users who manage their own well-being and job duties. 

We want to make sure that our stakeholders feel heard. We want to learn about their needs and the needs of the people they represent. However, we should not take everything our stakeholders say about their constituents as truth. Most are at least one step removed from the users. Our stakeholders stand for their group and want to respond to their groups’ needs. But they don’t always have the clearest picture of those needs.  To counteract this, I try to complement what I’m hearing from stakeholders with what I’ve heard from the user community through direct research. 

Getting an organization’s leaders to state the goals. Agreeing on the intranet vision helps guide the priority of intranet work. The vision and goals function as our compass. We sail through the waters of building a SharePoint Online intranet site, and once our leaders and stakeholders are in alignment, we can start to socialize the idea of a new or redesigned intranet.  People are change-averse, so we want to start as early as we can. We want to get people comfortable with the redesign. How do we start spreading the word? 

  • Arm stakeholders with a kit to communicate design goals to their teams. 
  • Create a preview video to show off what is planned for the new design. 
  • Hold a contest to collect ideas for names for the new intranet.

Budget, Resources, and Talent 

Creating a new intranet or refreshing an existing one, is going to take time, money, people, and technology.  So what are the SharePoint intranet design best practices? None of these resources are unlimited, so with a vision and goals in place, we need agreement on the allocation of resources to make that happen. Sometimes, the budget, tools, and talent are already allotted before we’ve created a vision and defined goals, and that’s okay. We should just take those into account when we create a vision, so the vision is realistic given the allocated resources. 

Building a SharePoint Intranet
Figure 2 – Building a SharePoint Intranet

Additionally, if we only assembled our core team, now is the time to put the full team together. Firms like Total Solutions are often brought in to augment the core team with our intranet design and Microsoft 365 expertise. 

Since most of our intranet team members only work part-time on the intranet, it is important to have information easily available to reorient after some time away from the project. Creating user stories helps us keep focus on the users’ needs, guides us to make informed decisions where tradeoffs are involved, and keeps the intranet work organized. Prioritizing an Agile backlog helps part-time project members know what is important when they jump in to deliver some work. To encourage the use of these user-centric artifacts, we want to include our intranet team in their creation. We want to post them to team spaces, both physically and online. It’s normal to refer to these artifacts and encourage others to do the same. We use them as our guide during any design reviews or retrospectives. 

We also have some planning to do at this early phase. Plan around technology and tools we’ll use, and decided on our development approach.  Things we should focus on at this phase: 

  • Where will we collaborate and communicate as a team on our SharePoint Online intranet project plan? (We typically use a Microsoft Team with the full project team as members) 
  • Where do we track work and surface our user-focused artifacts? (We use Jira for backlog management and store artifacts in the project Microsoft Teams) 
  • Do we have in-house skills for building sites and pages in our desired intranet platform? 
  • Do we launch the entirely custom intranet at once to the organization or launch segments of the intranet in shorter development cycles? (We’ve found that shorter, frequent iterations allow us to pivot as new user stories arise, leading to better final intranet products) 
  • How will we schedule, and plan to include user testing and change our design to respond to user testing throughout the project? 
  • Do we have existing brand and content guidelines, or do we need to establish those early in the project? 


I’ve tried to cover the important, early work that sets up a successful, user-focused new intranet build or intranet redesign.  Notice I haven’t talked about any content planning, mockups or wireframes, moving files and content, or writing code.  Without an understanding of our users, a clear vision and goals, and engaged stakeholders, any design or development of an intranet usually is going to involve a lot of rework and longer project timelines. 

SharePoint Online Jumpstart with Total Solutions
Figured Image 3 – SharePoint Online Jumpstart with Total Solutions

Exiting the discovery phase, we can then begin the work of designing, iteratively building, promoting, and training our content owners and end users. Once we launch, we shift into measuring usage and adoption, day-to-day operations to maintain the SharePoint intranet design with fresh, relevant content, and keep engaging with the user community to improve the intranet over time. 

A successful intranet redesign or launch of a new intranet needs the help, input, and support of many, including SharePoint intranet design consultants like Total Solutions. We need one leader to move the process forward, championing the vision and goals, and making decisions around the priorities given limited resources.