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An extrovert intranet for the Royal College of Art

28 March 2017

A doctor’s waiting room. Justin Bieber on endless repeat. John Major’s wardrobe. Slough. The corporate intranet. Conventionally, society does not hold these things in high esteem. But in the case of the intranet, at least, maybe there is hope. 

In 2016, the Royal College of Art’s (RCA) intranet, named RCA Space and glamorously based on the same platform as NASA’s, was starting to show its age and the college asked if we could design and implement a new solution for them, tightly integrated with its public facing website. The college wanted a fresh start, but was keen for the new solution to offer the same great user experience and ease of use as its Wagtail-based website.

Traditionally, building an intranet is managed differently to a public facing website project. The ratio of content creators to content consumers is normally much higher. And, one of the most powerful features of intranets – the very freedom and flexibility they afford users – can be their Achilles’ heel if not managed effectively. A sprawling intranet full of poorly organised, out-of-date and inconsistent content quickly becomes unmanageable, actively impeding users from getting things done and forcing them to adopt ‘coping strategies’ for unearthing the information they need most regularly. This was the fate that had befallen the RCA’s existing intranet.

A golden rule of information architecture often applied to external websites is to stay focused on user needs, and not fall into the trap of using navigation to reflect an organisation’s internal structure. If anything, this rule is even more important in the context of an intranet. Content in RCA Space was squirreled away within a deep hierarchy that reflected the inner workings of the college very effectively but did little to facilitate users who needed to find specific pieces of information quickly. 

We proposed to abandon the hierarchical approach and instead create a series of fixed taxonomies to define key concepts like Schools and Programmes, together with freeform categories which site contributors could define themselves. This allowed for a degree of structure, but also ensured multiple routes to content across the site. Crucially though, this light touch approach avoids bogging users down with the cognitive load of trying to figure out where to store or find content in an endlessly complex filing system.

The Royal College of Art also had high expectations for the look and feel of its new intranet. All too often, intranets end up the poor relation of public facing websites – text heavy, drab, and at the stylistic mercy of the IT crowd. But whoever said that intranets couldn’t have personality? 

The newly rechristened InfoRCA adapts the design of the external website to create a rich, visual user experience which is consistent for staff and students who move from one site to the other. The design is clean and clear, and actively uses the new flat information architecture to steer people towards the content they need, with a powerful search capability front and centre.

Under the bonnet, InfoRCA is based on some exciting new capabilities in Wagtail. It was created as a separate website, but it shares a lot of content with the main college site using Wagtail’s API. Editors of the public facing site can choose to publish content like news and events on the public site or the intranet (or both).

If you’re a code monkey and you’re interested to see how we built InfoRCA, why not take a look at the public code repository.

To find out more about the Royal College of Art’s new intranet, read the full story on Torchbox’s website

Paul Vetch

client services director, Torchbox

Paul joined Torchbox in 2013, having previously led one of the UK’s largest R&D teams for King’s College London. Paul has since designed and directed Torchbox’s large-scale technical projects, working with organisations to maximise the power of their digital operations.