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What a great pile of responses!! I certainly got what I needed -- thanks for your quick and thoughtful help. (If you'd like a full text file of everyone's responses, drop me a note at <mailto:stenya -at- pobox -dot- com>)
Everyone agreed on the following points:
- Usability is the key to a successful intranet
- Keep it simple and go for maximum legibility.
- Use design elements ONLY if they enhance readability.
- Err on the conservative side unless you are actually selling something from your site.
- Don't use blue underlined text for anything other than a hyperlink :-)
The VERY short distillation of tips and suggestions:
- First and foremost, concentrate on your site's organization and layout. The most important thing in a company intranet is that the audience (technicians in this case) be able to find the information they need quickly.
- Everyone MUST use the same page elements, style sheets, etc. Individual writers should not be creating pages that diverge from the house style. (Good tip: when creating the style sheet, provide a rationale for "why" you make certain choices -- this prevents endless philosophical arguments and, when the environment changes, cues you to reconsider your original rationale.)
- Background color should be white. Light gray or light yellow were also suggested -- it won't reduce the contrast so much that readibility suffers, and will take some of the brightness of the page down.
- Use colors and type faces functionally. Most recommended using a sans serif font (Arial, Verdana) for body text, in colors dark enough to be visible against a light background. Any colored text should serve a purpose (Warning text in red, etc). With online documentation, there is no additional cost for using color (as there is with paper), so just use it consistently and sparingly.
- Textured backgrounds were almost universally disliked -- one writer liked them, but said "*sites that use them well tend to be designer created sites. The challenges in using these elements well are outside the experience of most TWs"
- Create a prototype of several approaches, then have the end users comment. The technicians and operators will tell you exactly what they want -- show 'em what they don't like, and they'll let you know.
William Horton, Designing and Writing Online Documentation
Clement Mok, Designing Business
Ray Kristof & Amy Satan, Interactivity by Design
?????? Sano. Designing Large Sites
** Many thanks to Lani Hardage, Chris Hamilton, Bill Smith, Penny Staples, Lisa Honeyman, Marilynne Smith, David Locke, Rikki Nyman, Heidi Martin, William Newkirk, Bill Burns, Alfred Watkins, and Jim Lockard. **