Intranets are for big companies with deep pockets, right? Wrong, say Inc writers Anne Stuart and Jill Hecht Maxwell in their April 2002 technology report, "Inside Story." Intranets and extranets are fast becoming small-business tools whereby companies can communicate more effectively with employees, increase productivity, and even drive company strategies.

Given an intranet's benefits, should your business consider building one? If so, where do you start? We asked Web-design consultant Jakob Nielsen to offer his top must-haves when designing an intranet. Here are his recommendations:

Use the intranet as a productivity and communications tool.
Start with a needs assessment to determine what you should house on the intranet. What key types of information or services would make your employees more productive? Identify the problems your intranet might solve by looking at your employees' day-to-day workload.

Needs vary from company to company, but there are some popular and valuable elements, including human-resources information (the employee handbook, vacation and sick-leave policies, change-of-address forms, the ability to manage your own tax withholdings) as well as the ability to book a conference room online and to share tools and applications like sales-force automation.

One note about content: don't simply transfer text to the Web. Reread and rewrite copy to make it clear, using standard principles of writing for the Web -- make it scannable with bold-faced keywords and subheadings that explain different sections.

If telecommuters, road warriors, and branch offices feel cut off from headquarters, the intranet can amend that. With shared documents, bulletin boards, and other features, it enables employees to know what other departments are doing, or that another person or office has solved a certain problem or a has solution for a particular issue.

Make a single person responsible for the intranet.
Depending on your company's size, managing an intranet can be a part-time job in addition to an employee's regular role, or one person might manage an entire department responsible for the intranet. Many departments may be responsible for providing the intranet's content, but this one person, or one group, should ultimately be responsible for the content, for setting standards, and for maintaining consistency.

Keep pages simple.
Consistency counts. All of your pages should work in a similar way. Use templates as opposed to having each department design its own pages. After all, you're not paying your employees to be amateur Web designers. Also, using templates is a great time-saver for users, too, because pages in different areas of the intranet will work the same way.

Keep the information updated, trustworthy, and reliable.
Need we say more?

The intranet home page should include company news, easy-to-understand navigation, and a search option.
Company news keeps employees aware of what's going on in the company, brings them back to the intranet, and keeps the home page fresh. It's a big mistake to simply syndicate a newswire -- your employees most likely already have their favorite news portals.

Small companies can assign an editor to write up a couple of headlines every few days, put them up on the home page, and archive old headlines, providing a "featured recently" link to access them. You can do that in a simple text-editing application.

Navigation should remain fairly constant. It gives an overview of the different services and information available on the intranet.

Search is a very important feature because even small companies can quickly amass thousands of pages of information on an intranet. If an employee needs to find something specific, typing a word into a search box is the preferred way of solving that problem.

Don't forget to test the usability of your intranet.
If the intranet features are too complicated, or if the terminology isn't clear, your intranet won't be understood, much less used.

To determine usability, assemble a small number of employees, ask them to solve a problem on the intranet, and watch how they do it and how much time it takes. For example, ask them to locate a sick-leave policy, change their address, or download a tax form. See how fast or slow they are. It's a great way of assessing whether the intranet is efficient.