Giga: portal projects must focus on user experience

Successful implementation of an enterprise portal requires having clear goals and paying keen attention to user experience,...

Successful implementation of an enterprise portal requires having clear goals and paying keen attention to user experience, according to Laura Ramos, Giga Information Group analyst and the director of Giga's Enterprise Portals and Information Management group

The portals market has moved through three phases, she said. Early corporate portal projects focused on content aggregation. In the second phase, integration of disparate applications became the goal for implementations.

The third phase, which is just beginning, involves using portal technology to integrate applications and content, adding workflow and collaboration features, according to Ramos.

Ramos was speaking in the opening keynote address of the Enterprise Web & Corporate Portal Conference in Boston this week.

When asked for a show of hands, most of the attendees indicated that their projects remain stage-one deployments, focused on collecting and publishing content.

Ramos advised companies deploying portals to avoid problems by narrow the focus in their early projects.

"You need to think about user experience, more so than the technology, when implementing portals," she said. "This is an important concept I think a lot of people are missing today - they see (portals) as technology and not as a user experience.

"You need to start with the basics. Start by focusing on who will be using the portal, what they will be doing with it, and scope down your initial portal efforts to one or two key audiences, rather than trying to do the Big Bang and deploy a whole enterprise portal all at once."

Ramos added that once a project and goal are identified, IT and management employees should sit down and organise their company's specific needs for the portal into "four buckets": the portal's content; its context, the roles and rules that will govern its functionality; the necessary application integration; and the portal's user experience.

Content will keep users returning to the portal, and must be fresh and relevant, said Ramos. Giga has seen a number of clients complaining that they have installed a portal but cannot get employees to use it. She said that in this instance, targeted content is often what is lacking.

The user experience is also critical. Giga said users should not be afraid to restrict the extent to which users can personalise their portal interfaces. A consistent, easily navigable, branded interface consistent with the company's identity will help put users at ease, Ramos said.

One major difference between a corporate portal and a corporate Web site or intranet is the number of users who will contribute to the portal. With portals designed to encourage collaboration and decentralised content publishing, companies should make it neither too hard nor too easy to contribute content, Ramos said.

Without a well-planned system for adding to the portal, the software can become a haphazard mess of documents, she cautioned.

Finally, specialisation is crucial for those planning to use portals to aggregate or integrate applications, Ramos said. Good user interfaces are critical, as is insuring that applications pass on only necessary information. Portals generally allow data from disparate applications to be accessed in one browser-like window via portlets - content components similar to windows on a PC desktop.

This is a useful feature, but one that can cause a spike in network traffic by drawing on a number of applications every time the portal window is refreshed, she warned.

Vendors are introducing caching and load balancing features into their portals, but network administrators still need to consider traffic issues as portals are being designed, she said.

Portal prices vary widely, but a standard cost would be £35 to £100 per user for licensing and implementation, or £40,000 to £70,000 per server. The first-year cost of a typical project generally runs £100,000 to £200,000.

"Even though this market is three years old, it's still showing a lot of hallmarks of an early market. It's going to be a confused market for another 12 to 18 months," said Ramos.

"We have to wait to see who the leaders are and how people are deploying the technology."

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