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Portals and the Evolving User Experience - Part 1

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Portals are here to stay.  Additionally, the evolution of improving user Experience (UXP) continues to be a focus.

After attending the recent Gartner Portals, Content & Collaboration Summit in Orlando, two things became very obvious to me. First, the conceptual idea of a "portal" is here to stay, with the ever changing technical landscape allowing and actually forcing a continual morphing of portals, portal frameworks, and content, and second, the incredibly growing importance of the portal "User Experience" or, as the Gartner folks like to say, UXP.

Let's delve into some aspects of portals and how companies are using portals to shape the user Experience, and in turn, how they are using the resultant user Experience to drive increases in productivity in the workplace and drive increases in sales and presence in the market place.

Initially, there are a couple of questions that need to be addressed. The first logical question would be, "What is a portal?" And the second would be, "What is the user Experience and its relation to a portal?"

To answer the first question, portals can mean many things to many people. For our purposes I will define it in broad terms with:

A portal is a web site or "application" (web or mobile) that brings together information from diverse sources and presents it in a unified and coherent format based on context and user needs, maximizing the usefulness of that information.

For a definition of the user Experience, let's use the one provided by ISO standard 9241-210 (Ergonomics of human-system interaction):

User Experience is "A person's perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service." The standard goes on to elaborate that the user Experience "includes all the users' emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviors and accomplishments that occur before, during and after use."

Now, tying the two together, for a portal, the user Experience goes way beyond dashboards and simple ease of use of the portal and its displayed and interactive content.  It actually encompasses the entire subjective nature of the user's perception of how they "feel" while using the portal and the enjoyment they derive, as well as how they can ultimately and objectively benefit from using information or services provided by the portal.

That's a fairly tall order to fill - trying to make someone "feel" a certain way while using your portal or application. Try writing that as a testable requirement... The users need to be engaged in a manner that makes them want to get on your site long before they actually go there, want to stay once there, and be thinking about their time there or their next visit once they leave.

Add to that the advent and increasing power of smart phones along with the exponentially increasing popularity and pervasiveness of tablet computing, not to mention the ever increasing presence of "the cloud", and the user Experience and portal design are pushed to the limit each and every time a person uses your portal.

No longer are they tethered to your particular portal by a desktop browser, but they can access your content and fulfill their particular Experience from pretty much anywhere, anytime, on any type of device.  So, any modern portal must take into account this new technology landscape and anticipate how the user will Experience it on each platform.

The new user Experience is also influenced greatly by the new "social" world of computing in which we find ourselves.  Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and a myriad of other social sites have found their way into mainstream life. Facebook and LinkedIn help old friends and colleagues unite and interact in an ever growing number of ways, and Twitter changes the speed of how information is disseminated to large numbers of people - to the point it is even used as an integral tool by presidential candidates to help maintain a thread to their prospective electorate.

Moreover, this social world is also spilling into the corporate world.  More and more companies are bringing social aspects inside the firewall to provide collaboration, communication and pretty much any other unique aspect that can be associated or attributed to the most popular of social sites today.  Corporations are finding that by catering to the social paradigm, collaboration and productivity also improve. Now, to go along with the sunshine, there has to be some rain in the form of increased governance of these portals and the information contained and shared.

So, as you can see, it is not enough anymore to simply provide a pretty interface describing your products, services or policies to your customer or employees.  Today's users are ever increasing in their sophistication and their perception of what they take away from your portal.

The creation of a successful user Experience with a portal needs to go much deeper than "predecessor" web sites by using all of the modern tools at the portal designer's disposal from social sites and the social Experience in general, to providing cloud access and content, to the collection and display of legacy and application data. This should all be accomplished while presenting it in a fashion that is richly pleasant, engaging, and useful for the user so they will actually want to come back again and again.

Sounds easy, right?

In the next installment, we will discuss some of the technologies, products and frameworks that facilitate the creation of not only portals, but provide the foundation to create the user Experience that you are looking for and some things to avoid as well.