Building Blocks of Portals

By Steve Calde, Supervising Designer, Alan Cooper, President – August 1, 2000

Disclaimer: Please note that this edition was written in 2000. Therefore, statements in the articles, particularly those regarding SAP's products, product strategy, branding strategy, and organizational structure, may no longer be valid.


Founded in 1992 by Alan Cooper, the world's foremost interaction design expert and the "father of Visual Basic," Cooper Interaction Design is dedicated to designing digital products, services, and appliances that bring power and pleasure to the people who use them. During an ongoing partnership with SAP, Cooper has applied its Goal-Directed design methodology – which puts customers' goals first – to several SAP web and desktop products and services.


What Is a Portal?

A portal is a gateway to another place: by definition, a portal is not a destination, but a doorway to a destination. In the world wide web, a good portal is really a collection of personalized gateways to other places. It should display several important doorways, and offer a view into each one. If the user wants more than just a view, he can walk through the doorway and into a room dedicated to that particular information. There is great power in this concept of displaying an integrated view of useful information.

Many self-proclaimed portals on the web, however, bend rather far from this basic definition. Consumer portals, such as Yahoo! and, want customers to stick around as long as possible before moving through their gateway into another place (the more banner ads seen, the better). Their pages are busy and filled with deep hierarchies of navigation. Each subsection and link, like fishing lures, are designed to grab different kinds of people in the general consumer market, and keep them at the site for a while.

At the other end of the spectrum are pure search engine portals, like Google, designed strictly for keyword-based searching. As a single-purpose portal, Google does a nice job of translating keyword input into a list of matching URLs, but doesn't provide any useful content of its own. It's an extremely helpful assistant, but only when asked a direct question.

In between the extremes of simple, but silent, Google and rich, but noisy, Yahoo! are hundreds of other consumer portals, industry-specific portals, and search portals.

Where does fit in this world of portals? As an industry-specific portal, doesn't have the same agenda for stickiness as a consumer portal does. What makes unique is its ability to be a productivity portal; that is, by being able to tie into a customer's specific productivity software, can deliver a higher level of integration and personalization for employees who use SAP applications. Instead of only providing doorways into general and company content areas, it can provide doorways-and views through those doorways-into work applications as well. makes it possible to take a virtual coffee break without disconnecting a worker from his productivity software. Employees have a hard time explaining that they missed an important event displayed in their work application because they were checking the weather report.


Customer Goals

At Cooper, we frame every design decision we make in terms of user's goals. There is something inherently Goal-Directed about a portal in that it provides a user with information that interests her; it's personal. Phil in sales may want to see summary information about his company's inventory levels for winter coats, while Mary in finance wants to see a running total of outstanding check requests that she still needs to process. A customizable portal allows for this personalization, and doesn't force Phil to see Mary's check information. By integrating information available on the Internet with this very company-specific information, users can have even more power: imagine if next to his inventory for winter coats, Phil could see weather information for his sales regions? Now, he has at-a-glance information that can help make important decisions. If a cold front is moving into his sales region, he can see whether or not he should move more inventory there.

When Cooper does a design project, we interview actual and potential customers of the digital service, appliance, or product that we are designing, and create user archetypes, called personas, based on the information we learn. The personas become design targets for us, and each one has a set of specific goals. Without going through our normal process of interviewing users, we can still extract some general goals for an employee who will use a productivity portal.

We'll call him Henry, a call center supervisor in the customer support division of a large electronics company that sells high-speed modems to consumers. Henry keeps tabs on how fast his department answers and processes a phone call, deals with escalations, and occasionally answers calls himself when things get busy. Henry's goals are:

  • never be completely disconnected from vital information about his job
  • have easy access to important, at-a-glance information
  • have somewhere to go to break up the monotony of normal workday tasks without leaving his desk (the notion of a virtual coffee break)


Building a Goal-Directed Portal

To meet Henry's goals, a good portal needs to contain good content, be easily customizable, and provide an integrated experience.

Content Is King

Good content is vital to a good portal, no matter how clean and intuitive the interaction is.

What Makes Good Content?

Content must be relevant.
If Henry is a call center manager, he wants to know when there is an incoming call overflow in his department. If he doesn't own a stock portfolio, he shouldn't be forced to see ticker information.
Content must be accurate.
Henry doesn't want to know that there was a call overflow ten minutes ago; he wants to know now. Don't rely on Henry remembering to refresh his browser; stream important information so it is always up to the minute. Henry doesn't have to ask the receptionist if he has a phone call; the receptionist automatically informs him. Why should he expect less from a software program?
Content must be digestible.

A portal must not only contain useful content, but useful content that is easily digestible. That is, it needs to be information that can be absorbed at a glance. If the customer wants to see more information, he goes through the doorway to a room dedicated to that information. Showing too much content for a particular topic, or too many topics, makes the site too noisy and overwhelming, and information becomes a distraction rather than a benefit.

Allow for Customization, but Don't Require It

You will notice that none of Henry's goals includes, "manage my portal." Henry doesn't want to spend his time (especially if he is taking a quick break from his normal productivity tasks) configuring his information, pressing Submit buttons, or waiting for his browser to reload.

Make Educated Guesses About Information Henry Wants to See, and Let Him Change it

The system will know something about Henry, such as where his current terminal is located, what job he does, and what SAP software he uses and has access to. When Henry first uses his portal, the portal can make a fairly good guess as to what kind of content he wants to have access to. It can make educated guesses about what Mini-apps are relevant to him, what SAP applications he has direct links to, and what city to display weather information for.

Provide Input Where There is Output

Don't force Henry to go to another screen in order to add another stock ticker symbol to his watch list; let him type in a symbol directly in the portal.

Get a Memory

Automatically remember the changes Henry makes so he doesn't have to make them again. When possible, push new information to him based on the detailed information he digs for in the room dedicated for a particular type of content. For example, if Henry goes to the weather page from his weather section in the portal and searches for the weather in Frankfurt, assume that next time he logs on he might want to automatically have that city added to his weather area.

Provide an Integrated Experience

To be usable, a portal must give Henry a cohesive, integrated customer experience. There should be no navigational hierarchies; there is the main portal page, and all links take Henry out of the portal and into an application or page dedicated to information represented by the link. If searching is an appropriate tool for Henry's portal, then the search input field should be directly accessible, and not buried on an "advanced search" page.


A portal with easy-to-learn interaction, rich content that can be easily personalized, and minimal navigation requirements can truly bring power and pleasure to the people who use it. It doesn't take a lot of bad decisions, however, to create a portal that overwhelms and frustrates the people whom it is trying to help.

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Cooper is a strategic consulting firm that is passionate about making technology work for a living. Cooper believes that the best solutions are born when customer goals, not technology, drive the development process. Using its unique Goal-Directed approach, Cooper helps digital businesses develop customer-friendly products, services and strategies that capture market share and build brand loyalty. For more information about Cooper Interaction Design, please visit our web site at


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