How to Master Portal Design

By Prof. Dr. Frank Thissen, – 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.

Users either Go through a Portal, or They Walk Away

The term portal contains a metaphor that refers to the way portals are used. The original meaning of portal was a gateway, entrance or foyer providing access to a building. Visitors gain an initial impression of a building from its portal, which may be welcoming or threatening. The way visitors perceive a portal makes them automatically draw their own conclusions as to what awaits them. Portals always prompt visitors to make a decision: shall I enter the building or shall I make a quick exit? An attractive portal makes you curious about what is inside the building. An unattractive portal makes you feel uneasy. And if visitors are unable to make a quick exit, then they do not feel comfortable or positive about what awaits them. The Czech author Kafka described this beautifully in his parable Vor dem Gesetz (Before the Law), where the appearance of the portal and the doorkeeper deters the visitor to such an extent that the latter dare not enter, and yet it was exclusively created for him.

The design of portals is of huge importance, as the metainformation they convey greatly influences the attitude of a visitor. What kind of implicit messages should a portal convey? And how should it be designed so that it is appealing to visitors, helps them feel comfortable, find their way, and continue to look around?
Transferring this to business portals, we ask ourselves: how do we design a portal so that it functions, that is, so users do not have to think about operating the portal but instead are just concerned with what the site has to offer? What implicit messages should a portal be signaling, and how does it adapt to its users?


What Do Users Expect from Portals?

When using a virtual business portal, you hope to find exactly what you would expect from a physical portal:

Using portals is a highly psychological and emotional experience. Like web sites, portals should identify with their users and meet their needs. They should simplify their users' work and must be adapted to the cognitive requirements of the user (for example, the restrictions of the human short-term memory, ergonomic aspects and so on).


What Are the Characteristics of Functioning Portals?

Portals that function are not always designed by an architect; they are the ones based on the expectations and activities of their users that effectively meet these expectations.

They are clearly structured. Their users instinctively understand the structure, because they are familiar with this structure and it is not too complex. A manageable structure enables users to find their way around and to make a mental note of this structure. With a good structure, users can sketch if off the top of their heads after using it for the first time. It is concise from a user perspective and not from that of the developer.

They are easy to operate. This means that users can understand the paths available to them. They can recognize what the portal has to offer and how to use it. The portal uses a form of flat navigation and the applications, information, and reports are just a few mouse clicks away.

They are appealing. They motivate users, arouse their curiosity to go further, promise the visitor added value, and they keep that promise. Their look and feel is designed to appeal, has an aesthetic quality, and at the same time is state-of-the-art in terms of usability.

They lead into an enclosed area and not into infinity. Who enjoys working in a warehouse? Isn't an individual desk a better working platform? People want to know what they are doing. They want to stay in control and be able to follow what is going on. A good portal leads into a clearly structured building and not into a maze.

They can be personalized. Users can adapt the portal to their needs and way of working. They can personalize what they want to find in the portal and where they want to find this. Microsoft made the first forays into personalizing user interfaces with its information nuggets. In the future it will not be the users who adapt to the software, but rather the software that adapts to the users and their activities.

And finally, effective portals promote communication. After all, who wants to be alone in a building? These days, work processes are increasingly team-oriented. Dialog between human beings helps them users move forward together and discover new problem-solving strategies. A portal also functions like a marketplace where people meet and communicate with one another. Portals represent a new type of approach to using computers and net-based work environments. What Terry Winograd und Brenda Laurel envisaged, is now being widely used under a new name.


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