Enterprise Portals Are Popping

by Jakob Nielsen on July 14, 2008

Summary: A usability analysis of 23 intranet portals finds strong growth, increasing collaboration features, and cross-functional governance.

Web portals have suffered a highly variable existence. Every few years, they're in, and every few years, they're out, with many of last season's darlings filing for bankruptcy or being snapped up on the cheap. It's a different story inside companies: enterprise portals know only one way, and it's up. More and more companies are establishing intranet portals, and they keep improving their features and usability.

It's been 3 years since our last assessment of intranet portal usability . High time for an update. This time, we collected case studies from 23 companies and organizations . The new data supplements the information from the 25 companies in the report's 2 previous editions. Our current intranet portal recommendations are therefore based on the collective experience of 48 companies and organizations over the 5 years since we began our initial portal usability research .

The first new finding is that all 62 previous findings continue to hold . Although much has changed — and we have many new findings (for a total of 117 best practices in the new report) — things don't change much in terms of best practices for user experience. The technology changes and vendors produce ever-more dot-releases, but usability issues move much more slowly because they're based on human characteristics.

For example, we again found that role-based personalization is the way to go. People very rarely use corporate portal customizations , however much they ask for them. (Yet another great example of why you shouldn't listen to what users say .)

An interesting exception here is with university portals, where many users do engage with customization features. Why? Possibly because university staff has a tendency to tinker and to value exploration for its own sake.

Growing Portal Maturity, But Many Newcomers

As in previous years, no portal product has all the answers; I therefore remain vendor-neutral. Regardless, an intranet portal's quality depends more on how it's set up and run than on the technology platform — which only provides a user-experience sketch that the team needs to fill in.

Despite my vendor-neutrality, I can't resist quoting portal vendor BEA, which stated that the portals market is "positively popping" and projected an estimated $1.4 billion in annual sales in 2011. While I can't speak to the sales prediction, I can confirm that we saw significant growth in portals uptake.

We first studied intranet portals 5 years ago, and the idea is certainly older than that. Even so, many company intranets are only now sufficiently mature that teams can begin turning them into full-featured portals. Some of the bigger and more established portals we studied have reached very impressive levels, but the companies are nonetheless continuing to evolve them as they try to reach single sign-on nirvana (see below) and add new collaboration features.

Our knowledge of intranet portals has expanded along with their increasing maturity over the years. Using the report thickness as a primitive metric for the amount of information we've collected, the page count has grown from 104 pages five years ago to 343 pages now. That's an annualized growth rate of 27% in knowledge about intranet portals and their usability.

From Turf Wars to Cross-Functional Governance

One big change from our earlier research is that the report's first two editions were dominated by stories about turf wars , with individual departments refusing to submit to the portal's need for consistency in intranet content. Now, we're seeing fewer turf wars and more recognition of the portal's benefits as a cross-company initiative.

Most companies have embraced cross-functional teams or steering committees as a way to ensure buy-in across departments. This softer approach to portal governance is much more successful than having a (seemingly) arrogant intranet group in the IT department ram a portal down the other departments' collective throat.

Still, successful portal projects can't be run solely by a loosey-goosey assembly of well-intentioned people from across the organization. The portal must be somebody's job . In bigger organizations, a full-time job. Even in smaller places, however, specific individuals must be responsible for the portal as part of their official job description.

It's especially important to realize that an intranet portal is not a one-time project that's finished once it launches. The people in charge of the portal need to stay on the job after launch, or the intranet will suffer portal decay . Ongoing, dedicated resources are required both to integrate new features and maintain the quality of existing features such as search. It's amazing how quickly search quality degrades if there's not a continued push for good headlines and good intranet IA practices .

Single Sign-On: Still Elusive

Single sign-on is the Loch Ness monster of the intranet world: People hear about it and even believe it exists, but they've yet to see it for real.

In our initial research 5 years ago, it was already clear that single sign-on could dramatically improve user productivity and satisfaction, as well as immensely reduce support costs. (A huge proportion of help desk calls relate to password problems.) At the time, single sign-on was more of a hope than a practical possibility.

Our second round of research confirmed single sign-on's potential — and its elusiveness.

True single sign-on (SSO) was and is extraordinarily rare, as our third round of research shows. We can only conclude that it's very difficult to achieve, despite its promise. That said, we're starting to see an interesting, pragmatic approach to what Kaiser Permanente calls "reduced sign-on." Work as hard as you can to reduce the number of authentication requests users encounter each day, even if you can't get it down to 1. You can also reduce frustration by informing users about the impending login request before they click the link that activates the demand.

News and Collaboration: Old and New Portal Drivers

Good ol' news continues to be one of the main intranet portal applications. But just because it's an established tool doesn't mean you should ignore it. Often, the biggest gains come from improving the "boring" stuff that everybody knows — and uses.

On portals, news has two distinct roles:

  • Unifying force : It ensures that all employees are informed and receive a consistent message.
  • Narrowcasting : It aggregates and distributes specialized news so that each user gets a filtered view with just the information he or she needs.

To drive portal use, several companies are now adding collaboration tools , often in the form of " Web 2.0 " features such as blogs and wikis. The companies we studied had differing governance stances regarding these tools: Some embraced the same level of openness (and risk of chaos) as we see on the open Internet; others took a stricter approach.

In any case, intranet portal collaboration features tend to be business-oriented and benefit from the accountability that's inherent in having all contributions attributed to an employee's real name. Flames are less severe when you sign your postings and address them to people you have to face in the cafeteria the next day.

Rather than being swayed by fashionable Web 2.0 trends, our case studies indicate the need to make a business case for "Enterprise 2.0" features. Many such features are actually more useful on intranets than on the open Internet. However, you must first ensure that you have a governance structure and rules in place, and that you know the real business value of any planned features. If you can't identify the business case, you're better off focusing on further improvements to the old features you already have.

User-Informed Design

Most portal teams base their design work on some form of user research. User testing, surveys, and card sorting are all frequently used, along with several other usability methods.

The problem is that teams often use surveys (which record what people say ) more than testing (which shows what people actually do ). Teams that have tried user testing for their portal projects have become strong advocates for the method and report high value from their tests. Sadly, becoming convinced about user testing's value typically requires a team to actually conduct a test. Having me say that it's important is nowhere as good a motivator as personal experience watching users. Although this is obviously a bit chicken-and-egg, we are seeing more and more intranet portals being subjected to user testing.

ROI Under-Documented

Few portal teams collect solid numbers to estimate their project's return on investment. The one honorable exception this time was Dell, which computed annual productivity gains of $36 million from its portal. Dell's ROI number comes from its standard process improvement methodology, which is based on Six Sigma.

While smaller companies are likely to realize smaller savings, they should still estimate ROI. They can do this at any desired level of rigor; as good as it is, we don't want to hold up Six Sigma as the standard everyone should conform to. It's perfectly feasible to estimate portal productivity improvements using the simpler method we applied to our study of intranet usability in general :

  1. Define a number of core employee tasks.
  2. Find out how frequently people perform these tasks.
  3. Find the loaded hourly cost of an average employee in your company. (Or, for a more advanced approach, segment employees by major job categories and run this analysis for each segment, using average costs for people in that segment, as well as their frequency of use.)
  4. Observe and time people as they perform the defined tasks with your current design. For timing, a simple stopwatch will suffice; you don't need special equipment or a fancy usability lab. Indeed, we often collect benchmark metrics for clients by testing in a small conference room.
  5. Multiply the following numbers: time on task, each task's frequency, the employees' hourly rate, and the number of intranet users. The result is how much it costs the company to have employees accomplish the tasks using the current design.
  6. Adjust this cost estimate to account for the tasks you didn't measure. For example, if you measured 1/3 of the core tasks employees do, you should multiply your measured numbers by 3 to get a decent estimate for all tasks. This, of course, assumes that you didn't focus the testing on the intranet's best-supported or best-designed areas, but rather on a representative and fairly chosen sample of tasks.

Repeat this process again after launching your new design. The new cost estimate will usually be much lower; the difference between the two numbers is the productivity gain caused by your new design. Next, simply subtract the project costs, and you have the ROI.

Well, this is what I want you to do. With the exception of Dell, the teams we studied justified their portal projects through softer means, such as improved user satisfaction and increased usage.

Next-generation portals increasingly emphasize collaboration features, and measuring community activity forms another argument that features are being appreciated across the company. Many organizations also view improved information access as a key goal. While it's certainly possible to measure changes in employee awareness of corporate information, portal teams currently tend to take a qualitative approach to assessing knowledge dissemination as well.

Indeed, many teams view their portal as such an obvious improvement over the disorganized intranet that preceded it that measuring formal ROI seems like a waste of time. The good news? They're often right. We've seen some failed portals projects — and there are definitely many pitfalls to avoid — but a good intranet portal adds very clear value.

Full Report

The full research report with case studies of intranet portal design is available for download.

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