Feb 18 2008

Assessing a Portal's Value

To determine the quality of an enterprisewide portal demands knowing more than mere access statistics.

To determine the quality of an enterprisewide portal demands knowing more than mere access statistics.

The raw counts of hits on a portal provide a broad sense of overall use. They let a university’s tech team know that users can access Web-based services and find information.

A university will always want to track this basic statistic. Throughout the life of a portal, this number will have relevance because it provides a way to infer success from increased use.

But proceed cautiously when making such inferences, because access stats alone cannot validate the usefulness of a portal’s content or how well the portal serves up that content. To rate these aspects of a portal, you need to clearly understand the portal’s purpose within the university enterprise. Typically, a university wants a portal to be user-centric and to serve two fundamental purposes:

  • Act as an integration solution: Web portals provide a means by which content and services can be presented in a seamless, integrated fashion. Portal integration components include visual integration (a common look and feel across all components of the portal), authentication integration (single sign-on) and data integration (applications accessed through the portal share data and functions).
  • Act as a communication tool: A portal enhances communication and creates a community. Existing communication tools — e-mail, discussion groups, instant messaging and the like — can target individuals and provide them with information pertinent to their interests and roles at the university. These same tools take advantage of interaction among similar sets of users to create a strong sense of belonging and community.

So what does the tech team need to look at to make sure a university’s portal is living up to these two fundamental services? The answer turns on customization and personalization.

A portal’s services are made available in a particular environment that presents content and applications based on the user’s role within the institution and displayed in a manner chosen by the individual. Role-based presentation is called “customization,” and the ability to choose and control appearance and content is referred to as “personalization.” How well does a portal succeed in offering self- managed, personalized and customized information environments? What are the specific attributes, and how well does the portal measure up to those attributes? If the tech team can answer these questions, then it can truly evaluate whether a portal is serving up useful content efficiently.

Even though a portal can be personalized, it is still important to provide a well-designed default view. An initial page that provides a simple view of available content, services and personalization options contributes greatly to the success of a portal implementation.

“The front page is everything,” says David Echols, a University of Georgia student. “If your front page looks messy, then your whole Web site is messy. The front page should embrace simplicity.”

Weighing Vertical and Horizontal Attributes

You will want to measure the quality of a portal based on horizontal and vertical attributes. Horizontal attributes pertain to the breadth of information on the portal. Horizontal portals offer visitors an aggregation of content and services at one Web location and are available to anyone on the Internet.

Vertical attributes refer to the depth and pertinence of content and services, particularly as the content and services relate to the role of the individual within a specific enterprise. Within a college or university, for example, these affiliations include students, faculty, staff and administrators. When students log on to the portal, they should receive a different view of the academic enterprise than a faculty member or administrator would receive.

There is a significant correlation between horizontal attributes and personalization (making the portal look and feel a certain way based on individual preferences) and between vertical attributes and customization (providing content and services based on the individual’s relationship with the enterprise).

There are five horizontal attributes and five vertical attributes. The tech team should weight each according to values based on the portal’s requirements by its users.

Even though these attributes are “directionally” distinct, they are complementary and interdependent. As the breadth of services that require authorization expands, single sign-on requirements must be considered. With the addition of new affiliate types or the expansion of the portal to better accommodate current affiliate types, additional content and service choices will be required.

This interdependence manifests itself in the use of personalization as a means for enhancing customization. Customization is not under the direct control of the individual. The system makes assumptions based on the individual’s affiliation and other characteristics, but these assumptions may not always create the user’s preferred view of the enterprise. By using the personalization feature of the portal, an individual can remove or arrange content and services the system assumed to be pertinent or add content and services based solely on personal preference.

Making Magic

To use weighted attributes to assess the quality of a portal implementation, you can adapt Gartner’s Magic Quadrant. The Stamford, Conn., research consultant uses the Magic Quadrant to rate technology vendors and service providers with respect to their ability to execute within the marketplace and the completeness of their vision. But you can use this same template to assess a portal, using horizontal attributes (personalization) and vertical attributes (customization) as the metrics.

Map your portal’s ratings for the 10 attributes along each axis. Ultimately, a portal should provide both high personalization and high customization, landing it in the upper right-hand quadrant. By using the Magic Quadrant, you will be able to identify where your portal currently falls and determine what you must do to make your portal highly personalized and highly customizable.

Reliability Factor

Once you have determined what you must do to improve personalization and customization for a portal, always remember one thing: The best portal is useless if access is spotty. That’s where those hit counts once again come into play.

“The help desk experiences a huge increase in help requests if our portal application goes down because people constantly take advantage of the many useful services provided from the single Web site,” says C. J. Winger, a help-desk consultant at the University of Georgia. “We believe any portal application that provides mission-critical services should be as redundant and fail-safe as possible because clients rely on the services to obtain information and complete essential tasks.”

Horizontal Attributes (Breadth of Content and Services)

  • Significant number of content and service choices
  • Ability to arrange choices on and across pages within the portal
  • “Skin” choices (ability to change general appearance)
  • Font, color choices (ability to change specific appearances)
  • Agile visual integration (default consistent appearance for static and dynamic content)

Vertical Attributes (Depth of Content and Services)

  • Authorization (user ID and password)
  • Affiliation detection (part of the enterprise)
  • Affiliate type detection (student, faculty, staff, alumni)
  • Association (department, class, school)
  • Process integration (single sign-on; data/process integration across multiple applications and services)

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