Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Portals - can we solve our intranet issues out of a box?

My main concern about 'Portal' software is the lack of accessibility and usability standard compliance with the software as well as taking the ability away from organisations to ensure that the code of their intranet is clean and of a validated standard. (This will be of even more importance to organisations in the public sector that may need to comply with standards set by government.)

At a recent conference in Sydney (Intranets '05), where I presented on content standards, I heard from a major Energy company about 'nightmarish' problems with usability and accessibility issues over replacing their standard web based intranet with one driven by a major software company's portal.

These are similar issues echoed by a major organisation in New Zealand who had bought the software but were finding it overally complicated to integrate the system into their exsting structures because of the lack of basic standards followed by the vendor. Thus creating more problems than they solve.

Some of these issues are similar to the ones outlined here.

To summarise they include things like links not changing while in the system (meaning no bookmarking of pages for users takling them away from the standard web interface of the browser), crappy system generated code, lack of customisation ability (eventhough the systems are sold as highly customisable) and massive scrolling pages (some with horizontal scrolling!).

Interestingly it's difficult to find a lot of information on the problems re: usability/accessibility of portal software. Indeed many comentators seem resigned to the fact that they are here and therefore we should be working on ways to make them usable or seem to think that the question of portals have gone away and that they are just a buzzword. Jakob Nielsen says progress has been made in portal usability and describes intranet portals as 'virtually dead' (wishful thinking perhaps and a big call made in 2003).

With the latest versions from the vendors renewed slaes pitches are coming our way, still without really resloving a lot of the key usability and accessibility issues that the software has. So I think pronuncement of their demise was probably a little premature.

As I have mentioned previously portals offer key functionality that can increase business productivity and help in information management but until vendors take content, usability and accessibility issues seriously I think organisations will continue to have implemenation and integration problems and will fail to realise the full potential the software offers.

I suggest more critical evaluation of what your business problems are and whether portal sofware will make your business stronger or simply create more issues for you to deal with.

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At 8:41 PM, Anonymous Justin said...

I think this problem has much more to do with the people that are paying for portal software than those who are implementing it or, gasp, the actual users. Portal vendors have no incentive to create standards-compliant software when the CIO who’s writing the checks doesn't understand (or can’t quantify) its value.

I worked on a year-long project attempting to implement Oracle Portal on a public-facing site with disasterous results. I was able to move most of the content to XML which I shoe-horned in. However, as more and more of Portal’s flaws became apparent, we'd customize it until it was basically a band-aid custom application held together by single sign-on. The project failed. That was almost a year ago. The company still hasn't implemented version 2.0 of their web site.

I think applications based around a lighter-weight service oriented architecture make a lot more sense than most of the cumbersome packaged solutions. This is a hard sell, though. SOA requires some infrastrcutre investment as well as a fundamentally new way of thinking of how applications should interact.

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