Shibani Kapoor, human factors engineer for Intel, was at the the J. Boye Conference this week. She described the many user experience benefits of consolidating a multinational intranet into a single portal -- and some unexpected challenges.

User Experience Challenges with Portals

Portals make a lot of sense for big organizations with a lot of products, country presences, job roles, or all three. Intel had all three, and decided there were compelling business advantages to unifying nearly a score of sites, applications and formats under one portal umbrella. Unfortunately, there were some surprising user experience challenges that arose.

Everything Under One Roof

Putting all Intel content under one 'roof' was a great idea for Intel's dizzying array. However, it turned out that the strategic efficiency broke down in practice. While the main portal screen could contain 14 elements, important for strategic purposes, it was only efficient with no more than 8 elements...and then users rebelled and wouldn't accept more than 6 at a time. The lesson? Business efficiencies (and even cognitive efficiencies) don't always translate to performance.

Consistent Set of Templates

Offering a consistent set of templates and interfaces also seemed to make sense. It was much easier for people to move from application to application, or site to site. This increased user effectiveness and cut training and other personnel costs.

But the common interface also made it difficult for users to situate themselves in the system. What was worse was that some users needed specialized interfaces to do their jobs; some sales reps, for example, needed to see their screens as outside customers would see them. 

The unified interface meant that they couldn't do their jobs. An integrated interface, with a lot of legacy applications folded in, proved more expensive than had been projected. Strategies and workarounds to solve various incompatibilities proved very hard (and costly) to undo later. The lesson? Focus on overall experience rather than consistency if there's a conflict.

A Single Login and Common Platform

A single login and common platform also made sense. There were obvious efficiencies for users. Role-based sign in helped people find job-specific information quickly. On the other hand, the common format destroyed saved bookmarks and learned information paths, and user frustration grew. The lesson? Don't fix what isn't broken, and communicate new directions and procedures beforehand.

Finally, Intel's use of a commercial CMS product had a lot of advantages. Commercial products are standardized, tried and tested, and usually better-structured. However, the apparent 'completeness' of the commercial solution hid the need for extensive customization.

This cut down the savings realized by standardization, as customization was necessary for people to get jobs done. The lesson? Select suppliers based on usability. Realize that jobs and goals are often very different, and that you'll need to fix this in any product you select. Finally, maintain a strong relationship with your supplier, to ensure your purchase continues to meet your needs.