Employee Portals and Intranets


The purpose of the portal is to collect and organize the information and services of an intranet, and make them universally accessible and useful. If this sounds familiar, it's because it is also the mission statement of a popular portal and search engine you have proablly used before - Google. To complete this mission, the portal has several promises to keep - and since the content and services needed vary from person-to-person and role-to-role, we use security, personalization, and customization to change which content the user sees on any given page.

The portal makes promises to the user.

The portal makes several implicit promises to the user that the design needs to keep.

Keeping these promises determines the success or failure of the portal. These promises are the core design principles that guide the design. For every view page we design, every icon, every pixel, we must ask ourselves if it gets us closer or further from keeping these promises:

  • Comprehensive - If the information exists on the intranet, users expect it to be in the portal somewhere. This means any communications that are sent via email, phone, print mailers, or TV ads that exist outside the portal, should also be findable inside the portal. It also means that we continuously look at search logs user feedback to understand what people are looking for and potentially not finding. Comprehensive is the most difficult promise to keep. Even if everything that exists is carefully documented and made available, users will search for things that do NOT exist. It falls on the portal team to create that content as well. Most search engines will provide logs that show the terms users entered and got zero results and this content can be created - even if the answer is an honest one (one client of ours did not publish org charts but users consistently searched for them, so we created this: "North America Org Charts - We do not allow org charts to be published on the intranet out of fear that they will get out and be used by our competition to hire our best and brightest. Your best bet is to search for people in Outlook. Sorry for the inconvenience." (eventually that policy was changed and they started publish org charts partially because the right people now understood it was a policy issue not a usability one).

  • Contextual - Information should be grouped in context with related information. Context is where the information is placed in relation to other information in the portal. From a design perspective, we achieve context by publishing content to sites where it "lives" and the pulling it together into additional contexts. For example, an HR policy or procedure for hiring or terminating employment: this content is published to an HR site - where the context tells the user "what else is going on with the HR group" and perhaps pulled to a manager dashboard where the context is "tools you need to manage an employee". 

  • Integrated - Users do not care that two sites are hosted in different places or managed by different people. They just want them to work together seamlessly.

  • Personalized - The portal should know who I am. By using information stored on the user profile, we can identify what business unit the user is in, their level, if they are manager, their location, and other attributes to select the content they are most likely to be looking for. The trick with personalization is not to overuse it however. The portal is not physic, and we can not know with 100% certainty what content the user is looking for, so we must always give the user an alternative way to get to it. We do this in the portal by having personalized dashboards on the My Workspace, but all the content is organized under Our Company so people who are not in a given role can still find it.

  • Consistant - Consistency means we establish templates and patterns that are followed on all the dashboards, sites, and applications that the portal interacts with. Ideally, all the sites and web applications owned or used by the enterprise would follow a set of look and feel guidelines and have a consistant header that made it feel like they were a part of the same application. 

  • Fast - Performance of the portal is measured in different ways:
    • Page load time - how long it takes a page to load from the time it is requested (when the user clicks a link, browser bookmark or enters the url). 
    • Time to Task times - how long it takes a user to achieve a given task using the portal. This incorporates page load, application response, and even the usability of the site and gives a much more holistic measure of performance.
    • User perception of speed - Usually when a user is complaining about speed, it is the impression of speed that bothers them. For example, a given page may actually load slower, but if it has a loading icon, or other indication of what is happening, users are much more likely to report that the site seems faster. 4 seconds of uncertainty is longer than 10 seconds of patience. 

  • Transparent - It is important to communicate exactly what is going on, especially in a dynamic site where two users will have different views of the same content. We accomplish this by showing  metadata beyond the common author name and published date including "audience", "published to", and links to info that explain "why am I seeing this"

  • Social - Making a website social means making it about people, there is a community around every piece of content that can start socializing and solving common problems in comments, forums, and through posting their own content. Social content, or user generated content can be an important part of portal and can contribute to its perceived usefulness.
  • Easy to use - This is normally the place where we mention usability studies. But the most common error is in failing to speak plainly or in trying too hard to speck the technical language of the user. The most common usability complaints come from assuming users have the secret language of an expert and thus basic context about what content is, who its for, why its there, how to access it, when, and where is left out. If every resource add to the portal had to answer those questions, usability would be improved in many ways. The other key to usability to avoid having too many pages, this happens when you plan categories before you have the content. Better to have pages that are too full then break them up then create empty pages that exist only to categorize a few things. 
  • Secure - Security is a feeling just as much as it is a measure of encryption or protection. Users get nervous when they see things that they know should be secure without a clear indication that they are. In this sense it is not enough to secure content, it must also LOOK like it is secured. This can be as simple as an icon, but that icon must be able to tell the user exactly who can see it when they hover over or click it.

  • Mobile and Adaptable - The world is accessing the web through mobile phones and tablets. This trend is accelerating and has already reached a tipping point on consumer sites in many areas where more than 50% of the interactions are through the web. If content is not view through a dedicated application, it at least needs to be viewed in an interface that adapts to the size of the users browser. 

The Portal's Mission
  • To collect and organize all of the information of the intranet and make it universally accesible and useful to employees.
  • To highlight and showcase best practices and provide the most relevant and important information to help people do their job's exceptional.
  • To tell the story and reinforce the Brand promises and values of your company or organization.