Twelve key features for your business portal

The features you include in your business Web site can make or break the project. These key features will help increases users and usage for both your intranet or extranet deployments.

A portal is simply a Web site that is designed to collect and organize information and operations for your business. Setting your strategy for a new or improved company Web site is a bit more complicated than simply launching a Web page.

The first part of your business portal strategy should be determining the audience you want to serve. If the focus is your customers and partners on an extranet, you have a set of features you want to consider for your site. If your target is an intranet portal for your employees, you have a different set of features to consider. Here is a look at each of these business portal applications for help in setting your strategy.

Features for the extranet

There is no one answer to which features are mandatory and which are optional in portal design. Despite the lack of agreement on a single list, everyone agrees that there are several important features that you should consider when setting your extranet portal strategy. Those features include:

  • Search: Your search functionality should be able to query both structured and unstructured content by keywords. Structured data are the databases and transactional systems, such as an ERP system. Unstructured content includes all of the office documents, proposals, and other information that cannot be easily entered into a database.
  • Consistent, easy-to-use interface: Portals typically have a consistent interface which flows from the home page down through every area of the portal. The interface is typically designed specifically to make using the portal very easy. This may include breadcrumbing to link to higher levels in the hierarchy; and hovering menus, which allow for an expanded list of links.
  • Minimal client deployment: Portals typically do not require that the users install new software. This generally means that portals are Web-based.
  • Discussions: Some portals provide discussion forums where users can interact with one another and with the portal host. These forums are designed to strengthen the relationship between users and the host organization.
  • Aggregation: Pulling links and content together into a single place helps users know where to go if they are looking for information. Aggregation allows a user to interact with several systems from one single user interface.
  • Alerts: Users can sign up for e-mail notification when the information that they are interested in changes. This can include both key performance indicator changes and changes in information within documents. Alerts shift the model of user interaction from a pull model, where users must go check the portal, to a push model, where they will be informed when something of interest on the portal changes.
  • Self service: Portals can be a home for a variety of self-service applications, which allow customers, employees, and others to take care of their own needs.

With the features listed above you can create an interactive environment where clients and other partners can find what they are looking for and interact in an easy-to-use way that should increase users of your extranet.

Features for the intranet

In addition to the features that you should consider for an extranet there are special considerations for intranet deployments. You should consider additional features for your intranet, because intranet users typically stay connected for longer periods of time than extranet users. The additional features include:

  • Digital dashboard: A dashboard lets you display key status indicators for several business processes and systems on a single screen, giving the user a quick overview of overall status and allowing rapid identification of problems.  Digital dashboards offer an opportunity for executives to get a complete view of the overall landscape of the organization, including portions of the organization that cannot be reduced to a set of key performance indicators.
  • Personalization: The ability for groups and individual users to customize the way that the information is displayed.  Filtering content to the information that a group is interested in and being able to change the location of the information on the screen is considered an important way in which portals create a user-friendly experience.
  • Knowledge management:Your employees hold the keys to most of the information in your organization.  Portals provide a repository for the information that employees have developed through experience.  Portals help to broaden the usefulness or leverage of the knowledge that the organization already possesses.
  • Collaboration:Some portals provide tools necessary to facilitate better collaboration.  This might include the presence of information to help identify when coworkers are available, or lists to help organize tasks, events, and announcements. 
  • Distributed control:One of the challenges that many IT organizations face is trying to maintain their existing intranet systems. Distributed control via a content management system allows individual owners to manage the content aspects of the portal in their areas.

Defining your business portal

Just knowing what a portal is will not help you define what your business portal should look like. For that, you'll have to evaluate the business problems facing your organization and how a portal strategy can be formed to solve those problems.  From there, you can select the features that you need to implement in order to solve that business problem.

One of the greatest challenges is creating a portal project that is both large enough to be of interest to the users and small enough to be able to become functional in a reasonable period of time. Portals can demonstrate clear value, but only when they have a targeted business problem to solve and an overall architecture to fit into.

When defining your portal, first make sure that you've identified a small number of projects or initiatives that will benefit most from the portal. Develop a solid plan on how those problems will be solved with process revisions and automated support through the portal.  Second, make sure that you allow for a small amount of time to put in provisions for larger, enterprise-wide solutions when they are ready.

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