Best Practices for Personalization in Portals and Intranets

Personalization is the technology that makes great websites even better. Ever wonder how Amazon is able to recommend products they think you will like? Or how searching Google for “Taxi” in New York, gives taxi results for New York and not Houston or London? That’s personalization. Personalization is a dynamic search where part of the query comes from information about the user. It’s not just a dumb search across the whole internet for the word “taxi” but smart in that it takes into account where and who you are. We use personalization extensively in our Enterprise Portal Blueprint Personalization is more than just a neat trick. It is one of the promises you must keep for an exceptional user experience.

Exceptional portals keep all their promises

Keeping these promises determines the success or failure of the portal. These promises are the core design principles that guide the design. For every page we design, for every icon, every pixel – we must ask ourselves if it gets us closer or further away from being able to keep these promises:
  • Comprehensive - If the information exists, users expect it to be in the portal somewhere. This means any communications that are sent via email, phone, print, or even on TV, any information that exists outside the portal, should also be findable inside the portal. This is the hardest promise to keep, but also one of the most important.
  • Contextual - Information should be grouped in context with related information.
  • 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 in the user profile, we can identify what business unit the user is in, their level, their location, and other attributes to select the content targeted to them.

Personalized content is being pushed to the user

Remember how people use the web. Despite the huge variety of websites and content, and services you can find on the web – it all boils down to four basic use cases: Push information, pull or find the specific information you are looking for, discover new information, or share and collaborate. Personalization allows us to push targeted information to the user and improves their ability to discover useful and relevant content and services.

The trick with personalization is not to overuse it

The portal is not magic, and the authors who are targeting content are not psychic. 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. In our Portal Blueprint, we make sure that any content on personalized dashboards is also available in well-organized catalogs so that people who are targeted to have it pushed to them can still find it.

Personalization vs. Security vs. Customization

  • Security is showing or hiding content based on what the user is ALLOWED to see. Think of security as the first layer – determining what is available in the pool of content.
  • Customization is the user changing the page for themselves by adding, removing, rearranging etc, to customize the page.
  • Personalization is a set of business rules that can use any information to select what we (the designers and business) think the user will want.

Building an Exceptional Portal Experience

All of our portal implementations use personalization extensively. In IBM WebSphere Portal, personalization is a feature that comes out of the box, allowing you to write rules that control everything the user sees on the screen. In different projects, we have used personalization to:
  • Change the site logo to reflect the business affiliation of the user
  • Change the navigation the user sees
  • Change what content is displayed based on the users' language, country, region, state, city, function, level, status, union membership, etc.
In our Portal Blueprint, there are three personalized dashboards where potentially every single link is different depending on who the user is. With all this personalization, it is easy to paint yourself into usability corners. Remember, the content is driven by rules, and those rules are written by people – so they are not perfect, and the portal is not psychic. It is trying to guess what you are interested in based on what it knows about you, but it does not know everything. One of the problems we have seen clients get into is overusing personalization and not giving users a back door. If the personalization is wrong, if the user normally lives in New York but today they are traveling to Miami, the portal should not actively prevent them from finding information about Miami, or anywhere else for that matter. Personalization is a tool for making the website smarter, not a cage for the user (that's where security comes in to play). If you want to learn more about portals or personalization, please contact us here.

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