Maybe a Little Thing Called “Personalization” Would Help?

May 16, 2007 at 11:23 am | Posted in Intranet, portals, usability, User experience | 1 Comment

I was happy to see the Wall St. Journal had a 3 page section in the 5/14/07 issue on “Business Solutions: Building a More useful Intranet”. But I was disappointed to see the total absence of any mention of the importance of trimming down the information presented based on the the user’s profile. The “Portal” word was invoked once, but not explained or associated with “contextual delivery”. Personalization – not mentioned.

There is an interview with Kara Coyne from Nielsen Norman Group. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kara a few years ago and discussing how I thought that the human factors industry was not keeping up with the times by continuing to treat screen design as a static home page issue – as if one was laying out a newspaper ad. But here she is, on page R6, responding to a statement about clutter by saying

What upper managers often don’t understand is, the more items that there are, the less likely it is that users are going to see your item. If you have too many choices, you’ll end up tuning them all out.

Right! That statement is the perfect lead-in for the need for a technology that helps line up information about who a specific user is (a profile compiled from the directory, HR information such as title and department, skills inventory, heuristic analysis of their contributions and attention stream, and self-profiling or “opt in”) with metadata about the content to determine what would be important to that individual. It’s personalization and portals have been doing it a very long time. You can make it very complicated if you want to, but even in its simplest form it can have tremendous value by narrowing down the information to be sorted through.

The problem is not that there are too many items on the intranet or on the home page. The problem is that no effort has been taken to determine which items are of value to a given user. 99%+ of the information on an intranet is useless to any one individual, so any simple filtering of information – even just by department or job function – can have a huge impact. Why force them all to see the same thing when technology has existed for years to help winnow down the information? Search (which is mentioned in the section) is part of the picture (the “push” part), but not a winning answer for home page design.

The American Electric Power example they give (winner of a Nielsen Norman Group award) is once again a demonstration of an advertising-like devotion to examining “the” homepage as a static work of art. Any design review, in my opinion, should be dynamic. It should start with asking what the main types of users are and then asking to see what the homepage looks like for each type (the executive’s homepage, a call center agent’s homepage, an IT developer’s homepage, etc.). The design has to serve the function and only by knowing what various users need from a website can you determine if the design is appropriate. And no one design will meet the majority of needs of even the top 5 categories of users, so why spend all that time on usability of a non-optimized page? The AEP page looks beautiful in a generic way, but why is it forcing an information worker to click and dig to get their information instead of caring a little bit about who they are and bringing it to them? Maybe it does, but that’s not apparent from the web page shown.

Also, on a separate peeve, I’ve spoken many times about the value of collaboration when used in context. The AEP site has a button at the top called “The Agora” that’s described as “a new area where employees can meet and collaborate”. Does the user need to go to a special area to collaborate? Does that mean the rest of the intranet is not for collaborating? I can’t tell from the picture or text, but I’ve seen that quite often when I’ve done design reviews. If someone’s job is to track sales leads, for example, collaboration should be used in context – right there next to the sales lead system and displaying collaborative discussions and documents relating to the sales lead being examined. Information workers rarely stop what they are doing to say “Gee, I think I’ll go collaborate for a while and then get back to work”. Collaboration can have its own home page and entry point too, but contextual collaboration is where I see collaboration having the most value.

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1 Comment »

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  1. I apologise, but, in my opinion, you commit an error. I can prove it.


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