Portals: Navigation and taxonomy

This post is the eighth in a series about building portals for teams and groups to interact with customers. If you’re interested in reading more please follow us on twitter or subscribe in the right-hand margin of this blog —>

Before search, the internet was pretty simple. You either knew someone who knew where to look for thing, or you knew where to look. Is your portal the same way? Is tribal knowledge required to find the right things?

Without search, it’s difficult for users to find what they need. Since search is much simpler technologically than ever before, this is pretty much a no-brainer. Enable search.

Okay, so now search is turned on – what’s next?

Make sure search works well! Does it find the things people want? Can you watch what people are searching for and landing on? Maybe what you call your “ERP system” is what most users call “The Dom” or “MyApp” or something else – enable search to find the right thing when these terms are searched!

Once search is working well – look out for other nonsensical “browsing” type taxonomies. This would include the ever-terrible categorization of things. What makes sense to one user may not make sense to another.

Again. TO THE USERS!

Personas allow you to present the right things to the right people. And if you ask the people, they will tell you the right time to present them.

Portals with personality are the best thing on earth. Yeah – amazon is great at suggesting things related to what I have purchased, but what if they could also change the navigation, browsing and prioritization of product presentation based on who I am?

This is one place where you have a major advantage over Amazon. You can know your people much better. You probably also serve a MUCH smaller market. Take advantage of this differentiation to know your customer and delight them.

One of my least favorite features of Amazon.com shopping is “departments”. You might know about this seemingly nonsensical categorization of products.

It does have a place. Some categories (like apparel) will have sizes. Some others (like computers) will have speed attributes you want to search and filter with.

So I’m not totally against it – however, do not force your customer to use something that doesn’t make sense to them. Unless you have the millions of products and services Amazon does, there may be no need to categorize all the things.

Put your categories/departments and various views in front of customers and see if they can tell where to find things. Time them. Then give them search. Time them again. Which one wins? Is there a use-case where the customer wants categories? Can you segment that experience? Maybe it’s for group conversation, or batch ordering – can you give that access to a select set of customers?

This basically covers most navigation needs – there are other non-product and non-services navigation items to consider. Things like profiles, shopping cart (if you have one), information, FAQ, contact and other secondary content should be accessible with navigation.

In short, navigation impossible to get truly perfect. Simplicity is usually the key.  If your portal software doesn’t have a default, consider hiring great designers and get constant feedback from customers. Do a bunch of user research. It’s going to take a lot of work to even get close to appealing to customers.

Otherwise, steal from something that works (gmail, twitter, whatever).

Portals: Seamlessness

This post is the sixth in a series about building portals for teams and groups to interact with customers. If you’re interested in reading more please follow us on twitter or subscribe in the right-hand margin of this blog —>

In the last five posts, you’ve gotten a website up and running – announced your team, set up a way for your team to talk to customers and another for customers to talk to your team. Last post we started exploring the possibility of integrating another system into your portal.

Whether you realize it or not, you have just made a terrible mistake.

No kidding.

The complexity of your little portal has more than doubled. Now that you have this other system “in there” it has the ability to hurt your customer experience! What if that system makes changes? What if the data fails? How will your customers feel? What perception are you giving them?

Which brings us to another element each portion of your portal needs consider; seamlessness.

Remember all that total-cost-of-ownership stuff I was rambling about last week? That’s what I mean. If that data source goes down, how does your portal look? Do the customers realize it’s down? How many ways can you stop a good experience? Too many.

Putting safeguards in place may help:

  1. Can you replicate the database/app locally and serve it through the website? This way if it goes down, your version stays up.
  2. Can you make the portal dynamic, so that if the data source is unavailable, users see a different page/experience?
  3. How about automated testing and alerting?

This stuff can be expensive – so it’s best to know what you’re getting into. Try things out, but always be ready to pivot.

What else causes a seamless experience for users?

Colors, text and words.

Ugh, I hate this one. But it’s equally important. To make the experience a good one, all your content “should” match. This phrase just makes me ill, because like perfection – this is unattainable. There will always be out of date content. One website will update before all the rest, one document will keep being out there without an update – this is just part of reality. Get ready to work on this for the rest of your career.

The look and feel should also match other websites and experiences – where possible.

Search is a huge part of how people interact with the web. Neglecting search is an active and intentional attempt to derail most modern technology users. This can also help make your portal seem seamless and get customers to engage.

Navigation has a large impact on experience. Designers working with personas understand that navigation for one person is not navigation for all people. And no matter what decision you make on the design of navigation, it will be wrong for some people. You’ll have to deal with it.

The best navigation supports permalinks for people that bookmark what they need, or use the autofill feature of their browser to navigate to exactly what they want. Here’s some awesome reading about navigation. Jared is a great writer about experience.

And as always – test these things and listen to your customers. They will tell you when your search results suck. They will tell you when they can’t navigate to their favorite spot in less than 2 clicks. They are here for you!

join us for the next segment “Is that a Portal in your pocket?” by following us on twitter or subscribing in the right-hand margin of this site —>

Portals: Content is king!

This post is the fifth in a series about building portals for teams and groups to interact with customers. If you’re interested in reading more please follow us on twitter or subscribe in the right-hand margin of this blog —>

Now your site is up and running and you can talk to your customers and they can also participate in discussions. What comes next to provide value?

Content.

Content is what your customers want. Some examples that they might be looking for include success stories, examples of how your department or team helps people and the systems and data your teams use every day.

Consider how much information your team has. Building an interface into that information can produce some pretty unique and innovative ideas, solutions and value.

Let’s say for instance your team runs a library at a medical device manufacturer. You have access to tons of resources that most people are going to want to access and skim quickly – as well as in-depth research.

Can you extend access to the catalog via a web portal, api or guest access?

This simple integration not only saves time on employee productivity (direct access to information) – it could also lead to a more disciplined approach to product management; which translates to less risk and more profit.

Extending the data your company, team or project already leverages, adds value to your customer when they can do it themselves.

Take another situation – if you’re a bank providing financial services, surely your service partners have access to information and value your customers are begging to get at.

If you, as a bank, can offer that information, you now have a way to differentiate yourself from other local banks. Another benefit is that your partnerships grow stronger. I’ve also seen some financial institutions giving away this kind of information as a marketing tactic to attract new customers.

These integrations aren’t particularly easy. It’s not always as easy as copy-pasting an embed code from youtube. Sometimes, though, it is!

So, I echo the same thing; GO TO THE CUSTOMERS! What systems, information or things do they call your team for all the time, that they could just look up themselves?

Once you discover those things, you’ll need to determine if your software, website, whatever can integrate well. At which point you will evaluate the return-on-investment of the integration (meaning how much will you impact productivity/revenue) and the total-cost-of-ownership for this integration. Does it require a license? How about staff? Once these considerations are made, hopefully a decision can be made.

Here are some examples of common integrations being added to portals:

  1. Systems of Record
    1. Employee directory
    2. Team directory
    3. Ticket portal
    4. knowledge
    5. databases
  2. Writing
    1. How-to
    2. Company updates
    3. Team updates
    4. Project updates
    5. Fileshare
  3. Checklists
  4. Links
  5. Downloads
  6. Events/Calendars
  7. Dashboard/Reporting

Each one of these topics has complexities and considerations. Join us next week as we start exploring the fire hose of enhancement requests you’re going to start getting.

Have you been reading along? Send feedback, get involved or let us know how we’re doing!

Portals: Opening the lines of communication

This post is the fourth in a series about building portals for teams and groups to interact with customers. If you’re interested in reading more please follow us on twitter or subscribe in the right-hand margin of this blog —>

At this point you’ve got a website up, and your communicating to your customers, which is adding value and improving their experience.

Now they want more – what’s next?

Again “it depends” and I certainly have my opinions, but consider your users first and ask questions (as noted in the second post in this series).

Let’s tell a story.

You’re a customer of a company. They missed your garbage pick up this week. You go to their website. On said website there is a big banner or pop-up that says “We are experiencing a one-day delay in garbage pick ups” and offers the number to customer service.

What do you think about this experience? Pretty good right? This is basically where a portal begins; one-way communication with the option to initiate further. It’s a stepping stone to two-way communication.

There’s a reason this exists – because communication is a two-way street. So usually, I recommend giving your customers a voice. It makes them feel valued and listened to.

Now, depending on your culture, needs, audience size and web platform this could take many forms. Maybe you add a chat option so that users can chat with agents or fulfillers or staff directly. Maybe you need a webform? Maybe you just display a phone number call.

Something, anything that allows two way communication will greatly improve the portal’s value and demonstrate compassion for customers.

The chat option is the most advantageous because it also provides a universal “out” for customers who are stuck, can’t find something or just have a simple question.

Remember to design this for the customer. Test out multiple methods of conversation, and continue the dialog and feedback loop.

Next post will be about content! Subscribe in the right margin or follow us on twitter for updates!

Customer Service Week

Don’t miss out on this year’s customer service week.

If you work in customer service, use it to make work fun. If you don’t, use it as an opportunity to say thank-you – or even offer more!

Here are some ideas:

Service

  1. Start at csweek.com – it’s the best resource and mostly free!
  2. Make sure you mark it on your calendar
  3. At the very least, bring in donuts
  4. Take the time to thank each member of the team
  5. Do an off-site meeting or lunch
  6. Host a happy hour
  7. Host a potluck
  8. Bring in a customer to say “thanks”

Non-Service

  1. Say thanks to the team
  2. Offer a cross-team training
  3. Bring them treats, donuts, lunch
  4. Print a big “thank you” sign
  5. Hand written notes of thanks
  6. Giant posted with thanks written all over it

Got more ideas? Leave them in the comments below!

Portals: How to get started?

This post is the third in a series about building portals for teams and groups to interact with customers. If you’re interested in reading more please follow us on twitter or subscribe in the right-hand margin of this blog —>

When we look at the common needs of users of portals there are always trends, fads and basics. I prefer to start with the basics and keep options open.

Remember that the goal of a portal is to make people happy. So how do we start doing that?

Most portal projects jump way ahead into the future. They go straight to “we want to be like amazon” or some other phrase like this.

The reality is, you can’t afford to be like amazon AND unless you’re in retail, your goals do NOT align. Your number one priority should be happiness for your customers and your providers. I’ll use these terms going forward to describe the people viewing your portal, but do keep in mind they can be the same.

The most obvious and noticeable feature of all portals is communication.

This is even true for amazon – as soon as you go there, they tell you buy something.

What does your portal say?

We often don’t communicate well as a group because communication is difficult and people delude themselves into thinking it’s simple. Portals start like a mouth, or a brand. This may be the first time anyone sees or notices your group exists, the first interaction they’ve ever had with your team!

So what do you want them to think?

You know what I want and are ready to give me what I want.

If you can convince your customer of this, on their first interaction; congratulations, you have reached success.

How did you get here? Understanding the customer. How did you understand them? By listening to them (most likely) – or maybe you were one once. That last one is a doozie – don’t let your experience cloud your vision. Always go back to the customer and base your decisions on data.

So, the easiest way to start a portal is to get a webpage set up. And post a message to your customer. Something along the lines of:

Hi, we’re (insert group/team/person name here),

You’re here for __________, and we have ____________.

Here’s how you get __________:

And that’s it. Follow up with instructions on how to get it.

No fancy technology. No $3m project. No integration, no automation… nothing.

And already your customer has value.

Next post: adding value to a simple portal.

Portals: Why do we need them?

This post is the second in a series about building portals for teams and groups to interact with customers. If you’re interested in reading more please follow us on twitter or subscribe in the right-hand margin of this blog —>

Whenever I see a problem or hear a solution I love working it backward. I think it’s why I loved consulting. I think it’s the inner 3-year-old in me who just loves to ask “why” until someone goes bonkers.

So why do we have web portals to teams, departments and companies?

Easy! So our customers and partners can connect with us.

Why?

So that they can get what they want, how they want to get it!

Why?

To make it easier to deliver it to them!

Why?

So they can be happy and we can be happy.

And that’s good enough for me – don’t get me started on the four types of happiness, but this basically is the goal. Keep people happy. There are a multitude of other benefits. Revenue, cost savings, scalability, governance etc etc. However, to achieve these goals faster than your competitors you need teams that can operate, innovate and move quickly.

This brings me to the most overlooked part of every technology project: the people.

You basically have three main customer groups for every portal. The user, the provider and the provider’s partners. And each of these three categories have a TON unique characteristics. From competency to goals there are many misconceptions and assumptions that can be made of the user. There are also universal givens that can be applied since they are people and they are using the portal.

Now’s where the general basics kick in. Most people want (in all three groups):

  1. Easy
  2. Clear
  3. Fast
  4. Powerful
  5. Freedom

These universal desires were stolen from an article I read about libraries. LOL. But they are fundamental elements of humans search for solutions and information; things that will make them happy in the moment they are using your portal.

Since your team is unique and provides a unique service or product – I can’t provide much more advice than these very general keys.

For instance, if you’re a hospital exposing self-service check ins #3 is probably more important than #5. And if you’re an IT shop numbers 1 and 2 are probably more important than 5.

And this is where your challenge starts. Understanding the users – ALL the users. From the customer, to the people on the queues to the people they pass the work to. Each of them wants to be heard and influence the design and execution of the portal.

This doesn’t mean you can take each person’s input into consideration. Group consensus doesn’t really work that way. Instead, you must use this information as research into the design.

If you’re not into design or have experience with this – it’s bigger than a blog post. I can’t give you all that with some words. It really comes from understanding design. If you’re not ready to learn about user research and design – I highly recommend hiring someone with the experience. It is invaluably successful.

Building IT Portals – what have we learned?

I was honored to lead a roundtable discussion at HDI Minnesota yesterday. Topics ranged from hiring practices to career paths for agents. Very involved discussion with a ton of experience and leaders in the room.

I loved being there and listening.

The topic I was ‘leading’ (which means asking questions) was on IT portals. Mostly every support team had a portal along with the challenges exist that have always existed.

However, I think our industry and software in general has come a long way to understanding the shortcomings of portals, adoption and experience.

I started off the session by asking who had a portal. And some hands flopped around uncomfortably. Maybe they don’t think their portals are good enough to call them portals.

One leader offered up his story about using Sharepoint as a portal and what that meant to the sharepoint service (when we upgrade we have some issues with our portal).

Several people noted that posting critical information on the portal was a huge win for both communication and contact avoidance.

Someone else noted that Knowledgebase access was a great feature to have (totally agree) – and went on to shock me that they even allow a forum feature for people to simply discuss anything (very innovative IMHO).

Then I asked the difficult question “what do your customers think about it?”  – – crickets.

“I don’t want another password” is what one end user cited for not using the portal.

Over the next weeks I will outline some of the heavy topics involved in department portals. I’m not going to focus on IT though, because I believe this is a challenge that all many-to-one relationships have. Meaning that any department, team, group, organization, or organization can learn from other groups’ failures and challenges to build an app to improve interaction, collaboration, service, and experience.

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