April 2009
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Portals That Walk And Talk Like Ducks

Mr. Frog went a-hoppin’ up over the brook, Uh-huh,
Mr. Frog went a-hoppin’ up over the brook, Uh-huh,
Mr. Frog went a-hoppin’ up over the brook.
A lily-white duck come and swallowed him up, Uh-huh.
- FROGGIE WENT A COURTIN’

Had a look at the People’s United Bank site that has just been launched and recently tweeted. Firstly, well done to everyone involved for getting it live. Always nice to see a new big CMS driven site. It looks good too – nice and clean. Hats off to the designers.

But I do have to ask my friends at Vignette – was it really necessary to use your portal products (Vignette Application Portal and Dynamic Portal Module) for this? I have only looked at the site for 15 minutes, so have probably missed something huge. But I’m going to assume I haven’t and soldier on.
Dark Portal

I realise it is a bank, so there are probably a lot more Portal suitable features behind the different logins. But all of those seem to go off-site away from the Portal implementation at the moment. It’s often the other way round. The post-login functionality is driven by a portal, not the pre-login informational/marketing section. The site seems to be primarily static content. Maybe the content differs depending on your ZIP code – not easy to tell.

Portals are meant to aggregate applications, not provide a set of off-site links to them. The login goes to a server running ASP.NET. The career application is an offsite IFRAME. The branch finder goes to MapQuest. The search goes to Mondo with a secure/unsecure warning. Even the search results are displayed on Mondo, but maybe this is for the term highlighting.

I’ve noticed on the Vignette site that the Portal product is now classified under Intranet , not under Web Content Management. That’s a step in the right direction. It can make a mighty fine Intranet. But it still seems to get recommended as the delivery mechanism for every site you launch.

Maybe there are no downsides to using the Portal for this site. But if it is so easy to fix the friendly URLs , the validating markup, and the TABLE based layouts , I’m looking forward to seeing them in the next release of this site. Google really digs that stuff, and banks really dig organic traffic. At the very least, please put the <link> to vgn-ext-templating.css somewhere after the opening<html> tag.

The implementation was probably a fair bit of effort too, I’m guessing. Did you choose an external spider for the site search because it felt right, or because it is actually quite difficult to implement an internal search on a Portal? Any issues with sessions and bookmarking? Do the editorial team need to use both the VCM and VAP to create new pages, or do they have a nice, single tool that they use to create pages and content? And it is all easy and cheap to maintain?

I guess someone might have played the “we’re not using the Portal functionality for Phase 1, but we need a future-proof platform to carry us forward” card. Or did someone say synergies a lot? Oh for a penny for every non-implemented planned Phase 2 feature I’ve seen. We all love agile development these days; whatever happened to agile product choices? If the post-login part of this site is live on VAP in the next 12 months, however, I’ll eat my hat, apologise, and buy everyone lots and lots of beer.

I really like the VCM. And I really like VAP. But this site isn’t a Portal. Dear Vignette, please don’t make us use VAP for everything. You do have other delivery mechanisms. Dear other major vendors, stop smirking. Many of you do the same.

Not every site is a Portal. Sometimes a Portal is really a Gate To Hell. Here there be Demons.

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7 comments to Portals That Walk And Talk Like Ducks

  • Interesting. You make it sound like Vignette solely decided which of their products to use at the People’s United Bank.

    Vignette may be to blame for many things, but ultimately the decision is the customers. Vignette absolutely can’t “make us use VAP for everything”. Personally I don’t use VAP for anything and even if Vignette told me to, I would ask: Why? … and always consider alternatives

    Cheers,

    • Janus, you make an excellent point. I really appreciate getting the “customer perspective” that you provide. And I’d bet that if you had been engaged by People’s United Bank as an external consultant, someone would have asked these questions. On some projects, the only parties involved are the customer and the vendor’s Professional Services arm. In others, you can add in a third party SI/Agency (such as Xpediant, who focus on Portals, in this case). You are completely correct that it is the customer’s responsibility to ask these questions, but you can’t help feeling sorry for them if all they’ve done is trusted the vendor and the SI. Both of whom possibly want to sell as many licenses as possible.

      I guess the lesson here is that the customer really needs to understand the motives all of parties involved. And either have the expertise in house to ask the right questions or hire a genuinely impartial expert (such as yourself) from the very very beginning to ask the questions on their behalf.

      After reading a bit and checking the old wayback machine, it turns out this was an upgrade from V6. I believe most customers would trust the recommendations from their incumbents on an upgrade.

      Finally, when I say “us” in the sentence you quote, us means agencies/systems integrators – the perspective from which I see the world. Being a Partner with any large vendor seems to mean that you need to tow the party line and implement things in the recommended way. The vendor will normally want their experts to “certify” your architecture, and the customer feels very uneasy if they hear different stories from the vendor and partner. And if the “crew” and the “cms” are selected as part of the same process, the SI and Vendor often need to do joint pitch. You gotta play ball in those.

      Of course the SI could go viligilante, forsake any partnership agreement and get a reputation for being The Guys That Implement It The Proper Yet Not Recommended Way. But that’s never going to work in the real world.

      Thoughts?
      Jon

  • As a customer, who should you trust? System integrator or vendor? Your excellent article and our brief discussion got me thinking and I turned it into a blog:
    http://www.jboye.com/blogpost/vendors-vs-system-integrators-whom-to-trust/

    A few additional thoughts relating to your comments:
    * Just like most people would not build a new 3 floor building without some help (e.g. architects, designers, planners), you should not engage in a major portal or CMS project without some help. Also, make sure the people that advice you on the planning are not the same ones doing the implementation!
    * The Guys That Challenges The Customer Instead Of Blindly Going The Vendor Way could definitely work in the real world
    * Either you are impartial or you are not. You cannot be “very impartial”, “genuinely impartial” etc., just like you cannot be very unique. Either you are unique or you are not. My point here is that to many buyers we are all vendors, whether software company, consultancy, agency or analyst. It is not an easy marketplace for buyers!

  • I like your article. I might post some comments there. But quickly on the three points you raise here:

    * Point one – Agree. But this does touch the “Pick the best crew, not product, discussion”. Not going to repeat that here.
    * Point two – I’m not sure it could. If the agency and vendor aren’t singing for the same hymn sheet, it’s bad for everyone. Having a reputation for being honest and not using Product X because you think they’re doing things badly is fine. But using it anyway in a different (which might mean non-supported) way won’t work, I don’t think. Maybe there is a role for someone to come in and fix the mess when it goes badly, though.
    * Point three – Good point. But I guess you could have people that claim to be impartial but aren’t. “Very impartial” makes no sense. “Genuinely impartial” might make a little. My agency claims to be vendor neutral but we probably aren’t even close. Probably impossible for any SI to claim they are.

  • [...] recent critical blog on portals by Jon Marks, Head of Development at digital agency LBi, reminded me that customers need to watch [...]

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