Pet peeve — a name which do a poor job of describing an idea. A good name’s job is to elegantly wrap an idea in a single word because a name is going to travel. It’s going to leave one person’s mouth and go to another… and another… and another. Each time the name jumps a person, it’s runs the risk of being interpreted by an idiot. A good name can weather advanced stupidity whereas a bad name easily mutates into something it was not intended to be.
The term portal is up there as one of the most over-used terms of the late 90s. It’s right next to the term dot com except everyone knows what dot com means whereas if you ask your average technology observer exactly what a portal is… you’re never going to get the same answer.
Wikipedia defines a portal thusly “A web portal is a web site that provides a starting point, a gateway, or portal, to other resources on the Internet…”
Let’s throw up all over shall we? First, how in the world can you use a word to define itself? Second, how does this not describe EVERY SINGLE PAGE ON THE INTERNET. No wonder the term portal bugs me. It describes nothing.
Thankfully, the term portal has fallen out of vogue because of it’s lack of meaning and, hopefully, it’s association with the dot com implosion. Unfortunately, we might be in for another round of portalization and it appears no one paid attention the first time around.
Google fired the first shot a few months back with the first version of their Google Homepage. The event was noteworthy because of the utter lack of imagination Google put into the first version. Whereas Gmail and Google Maps had us chattering in the hallways, the Google Homepage was striking in it’s blandness and lack of obvious innovation. They’ve since rolled a new version which adds new content options as well as whizbang Ajaxables, but when you stare at your fully configured homepage, you think “This is exactly what I’d expect from a portal”.
Not surprisingly, Microsoft has been tinkering in this space with the Start.com (Note: this page does not work in Safari). What is surprising is that the Start.com represents, in my opinion, a more refined interaction experience. Like Google’s latest version, there’s a handy configuration sidebar and you can drag and drop the different sections of your page. Start takes it a step further by allow users to change the CSS on the fly as well as alter the number of columns on the page… features which have been a part of My.Yahoo since, oh I don’t know, Netscape was still an independent company.
Why so stressed, Rands? Google is just filling out their product line to complete with Yahoo and Microsoft is desperately trying to show everyone that they can play in this space, as well. Heck, they even have their own Google Labs except it’s called Sandbox.
To understand my frustration, I’ve got to take a step back and talk about The Grid. If you’ve done any graphic design, you’ve heard of the grid. It’s the basic geometric specification of a page. Questions such as “Where is the headline?”, “How many columns on this page?”, “What’s the space between this columns?”, “Where should pictures go?” are answered by designing a grid specification. It’s one of those design terms that you don’t know, but are already implicitly doing by trying to aggressively use CSS on your new design.
Where innovative design comes from is when graphic designers take their respective grids and start to get a little crazy. They begin to violate the underlying design of the grid and this often creates unexpected visual interest while still hinting at a basic, orderly design. Want a great example? Go check out Dunstan’s (now defunct) weblog. He’s clearly working inside a existing framework, but what is interesting is where he push the constraints of that framework with work like his stunning top-of-page panorama.
Every portal I’ve seen does a mind-numbingly good job of following a grid. They do this for a simple reason, they need a means of representing chunks of information that can be arbitrarily moved by the end user. The boxing or chunking of these data into simple boxes makes the complexity problems associated arbitrary placement go away.
And it makes portals look like crap.
Both Google and Microsoft are doing their damnedest to use the latest and greatest web technologies to give flexibility to their respective portals, but they’re mimicking design from the late nineties. Yeah, I’ve been using My.Yahoo as my home page for five years now, but I honestly couldn’t tell you one piece of content on that page except for stock quotes… that’s the only thing I look at because the design blows. Nothing on the page draws my eye away from the column of stock quotes. Big things might be blowing up on the Planet Earth, but I wouldn’t know it from my homepage because all information is shoved into these boxes of vanilla lameness that reflect nothing about what information is being conveyed.
Please, I want a portal with just a hint of a soul.
I’m really glad that I can drag and drop my boxes hither and fro with the latest homepages, but how about giving headlines I care about with some meat? How about getting creative with the spacing on the page? Maybe allow me to increase the size of a box by draaaaaaging it across three columns and an option to say, “Hey, if there are images associated with this stories, I want them big and bold and centered.”
And, yeah, I want to be able to arbitrarily configure my content and, yeah, I know this makes the whole design a lot more complex, but how about this pitch. Why don’t you tell content providers like the New York Times or C|Net that you’re providing an option for premium exposure to the content by actually putting some design cycles into the layout of their content? Think they’ll want more eyeballs? You bet they will. Yes, this will cost them some dollars, but by landing some visual interest in their content, content providers will see more impressions and that means more dollars.
I’m getting closer to entering my third decade of technology immersion and I’m thankful that the rate of change in this industry keeps things interesting. It’s a pretty sure bet that whatever technology floats your boat this year will be dull as a sack of hammers in two years. This makes the introduction of these new portals from Google and Microsoft doubly frustrating. Even though these offerings provide the latest in interactive web technologies, their visual design reeks of five years ago and what was bad then is worse now.