Sound structural design is as important to portals as it is to buildings. The interface is a user's introduction to the portal. It is also the key to accessing the content and services provided by the portal. As we design and deploy portals we should consider how to organize information and applications in a way that makes sense to users. This of course is a problem for several reasons. First, there are many users and their needs vary. Second, how even a single user uses the portal depends on the task he or she is trying to accomplish. If performing a routine task, for example, entering a time card, the user will want rapid access to the application. This is no place for needless clicks through a hierarchical set of applications. On the other hand, if the user is researching a new product line, he or she will want to browse through related content, follow promising paths of related information, and quickly narrow the search in response to hunches about new angles on the problem. The only way to meet these needs is to provide multiple ways to navigate and to keep the overall organization consistent.
Content within pages should follow a pattern. The three-panel model balances formal structure with flexible organization of content. Landmarks, active links, and other navigation techniques will help users quickly move around within the portal.
Organizing content around navigation sets provides a sense of context for users. They will be able to move easily between related pages while the page-level navigation patterns, like landmarks back to a home page, will help the user move to other areas quickly.
As the amount of information in the portal grows, users will need additional support to find what they need. Taxonomies and faceted models provide users with tools to see the forest and quickly focus on a specific tree. For especially large portals, visualization techniques can further improve navigation.
With a grounding in techniques for designing interfaces, in the next chapter we will turn our attention to the underlying frameworks that support the portal's core functions and services.