Are personal webportals useful for medical communicators?
Is your web browser bookmark bar overcrowded and do you find it difficult to quickly locate your favourite or most useful websites? If so, why not have as your browser homepage a personal webportal with links to all your favourite websites?
When used for leisure, webportals are often used to show links to (among other items) your email, photographs, yellow sticky reminder notes, calendars, your local weather, a Facebook page or similar social networking site, and msn or other chatting applications. However, I suggest that medical communicators could use webportals to easily access favourite or most frequently used websites directly from the home page. Obviously you can make your own personalised page and most webportal applications allow the option of keeping it private. However, to test the feasibility and utility of such portals, I have created few public webportals for this blog so that you can link to them from this page and assess the utility for yourselves.
Please feel free to feedback your thoughts on which set up you prefer (webportals from Netvibes, Pageflakes and Protopage – providers of webportal technology – are tested here). The test webportals can be accessed from these links: Medical communicating1, Medical communicating2 and Medical communicating3.
You should be aware that you may be able to use other webportal technologies, such as iGoogle and MyYahoo!, to create a similar kind of portal. I have not created a public Medical Communicating test portal for these technologies.
A word about the test and the terminology
The aim of the test was to create a webportal with easy-to-find links to a selection of websites (including links to the EMEA site and search tools), current contents of selected journals, podcast and video links. The webportal would, ideally, be viewed on one screen (without the need for scrolling) and with an architecture or other method of easily finding similar websites (e.g. search engines grouped together). I thought it would be essential that the links on the webportal open in a new window or tab so that user has the option of returning easily to the portal page.
One of the first webportal technologies was the Pageflakes technology, so the selection of modules (comprising website thumbnails and headers) on a webportal may sometimes be referred to as ‘flakes’. The tools to make the flakes may be known as flakes, widgets or web gadgets.
There appear to be pros and cons for all the different technologies tested. I have tried to make similar webportals with each of the applications tested. However, I suspect the reader will be able to spot where this poorly computer-literate writer struggled. I was not able to find parallel features for all the test portals but I cannot guarantee that a particular portal technology lacks the feature, just that I could not locate the correct widget or gadget for that feature.
The Netvibes portal allows you to collapse down (or minimise) your selection of modules to header bars (or expand them to get a glimpse of the content). The advantage is this allows you view a large number of website links very quickly at a glance on your portal.
You can change the colour of the header bars and thus colour code different types of links to websites very easily (e.g. brown for search engines, red for journals and green for other useful sites). Clicking on the header bar opens the page in another window, which is useful.
Podcasts can be added and played on the portal (or downloaded). The only downside was that I was unable to locate a widget or function to import all my current bookmarks. Therefore, bookmarks needed to be added one-by-one, which was time-consuming. Widgets were available to enable import of bookmarks from a Delicious account. This widget was not as easy to use as the Pageflakes widget (see below) and of course can only be used provided you have bookmarked your websites with Delicious.
With Pageflakes one useful function is that you can import all your current bookmarks and specify that they open in a new window when you click on the link. This saved so much time! It was easy to add new bookmarks too.
Pageflakes appears to be geared towards including rss newsfeeds. Feeds from various sites can be added to your portal very easily. Adding the two videos I had selected in a Youtube account was also simple.
It seems to be difficult to just make a flake from a website you like. Unless it already exists, you have to first submit the website to be approved by the Pageflake police. Most scientific and medical sites do not yet exist as flakes, so this could be tedious. However, it is not essential to add links this way, if you want you can import your currently bookmarked sites in batches, so that you have different flakes for particular categories of website. Alternatively, by using the ‘Top links’ flake you can add in links to your useful websites.
A disadvantage with Pageflakes* is that you don’t seem to be able to colour-code the headers.
With Protopage it is slightly irritating to have to: 1) expand the header and then 2) shift + click to get a webpage to open in a new window. Adding new webpages to your portal is slightly trickier than with Netvibes. I could not find a widget to import all my current bookmarks.
Like Netvibes, you can colour-code the header of the websites and other items that you add to your webpage and you can collapse to a single header, and therefore view a large number of sites at once. One difference with Netvibes is that merely hovering the cursor over the header provides a preview expansion of the header on your portal. Also, it was relatively easy to play podcasts from the portal.
With iGoogle, it was easy to add videos (particularly as I wanted to add two videos). It was also simple to add rss feeds (eg journal contents from The Lancet) by just clicking on the Google button. Each added module or flake could be collapsed to a single header.
A major reason for not creating a public medical communicating testportal with iGoogle was that I was unable to find gadgets that allowed the links on the iGoogle portal to open in a new browser page or tab. One gadget (Bookmarks) could add links to your bookmarked websites but the links did not open in a new window. Although the ‘Include gadget’ gadget added website links, these also did not open in a new window.
Overall, it was confusing that each provider of webportal technology had slightly different terminology – widgets on Netvibes and gadgets on iGoogle, for example. Adding a website link to a portal requires one kind of widget and adding a video link requires another. The ease of finding the best gadget or widget for my needs varied widely among the providers, with iGoogle being the most difficult. However, new widgets and gadgets are being posted all the time by developers and, if the right widget becomes available, it may (provided you can find the widget) transform a webportal application from being difficult to use to being a dream.
Although there were advantages and drawbacks with each of the applications, overall it was much easier and quicker to compile the portal with Pageflakes. Being able to import your current bookmarks directly onto the webportal was extremely useful. I could not find a similarly easy-to-use function for the other portals (but that does not mean that it does not exist). It was also easy to add videos. Webportals in Pageflakes look different from those in Netvibes and Protopage due to my failure to find out how to colour-code the headers (or the lack of this feature).
Netvibes ran a close second to Pageflakes, followed by Protopage. It is simple to link to websites from the Netvibes webportal and they all seem to open in a new window.
The colour coding options for Netvibes and Protopage help you easily locate the link you want. Protopage had the advantage of a greater choice of colours for colour coding headers than Netvibes. The disadvantage with Protopage was the need to shift + click (on the expanded page) to link to your site and the difficulty in adding a specific video to the page.
In conclusion, if all you want on your portal are links to the newest information (by rss feeds), then iGoogle is perfectly adequate. However, if you want links to websites, then I suggest using Netvibes, Pageflakes or Protopage. Pageflakes* comes out on top if you have a lot of bookmarked websites you want to see on your webportal.
*Since first posting this blog it has become apparent that there is an intermittent problem with the Pageflakes server. If this problem persists then I suggest that Netvibes is a better option as a webportal technology than Pageflakes.