posted 20 Mar 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 6
The pragmatic approach: Creating a balance between static and dynamic content
Effective intranets are based on one thing - easy access to information that would otherwise be difficult to find. David Socha examines two methods of getting that information to the user's screen and discusses how to strike the right balance in your approach.Defining dynamic content
What do we mean by dynamic content exactly? If it changes over any period does that make it dynamic? Or is there something more to it? Is it in fact a technical term for something specific disguised in simple language to lull us into a false sense of security? Let's consider the options via a few examples:Basically static html pages that have changed a little whenever you look
A hypothetical department's homepage has something new on it most times you visit. The page is a simple piece of html with an introduction and a few links to staff lists departmental FAQs news and so on. The local web publisher makes sure that anything out-of-date is deleted and that anything new and relevant is there on time.Automatically updating pages
Taking a real example ScottishPowerâ€™s wires business is very interested in weather information. Like every other similar business we receive weather forecasts from the Met Office. Ours are automatically posted to an intranet page on receipt. Twice a day any user can visit the page and see the latest information.Real-time applications
Still on the subject ScottishPower also has a number of its own weather stations. These send back real-time data on windspeed direction temperature and so on. A simple web application displays this info on maps of our area accessible via an intranet page. Users can visit this page at any time to see live data.'What's new?'
Returning to your hypothetical intranet it now runs an agent every night to find all the new submissions in the past seven days. It then generates a list of hyperlinks and posts them to a page in time for you to browse the latest additions in the morning. Users can choose to browse it or not but can't influence the operation of the agent.No html pages at all just a series of enquiry screens
At some places on this intranet (mostly the sites run by the departments that live and breathe the web) there doesn't seem to be any content pages at all just a series of interactive questions that lead you down a path depending on each of your last answers. The site then makes a judgement on what to display based entirely on your responses to the questions posed and any extra information you provided.
Now while an accepted definition of dynamic content doesn't exist - contrary to what a whole host of 'solution providers' might tell you - most attempts at a definition would come closest to the last entry above. Something along the lines of: content held in a database delivered on the fly to a client based on the information provided in their request.
But is it not the case that all of the above are in some shape or form dynamic content? Let's take the view of the most important people in the chain - the users. Remember that reality is not absolute. Reality is whatever those experiencing it perceive it to be. For example if an intranet user looks at a page of information on Monday then again on Tuesday and finds the information has changed that user's perception is of dynamic content. The difference between truly dynamic and periodically changing static content is (rightly) too insignificant for them to recognise. Who cares whether the page was dynamically generated from fields in a database or was re-written by intelligent monkeys who look to see if anyone's watching before making the next update? From a user perspective as long as information on their intranet is trustworthy up-to-date and - absolutely critically - easy to find delivery method is unimportant. And if it changes it's dynamic.Static is boring...isn't it?
While we could continue the debate on defining dynamic content forever it is a simple matter to define truly static content. A page of information that is exactly the same whenever you look at it until the day it disappears has during its life been the embodiment of static content. The question is is such a page necessarily a bad thing?
One oft-repeated argument against static pages is that they're boring. They don't engage or involve the reader. "How will we pull people in to the intranet if all we present them with is...that?"
My response is that intranets are not internet sites. A website's purpose is to pull in the users; to excite them stimulate them and above all keep them coming back in a sea of similar websites selling the same products at pretty much the same price and with the same levels of service. That's not what intranets are for. Intranets should provide your organisation with the tools and information people need to do their jobs in a clear simple easily navigable fashion. If static content can do this for you doesn't it have a purpose?
Now static content can indeed be boring. But there's a terrible truth to be considered. Isn't it the case that the information you need to do your job can by its very nature occasionally be boring? Still need it though don't you? And would it be any less boring if presented as part of an Active Server Page? OK maybe the first time. But after that? Nope.
Consider a Corporate IT Security Policy. A strange document that unless there's a change in the law only ever gets updated to include the latest piece of technology you're not allowed to commit obscenities on via or with. For the average user there isn't a much more boring document in the office than the IT Security Policy. People look at it once if at all then leave it alone. Forever. Until of course a story like that of Claire Swires makes the national news. Then its absolutely essential that people can lay their hands on a copy in a moment's notice...just to check a few things! I would suggest that the best and most cost-effective way for most organisations to ensure a seldom read but business-critical policy is right there when needed is to deliver it to every desktop via a static intranet page.Is there a perfect balance?
Balancing static versus dynamic content involves a multitude of factors from cultural considerations in your business to an understanding of the types of information people need to do their job to knowledge of your existing IT infrastructure and investment policy. All of this means that no; there isn't a perfect balance. Furthermore it may be that experimenting with delivering the perfect balance is a waste of precious resources that could be better employed delivering better content. Content is everything was everything in the past and will continue to be everything in the future. If your intranet already allows users to easily find the information they need to work on refining delivery methods implies that you are satisfied with the content being delivered. That's a bold statement to send to your business.
My own opinion is that the perfect intranet has both static and dynamic content. Multiple delivery methods are logical and are appropriate. As we've discussed balance is less important than quality of content so why not let content dictate delivery method and let balance take care of itself? Let's take one of ScottishPower's divisional intranets as an example.
Power Systems is ScottishPower's wires business. The people who look after the wires in the ground the wires up poles and the grey metal boxes in between. We're pretty autonomous as a division and have our own intranet. From the front page we can go to seven places. Two link to corporate services (a training site and back to the corporate homepage). The others are as follows:Resource directories and the emergency centre
These are applications-driven sites. Resource directories are pretty self-explanatory containing familiar white pages-type applications. Ours already link to a number of systems such as the HR and e-mail applications and there are plans to make them connect to others too. The emergency centre again has almost no static information but is a suite of generally real-time web applications designed to give critical management information to our operational people.Communications
This site is genuinely owned and operated by the communications department. They have publishing capabilities for non-webmaster types and regularly post information to pages in several categories. Recently they've started to publish html e-mails (like FT.com) that pull you into the site to see the whole story. There's some background automation but in general this is a good example of the static/dynamic ambiguity we've talked about.InfoNet
In a similar way to the comms site 'delegated publishers' not a webmaster run InfoNet - this time across many departments. Again these publishers regularly post information to pages specifically allocated as theirs. This is where the bulk of what we're considering today exists - the published documents that make up core content. The existing sites within InfoNet can be considered static/dynamic but so can InfoNet itself as more and more publishers create more sites across the business.Business processes
This is a static site. Users pick a business process and drill down through the various levels from 'big picture' right down to supporting documents. There's no intelligence involved in the site but it's a well-designed walk through the business providing exactly what's required. As long as updates are made when a business process changes (which of course is another matter) is anything smarter required?
To me this looks like a sensible balance where information is provided in the format most appropriate. Although I would say that! Operational engineers and managers want to see graphical representations of real-time weather info so we have an application to do just that. Departments all across the business want to make accessible information they're constantly asked for or that they need to disseminate so we have the ability to publish documents. Business processes don't change much while they're live but people need to understand them so we have a static site that displays them in a logical manner. These are the ways to determine the balance between static and dynamic content.The human factor an antidote to pragmatism
In simple terms let the content define the delivery method. As long as content is good and delivery is appropriate to that content your problems are all in the past.
But people are people. Even the very best intranets that have reached the Holy Grail that is 'Window on the Enterprise' status find that they cannot work on efficiency and effectiveness alone. People like new things - in just the right amount dependent on their specific workplace culture. People get used to things and don't see new information because they're so used to navigating directly to what they need. Overall dynamism and properly managed rolling change is required to let users get the most from your intranet. Yes earlier I did say that intranets are not websites but that was the pragmatism talking. And yes it is still true. Perhaps the whole truth is that maybe we do have to give a little nod towards the design characteristics of the web on occasion just to help keep the users using. But that's another debate entirely.Conclusions
Dynamic content may mean one thing to web professionals but it means another to users. These are the people to listen to and to provide the tools to do their job.
There isn't a perfect balance between static and dynamic but a variety of delivery methods dependent on content will be appropriate in almost every case.
Static can be boring but it can also be appropriate cost-effective and exactly what users want and need.
Once you've applied the pragmatic approach to your intranet lighten up a little. But make sure you do it this way around. Approaching your intranet site from the fun fun fun perspective first will usually cause problems no matter how cute the dancing bunnies might look on the homepage.
And finally remember that no matter what content will always be far more important than delivery method. No matter how clever the tool if there is nothing on the intranet for it to find its value to the user will be nil.
David Socha can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org