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Custom browser toolbars for your intranet

Monday, November 08, 2004  

Last week a client asked me how much it would cost to integrate a custom toolbar for their corporate portal into everyone's web browser. After estimating $20,000--my default answer that actually means, "I have no idea"--I decided to do some investigating. It turns out that building a custom browser toolbar, like Google's or MSN's, is simple and cheap. And it may be a good idea for your intranet.

Toolbar companies promote their products to web site owners as a way to retain users and build brand loyalty. I don't know what kind of delusional web site team thinks their corporate web site is interesting enough that users would want it as a permanent fixture on their browser. But an intranet is a tool people use to do their jobs. Making it easier to access improves the intranet experience for your employees and increases overall usage.

On the other hand, it may be preferable simply to make sure that all employees have their home page set to the intranet. Consider:
  • Toolbars eat up screen real estate, which is already at a premium, especially on 800x600 displays.
  • Toolbars require a software installation. It's simple software, but I get nervous anytime a change will affect the desktop of hundreds of users.
  • Toolbars generally only work for Internet Explorer on Windows. There is limited selection for non-IE browsers.

To set your intranet as every employee's home page, your IT department can use Tweakomatic to generate a global logon script that will make the change.

If you decide adding an intranet toolbar to everyone's browser is the right choice for your company, follow these guidelines:
  • Focus on the basics. Have a button for the home page, an intranet search box, and a direct link to heavily-used sections. Don't get bogged down with unnecessary features.
  • Keep icons and words simple. Any icons should be simple and clear--test them with users to see if they're understood. Text links should avoid abbreviations or any catchy or made-up words.
  • Usability test download and installation instructions. If the installation will be done by the end user, considerable effort should go into writing and testing the instructions. Observe actual users attempting the install on their computers, and make adjustments to the instructions where necessary.
  • Get the toolbar built by a reputable company. I can't speak from any first-hand experience here, but Visicom Media seems to be a legitimate company with an impressive client list. Beware of free or almost-free toolbars.

About the Author

I'm Chris McGrath, an intranet consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I've been working on intranets since 1997, and on plain ol' web sites for even longer. I run One Intranets, the firm that co-created ThoughtFarmer -- an enterprise collaboration platform for Windows-based intranets.