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Portals: learning lessons from Edinburgh

This is part of a series of reflections on this year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop.

Read an introduction and the other posts.

On the final day of IWMW there was an entertaining and useful talk about portals by Martin Morrey from the University of Edinburgh. Their MyEd portal was a source of inspiration when the University of St Andrews developed iSaint. So it was interesting to learn more about Edinburgh’s experience.

In some circles portal is a dirty word because it is difficult to pin down exactly what is meant by it. We were once told that a portal is “anything with a web interface”, which makes you wonder why they don’t just call it a website.

Martin Morrey shared a Gerry McGovern quote:

A portal is like a website… except it takes five times longer to develop.

It helps to have clarity about what you actually want to achieve, which is why I like to avoid using the word portal.

Martin said that the dream is for the portal to just become part of the website. They should be flipsides of the same thing.

Don't make me think

That is certainly what we should be aiming for here as well. There are plans to implement a common look and feel across all digital platforms. There is talk about disguising the branding of our various systems. Users should not have to think: “should I log into iSaint for this, Moodle for that, e-Vision for the other?” There should be a unified user experience.

On mobile

Like St Andrews, Edinburgh have trialled apps as their mobile presence. Edinburgh had a mobile app called U@Ed, which shared a lot of the functionality of MyEd. The University of St Andrews has had two stabs at creating a mobile app. First there was mSaint. Now we have St Andrews Mobile.

Martin shared some interesting statistics on how Edinburgh’s mobile offerings have fared. They found that the U@Ed mobile app gets very little usage. More people were in fact trying to access the web version of MyEd on their mobile device.


  • 300,000 visits a week.
  • 30,000 mobile visit a week.


  • 9,000 downloads from app stores.
  • Under 1,000 visits a week.

This tallies with our experience at St Andrews. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the mobile app is not heavily used. It is generally recognised that users do not like to go through the hassle of downloading, installing and running a mobile app just to access the information they want.

Edinburgh are now focussing on creating one place that works on all devices, reflecting what users want.

It is an interesting time for us to consider these issues here at St Andrews. We are currently investigating the creation of an intranet. Whether (and how) we should use portal-like concepts, and whether we should continue with iSaint, are bound to be big topics of discussion.

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2 thoughts on "Portals: learning lessons from Edinburgh"

  1. I remember Myed very well. It wasn’t very attractive at the time, but it had really useful channels such as your past modules and grades, your email account, library channel, matriculation details … But most of the time all that information sat there unused. I only looked at a fraction of the information available through Myed.

  2. Thanks for the comment Kayleigh.

    I used MyEd as a student as well. My memories are similar. I remember it being a valuable service because of the content that was there. But I often found it somewhat frustrating to use.

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