With so many online productivity tools at our disposal, there's never been a better time to check up on what's out there to help optimize your work flow. One such class of tools that can help set up a dashboard of critical "at a glance" information is the personalized start page.
There are a number of different choices in this category, but the general gist is that a start page enables you to "stick" bits of the web like news feeds, interactive widgets and other specific blocks of information into a one-stop-shop destination you can use as your first port of call when starting a work session.
Why Use a Start Page
Like an RSS reader, a start page can help you stay on top of a large volume of information. What sets a start page apart is the ability to integrate far more than just news feeds, including everything from e-mail, to your calendar, to the weather report, to the current time in other places around the world where you do business.
After taking some time to set up your page with relevant feeds and resources, it can be the optimal place to check first to get a sense of what's going on in your work and your industry. By aggregating multiple widgets and bits of information into a single interface, a start page can serve as a central hub for the most important information that's always one click away from your regular browsing habits.
Let's take a look at how to choose and use a personalized dashboard.
How to Choose a Start Page
Both Google and Yahoo offer personalized start pages, the former at iGoogle and the latter with My Yahoo. If you or your business already uses web products from either company, the offered integrations with your start page might make either an obvious choice (Google Apps users tend to mesh well with the iGoogle start page, for example).
Netvibes and Pageflakes, both of which offer full-featured start page alternatives to the big companies' offerings. All four services offer the ability to add widgets to your pages that go beyond presenting mere news feeds (Google calls them "gadgets," while Pageflakes refers to them as "Flakes").
Another brace of popular options are
The best way to choose which start page fits is to give each one a quick try. Differences in layout, user interface, and style become apparent quickly, and you have the luxury of picking which one looks and "feels" right. Although the widget offerings tend to be fairly comparable between the platforms, you might want to spend some time browsing the available widget and gadget options as well to get a sense of which selections make the most sense for you and your business.
Alltop is a nice, clean interface that provides just that, and you can set up your own customized dashboard of feeds and/or make use of the pre-collected packages which are organized by hundreds of topics, industries and niches for a quick and pre-curated view into a number of sectors.
How to Set Up and Use Your Start Page
Once you've picked your poison, as it were, you'll want to spend a bit of up-front time setting it up for optimal use. Of course, it's always easy to change things around on the fly as well, so as new sources become critical and you discover new widgets, it's a simple matter to incorporate them into your start page work flow.
create multiple instances, similar to having multiple Gmail accounts versus simply forwarding multiple addresses to one inbox). Depending on your needs, you'll want to take stock of what realms you might want to have at your fingertips. If you're a frequent traveler, you might want a Travel tab with weather conditions, time zones, flight statuses, and news in your frequently-visited spots. If you need to monitor what's happening in several industries, you might create a tab for each of them with appropriate sources and widgets. Multiple tabs means your personal dashboard can even live right beside your work dashboard(s) as well.
Each start page offers the ability to create a tabbed interface. Working much like tabbed browsing, it allows you to set up and toggle between multiple pages for different purposes (Netvibes even allows you to
Once you have an idea which buckets you'll want to keep track of, start thinking about what are the most high priority sources and bits of information you'd like to collect for each page. Since you can arrange your pages in any manner you wish, you'll want to set up the highest priority widgets towards the top of the page and fill in the lower parts of the page with some of the lesser priority items.
Feel free to go nuts hunting down new, interesting, and useful widgets and gadgets and giving them a try on your tabs and pages. It's always easy to move, re-order, or even remove them if they end up being not as useful over time. Each service offers a directory of widgets, most with suggestions of the most popular or essential tools for your pages. From note-taking to e-mail, from stocks to eBay auctions, from your Netflix queue to integrated online storage, there's a lot of functionality that can be brought into one at-your-fingertips’ interface.
One other consideration when setting up your start page is choosing a theme -- much like you can customize the look and feel of your Gmail account or your WordPress blog, you can "skin" your start page with colors and graphics that appeal to you. You'll also want to consider whether or not you might want to make use of a public component to your start page. Netvibes gives you a public section by default, and Pageflakes allows you to create "Pagecasts" that can be public to the world or shared privately with a group. Setting up a valuable public page could be a novel way to position yourself as a resource in your niche or industry.
These are just a few ideas to help you get started on the road to personalized start page mastery. With more features and widgets being developed over time, there promises to be no shortage of information and functionality to enhance your start page. Plus, since most widgets and gadgets use existing web markup and standards, you could even build your own widgets if you need customized, business-specific information on your dashboard. Enjoy your one stop information shop!
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