Intranets that have an impact

Recently I attended Euroia, the European information architecture summit, where experts within the area meet up to discuss, share, listen and learn.

For me, one of the highlights was James Robertson from Step Two Designs, presenting some of the results from their yearly intranet awards. Intranets are fascinating in being large systems with such potential to improve daily work. However, more often than not they fail in doing so. As James Robertson put it “organizations and intranets is the place where user experience goes to die”.  So, what can we do to change that?

Robertson talked about successful companies managing to create structured, social and smart intranets. Two examples were the International Monetary Fund and a Canadian law firm. Both needed easy and secure gathering and retrieval of large amounts of information. Part of their success came from mandatory classification of published documents and review of changes. Another smart solution was to keep a connection between parent documents and their derivatives, making sure that information was trustworthy and kept up to date.

Companies that excelled at social managed to bind everything together; people projects and customers. I was happy to hear this, as we have been working a lot on this at Findwise. Our latest internal project was actually creating our own knowledge graph, connecting skills, platforms and technologies with projects and customers. What we haven’t done yet but other successful companies have, is daring to go all in with social. Instead of providing social functionality on the side, they fully integrate their social feed into the intranet start page. This I’d like to try at Findwise.

The ugliest but smartest solution presented by James, combined analytics with proper tagging of information. Imagine the following; a policy is changed and you are informed. However, you don’t need the policy until you perform a task months later. Now, the policy information is hidden in a news archive and you can’t easily find it. Annoying right?

What CRS Australia does to solve this problem is simple and elegant. They track pages users visit on the intranet. Whenever someone updates a page they enter whether it is a significant change or not. This is combined with electronic forms for everything. When filling in a form, information regarding policy updates pop up automatically, ensuring that users always have up to date information.

These ideas give me hope and clearly show that intranets needn’t be a place where user experience comes to die.

Tagging, Social Networks, Interaction and Findability

Events the past days has got me thinking about the power of social tagging and its connection to findability. Thoughts that commend me to writing my most personal (and perhaps off topic) post yet on this blog. (All thoughts expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer.)

Rumors about the shut down of Delicious have been circling the web. Even though it is still unconfirmed from Yahoo, my Twitter feed has been filled with comments about how to save your bookmarks, export bookmarks to other services, petitions to Yahoo about saving Delicious or making it open source.

Traditionally when talking about user tagging of content the topic is re-finding things. Users tag information on the web or an intranet in order to be able to find their way back to them. However most of the comments that I’ve seen about Delicious being shut down has nothing to do with this. As I see it, users don’t claim to be missing the bookmarks themselves, but the social network, research, collaboration and search capabilities that came with the bookmarking service. Delicious seems to have emerged from a service that helps you bookmark your things for re-finding them to a service that helps you find new things based on the tagging of others. Tagging, or social bookmarking may very well have started as a way of re-finding your information but has grown into a new way of discovering information, in parallel to search. (Maybe that is an explanation to the tweets wishing for Google to buy delicious from Yahoo?)

So, tagging can not only help you re-find your own stuff but also explore new things and spread information. One good example of this is what is currently going on in the swedish Twitterverse. It all started with one journalist’s discussion with her friends about the disbelief towards the women accusing Julian Assange of sexual assault. It quickly turned into so much more; a profound discussion about the fine lines of sexuality, what is OK, what we want and like and how to say no. Using the hash tag #prataomdet swedish twitter users are writing about and discussing their experiences in an effort to change the cultural climate so that people talk about it, start communicating with each other about sexuality. You can easily follow all the tweets real time and read blog posts on the topic at prataomdet.se. Many of the major news sites have now started reporting on this as well after the massive activity on twitter. (For non-swedish speaking readers an effort has also been made to start discussions in English as well at #talkaboutit on twitter.)

The feed in itself is thought provoking and can easily keep you busy for hours. Besides the content and openness of the discussions I find something else amazing. In a matter of hours this one tag joined together users, many of whom have never interacted with each other before, helping them share and find new information about something that was unspoken of earlier. Combining the power of social networks and tagging made this possible.

I usually write very different sorts of blog posts at this blog. This one time I just wanted to revel over the amazing possibilities for interaction that technology offers us today. Then maybe the next step is to think about how to tap into this power of interaction and how findability within the enterprise can benefit from this as well. In the mean time I recommend reading about What social networks reveal about interaction or how Västra Götalands Region are currently working on incorporating user tagging into their metadata.

Bridging the Gap Between People and (Enterprise Search) Technology

Tony Russell-Rose recently wrote about the changing face of search, a post that summed up the discussion about the future of enterprise search that took part at the recent search solutions conference. This is indeed an interesting topic. My colleague Ludvig also touched on this topic in his recent post where he expressed his disappointment in the lack of visionary presentations at this year’s KMWorld conference.

At our last monthly staff meeting we had a visit from Dick Stenmark, associate professor of Informatics at the Department of Applied IT at Gothenburg University. He spoke about his view on the intranets of the future. One of the things he talked about was the big gap in between the user’s vague representation of her information need (e.g. the search query) and the representation of the documents indexed by the intranet enterprise search engine. If a user has a hard time defining what it is she is looking for it will of course be very hard for the search engine to interpret the query and deliver relevant results. What is needed, according to Dick Stenmark, is a way to bridge the gap between technology (the search engine) and people (the users of the search engine).

As I see it there are two ways you can bridge this gap:

  1. Help users become better searchers
  2. Customize search solutions to fit the needs of different user groups

Helping users become better searchers

I have mentioned this topic in one of my earlier posts. Users are not good at describing which information they are seeking, so it is important that we make sure the search solutions help them do so. Already existing functionalities, such as query completion and related searches, can help users create and use better queries.

Query completion often includes common search terms, but what if we did combine them with the search terms we would have wanted them to search for? This requires that you learn something about your users and their information needs. If you do take the time to learn about this it is possible to create suggestions that will help the user not only spell correctly, but also to create a more specific query. Some search solutions (such as homedepot.com) also uses a sort of query disambiguation, where the user’s search returns not only results, but a list of matching categories (where the user is asked to choose which category of products her search term belongs). This helps the search engine return not only the correct set of results, but also display the most relevant set of facets for that product category. Likewise, Google displays a list of related searches at the bottom of the search results list.

These are some examples of functionalities that can help users become better searchers. If you want to learn some more have a look at Dan Russells presentation linked from my previous post.

Customize search solutions to fit the needs of different user groups

One of the things Dick Stenmark talked about in his presentation for us at Findwise was how different users’ behavior is when it comes to searching for information. Users both have different information needs and also different ways of searching for information. However, when it comes to designing the experience of finding information most companies still try to achieve a one size fits all solution. A public website can maybe get by supporting 90% of its visitors but an intranet that only supports part of the employees is a failure. Still very few companies work with personalizing the search applications for their different user groups. (Some don’t even seem to care that they have different user groups and therefore treat all their users as one and the same.) The search engine needs to know and care more about its’ users in order to deliver better results and a better search experience as a whole. For search to be really useful personalization in some form is a must, and I think and hope we will see more of this in the future.

Why is Search Easy and Hard?

Last year my colleague Lina and I went to the Workshop on Human Computer Interaction and Information Retrieval (HCIR) in Washington DC. This year we did not have the possibility to attend but since all the material is available online I took part remotely any way. I wanted to share with you what I found most interesting this year. (Daniel Tunkelang who was one of the organizers also posted a good overview of the event on his blog.)

This years keynote speaker was Dan Russell, a researcher from Google. He talked about Search Quality and user happiness; Why search is easy and hard. The point I found most interesting in his presentation was how improvement is not only needed when it comes to tools and data but also improving the users’ search skills. My own experience from various search projects is similar; users are not good at searching. Even though they are looking for a specific version of a technical documentation for a specific product they might just enter the name of the product, or even the product family. (It’s a bit like searching for ‘camera’ when you expect to find support documentation on your Dioptric lens for you Canon EOS 60D.) So I agree that users need better search skills. In his presentation Russell also presented some ideas on how a search application can help users improve their search skills.

Search is both easy and hard. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the introduction of the HCIR Challenge as a new part of the workshop . From the HCIR website:

The aims of the challenge are to encourage researchers and practitioners to build and demonstrate information access systems satisfying at least one of the following:

  • Not only deliver relevant documents, but provide facilities for making meaning with those documents.
  • Increase user responsibility as well as control; that is, the systems require and reward human effort.
  • Offer the flexibility to adapt to user knowledge / sophistication / information need.
  • Are engaging and fun to use.

The winner of the challenge was a team of researchers from Yahoo Labs who presented Searching Through Time in the New York Times. The Time Explorer features a results page with an interactive time line that illustrates how the volume of articles (results) have changed over time. I recommend that you read the article in tech review to learn more about the project, or try out the Time explorer demo yourself. You can also learn more about the challenge in this blog post by Gene Golovchinsky.

All the papers and posters from the workshop can be found on the new website.

Findability and the Google Experience

In almost every findability project we work on, users ask us why finding information on their intranet is not as easy as finding information on Google. One of my team members told me he was once asked:

”If Google can search the whole internet in less than a second, how come you can’t search our internal information which is only a few million documents?”

I don’t remember his answer but I do remember what he said he would have wanted to answer:

”Google doesn’t have to handle rigorous security. We do. Google has got millions of servers all around the world. We have got one.”

The truth is, you get the search experience you deserve. Google delivers an excellent user experience to millions of users because they have thousands of employees working hard to achieve this. So do the other players in the search market. All the search engines are continuously working on improving the user experience for the users. It is possible to achieve good things without a huge budget. But I can guarantee you that just installing any of the search platforms on the market and then doing nothing will not result in a good experience for your users. So the question is; what is your company doing to achieve good findability, a good search experience?

Jeff Carr from Earley & Associates recently published a 2 part article about this desire to duplicate the Google experience, and why it won’t succeed. I recommend that you read it. Hopefully it will not only help you meet the questions and expectations from your users; it will also help you in how you can improve the search experience for them.

Enterprise Search and why we can’t just get Google.

Evaluate Your Search Application

Search is the worst usability problem on the web according to Peter Morville (in his book Search Patterns). With that in mind it is good to know that there are best practices and search patterns that one can follow to ensure that your search will work. Yet, just applying best practices and patterns will not always do the trick for you. Patterns are examples of good things that often work but they do not come with a guarantee that your users will understand and use search simply because you used best practice solutions.

There is no real substitute for testing your designs, whether it’s on websites intranets or any other type of application. Evaluating your design you will learn what works and does not work with your users. Search is a bit tricky when it comes to testing since there is not one single way or flow for the users to take to their goal. You need to account for multiple courses of actions. But that is also the beauty of it, you learn how very different paths users take when searching for the same information. And it does not have to be expensive to do the testing even if it is a bit tricky. There are several ways you can test your designs:

  • Test your ideas using pen and paper
  • Let a small group of users into your development or test environment to evaluate ideas under development
  • Create a computer prototype that is limited to the functionality you are evaluating
  • You can also evaluate the existing site before starting new development to identify what things need improvement
  • Your search logs are another valuable source of information regarding your users behaviors. Have a look at them as a complement.

And the best part of testing your ideas with users is, as a bonus you will learn even more stuff about your users that will be valuable to you in the future. Even if you are evaluating the smallest part of your website you will learn things that affects the experience of the overall site. So what are you waiting for? Start testing your site as well. I promise you will learn a lot from it. If you have any questions about how to best evaluate the search functionality on your site or intranet, write a comment here or drop me an email. In the meanwhile we will soon go on summer holiday. But we’ll be back again in August. Have a nice summer everyone!

Combining Search and Browse – Integrated Faceted Breadcrumbs

Finding information can be tricky and as I have written about in one of my previous posts improving findability is not about providing a single entrypoint to information. Users have different ways of finding information (browsing, searching and asking). They often combine these techniques with each other (berrypicking) and so they all need to be supported. Peter Morville states that.

“Browse and Search work best in tandem… the best finding interfaces achieve a balance, letting users move fluidly between browsing and searching.”

A lot of sites are improving their search experience through the implementation of faceted search. However, very few successfully integrate faceted search and browsing on their site. Searching and browsing are treated as two separate flows of interaction instead of trying to combine them which would provide the users with a much better experience.

That is why I was glad to learn about an idea from Greg Nudelman which he presented in his session at the IASummit which I attended last week. In his session Greg introduced his idea about Integrated Faceted Breadcrumb. According to him breadcrumbs are intuitive, flexible and resourceful and they are design elements that don’t cause problems but simply work. To test his idea he conducted usability tests on a prototype using the Integrated Faceted Breadcrumb. According to his evaluation the integrated faceted breadcrumb has a lot of advantages over other faceted solutions:

  1. Combine hierarchical Location & Attribute breadcrumbs
  2. Use Change instead of Set-Remove-Set
  3. Automatically retain relevant query information
  4. Label breadcrumb aspects
  5. Make it clear how to start a new search
  6. Allow direct keyword manipulation.

I find this idea interesting and I am currently thinking about whether it could be applied into one of my own projects. (According to Greg it has not been implemented anywhere yet even though the findings from the usability testing were positive.) However I wonder if this is a concept that works well only for sites with relatively homogeneous content or if it would also work on larger collections of sites such as intranets? Can it be used in an intuitive way with a large number of facets and can it cope with the use of more complex filtering functionalities? For some sites it might not be the best idea to keep the search settings when the user changes search terms. These are some things I would like to find out. What do you think about this? Could you apply it to your site(s)? I recommend that you have a look at Greg Nudelman’s presentation on slideshare and find out for yourself. You can also find an article about the Integrated Faceted Breadcrumb on Boxes and Arrows. I look forward to a discussion about whether this is any good so write me a comment here at the findability blog or find me on twitter.

IASummit – Information Architecture and Search

This upcoming week my colleague Lina and I will participate in the IASummit in Phoenix Arizona. Search, information architecture and user experience and the relationships between them is the focus for us this upcoming week. We look forward to hearing a lot of great talks, meeting interesting people and enjoying the sunny weather in Arizona.

We will be blogging from the conference but if you don’t want to wait for that you can follow me, Maria on twitter or follow the hashtag for the IASummit #ias10 so see what everyone is tweeting about.

Faceted Search by LinkedIn

My RSS feeds have been buzzing about the LinkedIn faceted search since it was first released from beta in December. So why is the new search at LinkedIn so interesting that people are almost constantly discussing it? I think it’s partly because LinkedIn is a site that is used by most professionals and searching for people is core functionality on LinkedIn. But the search interface on LinkedIn is also a very good example of faceted search.

I decided to have a closer look into their search. The first thing I realized was just how many different kinds of searches there are on LinkedIn. Not only the obvious people search but also, job, news, forum, group, company, address book, answers and reference search. LinkedIn has managed to integrate search so that it’s the natural way of finding information on the site. People search is the most prominent search functionality but not the only one.

I’ve seen several different people search implementations and they often have a tendency to work more or less like phone books. If you know the name you type it and get the number. And if you’re lucky you can also get the name if you only have the number. There is seldom anyway to search for people with a certain competence or from a geographic area. LinkedIn sets a good example of how searching for people could and should work.

LinkedIn has taken careful consideration of their users; What information they are looking for, how they want it presented and how they need to filter searches in order to find the right people. The details that I personally like are the possibility to search within filters for matching options (I worked on a similar solution last year) and how different filters are displayed (or at least in different order) depending on what query the user types. If you want to know more about how the faceted search at LinkedIn was designed, check out the blog post by Sara Alpern.

But LinkedIn is not only interesting because of the good search experience. It’s also interesting from a technical perspective. The LinkedIn search is built on open source so they have developed everything themselves. For those of you interested in the technology behind the new LinkedIn search I recommend “LinkedIn search a look beneath the hood”, by Daniel Tunkelang where he links to a presentation by John Wang search architect at LinkedIn.