Query Suggestions Help Users Get Unstuck

Several papers at the HCIR09 workshop touched on the topic of query suggestions. Chirag Shah and Gary Marchionini presented a poster about query reuse in exploratory search tasks and Diane Kelly presented results from two different studies that examined people’s use of query suggestions and how usage varied depending on topic difficulty. (Their papers are available for download as part of the proceedings from the workshop.)

According to Shah and Marchionini users often search for the same things. They reuse their previous queries e.g. search for the same things multiple times. Users use their previous searches to refind information and also to expand or further filter their previous searches by adding one or more keywords. There is also a significant overlap between what different users search for suggesting that users have a tendency to express their information needs in similar ways. These results support the idea that query suggestions can be used to help users formulate their query.  Yahoo and YouTube  are two of the systems that uses this technique, where users get suggestions of queries and how they can add more words to their query based on what other users have searched for.

Diane Kelly concludes that users use query suggestion both by typing in the same thing as shown in the suggestion and by clicking on it. Users also tend to use more query suggestions when searching for difficult topics. Query suggestions help users get “unstuck” when they are searching for information.  It is however hard to know whether query suggestions actually return better results. The users expectation and preferences do have an effect on user satisfaction as well. User generated query suggestions are also found to be better than query suggestions generated by the search system. So the mere expectation that the query suggestions will help a user could have an positive effect on his or hers experience…

Query suggestions are meant to help the users formulate a good query that will provide them with relevant results. Query suggestions can also work as with yahoo search where query suggestions both suggest more words to add to the query but also provides the users with suggestions for other related concepts to search for. So searching for Britney Spears will for example suggest the related search for Kevin Federline (even though they are now divorced) and searching for enterprise search will suggest concepts such as relevance, information management and off course the names of the different search vendors.

If you apply this to the enterprise search setting the query suggestion could provide the user with several different kinds of help. Combining the user’s previous searches with things other users searched for but also providing suggestions for recommended queries or concepts. The concepts will be high quality information and suggestions controlled by the team managing the search application. It is a way of combining quick links or best bets with query suggestions and a way to hopefully improve the experienced value of the query suggestions. The next step then is to work with these common queries that users search for and make sure that they return relevant results, but that is an entirely different topic…

The Future of Information Discovery

I recently attended the third annual workshop on Human Computer Interaction and Information retrieval ( HCIR 2009) in Washington DC together with my colleague Lina. This is the first in a series of blog posts about what happened at the workshop. First up is the keynote about the Future of Information Discovery, by Ben Shneiderman.

Ben Shneiderman, professor at the University of Maryland and founding director of the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory held the workshop keynote. He started off by talking about what he called the elephant in the room, Google. Because whenever you talk about search these days you have to talk about Google. Google has become the baseline for search and the system that users relate other search experiences to. Almost all of our customers’ users has in one way or another asked “why can’t our intranet be more like Google?” (Read more about expectations to Googlify the company in a previous blog post by Mickel. You can also download the slides to Ben Shneidermans keynote presentation.)

As Ben Shneiderman said, Google does actually do the job, finding facts work. However searching for information can be dangerous. Google does well on handling simple fact-finding tasks but we need better tools to handle other types of searches such as:

  • Extended fact finding tasks where the queries are often vague
  • Tasks involving exploration of availability where the requested results can be vague
  • Open ended browsing and problem analysis where there can be hidden assumptions
  • Mismatch between the users information needs and the available metadata which will require exhaustive searching.

One of the points that I appreciated the most in this keynote was that systems that support searching for information not only need to support simple known-item searches, which Google does well. They also need to support other things:

  • Helping users enrich query formulation
  • Expanding result management
  • Enable long-term effort
  • Enhance collaboration

I am especially pleased by this statement since these are some of the important issues that we are working with in our customer projects. You will also learn more about query formulation in one of our upcoming blog posts from HCIR.

Supporting these cases are important for supporting users in their information seeking tasks and, according to Shneiderman, this should also be done while enabling users to deal with specific cases of search, concerning:

  • Completeness – Do I have all the information on a specific topic? This is especially important in for example legal or medical cases.
  • Absence of information – proving non-existence of information is very difficult but needed when applying for a patent or registering a trademark.
  • Outliers – making unexpected connections between information and finding and learning new  things that you would not have expected to find.
  • Bridging – Connecting different disciplines with each other.

This is very important because when users search the goal is not the information itself. No users go to a search interface just for the fun of searching for information. They need the information for a purpose. Search therefore needs to support things such as decision-making, collaboration, innovation and societal improvement. Search will only be of true value to users when it not only searches the simple fact-finding tasks but when it helps users solve the real problems in the real world. And good tools can force people to reframe their thinking and see things in a different light. That is the kind of tools that we should be designing.

Findwise is attending and Publishing a Paper at HCIR 2009

I’m glad to announce that Findwise is attending HCIR 2009, Human Computer Interaction with Information Retrieval, in Washington DC on October 23. Our paper about designing for Enterprise Search has been accepted to the conference so we (Maria Johansson and Lina Westerling) are going to Washington to attend the workshop and discuss HCIR with the researchers and practitioners most prominent in this area.

HCIR is a field bridging Human Computer Interaction with Information Retrieval. The design of usable search interfaces is off course a focus area in this field.

HCIR 2009 Article

The proceedings from the workshop has already been published on the HCIR 2009 conference website. You can also download our article “Designing for Enterprise Search in a Global Organization” from the Findwise website. We hope you enjoy it.

If you have any questions or topics you would like to know more about, send us an email with a question before October 21 and we’ll take it with us to the workshop. Stay tuned for more about what happened at HCIR 2009.

Customer Service Powered by Search Technology

I was on the train, on my way to Copenhagen and UX intensive a four day seminar hosted by Adaptive Path. Looking forward to this week I was also contemplating the past year and the projects we’ve been working on. I recently finished a project at a customer service organization at a large company. The objective was to see if the agents (employees) helping customers could benefit from having a search platform. Would the search engine help the users in finding the right content to help their customers?

Our point was off course that it would, but it was up to us to prove it. And we did. The usages tests showed results better than I would have dared to hope for.

  • All users found it to be easier to search for information than browsing for it.
  • Searching helped the users not only in finding information faster, but finding information they didn’t know where to find or didn’t even know existed.
  • All users preferred using the search functionality instead of navigation for information.
  • The search functionality helped new employees learn the information they needed to know in order to help the customers, hence they were productive faster.Less time was spent asking for help from colleagues and support since users found the information they needed by searching for it.

These results are all very positive, but the most overwhelming thing for me in this project was the level of engagement from the users. They really enjoyed being a part of the evaluations, bringing feedback to the project team. They felt that they were a part of the process and this made them very positive to the change this project meant.

Change is often a hard thing in development projects. Even if the change is better for the end users of the system, the change in itself can still be problematic making people hostile to the idea, even though it is improving their situation. Involving users not only helps in creating a good product, but also in creating a good spirit around the project. I have experienced this in other projects as well. By setting up reference groups for the development process we have not only managed to get good feedback to the project but have also created a buzz about what’s happening. People are volunteering for being participants in our reference groups. This buzz spreads and creates a positive feeling about the change the project is bringing. Instead of dreading the users are welcoming the change. It’s user research at its best.

So the next time you are asking yourself why you should involve users in your project and not only business stakeholders – think about how not only the end product, but the project and the process as a whole, could benefit from this.

Designing a Good Search Experience – Summer Reading

The people at Findwise are entering vacation mode one after the other. While finishing up my projects before summer vacation I started thinking about what are the important parts of creating a good search experience. So I wanted to give you a few tips before leaving the office for the summer.

Myself and Caroline participated at Business to Buttons in Malmö in June. I met a lot of talented people and had lots of interesting conversations. One of the topics i ended up discussing the most was: Search is just search, right?

A very common opinion amongst designers is that search is just search. You put a search box in the upper right corner and then you’re done. The search engine has thought of everything else, hasn’t it? I found myself arguing about two things that are very close to my heart:

  • Choosing the righ search platform
  • Designing a good search experience

Choosing the right platform

There is a difference between search engine platforms. You just don’t go out and by one and think that’s it. “Search is fixed.” It does matter what platform you choose! Depending on your choice you can tune it in different ways to fit your needs. You don’t just install Google or any other platform for that matter, and think your done. If you do, you’re in trouble. As Caroline wrote about in a previous blogpost, most enterprise search projects with problems, have problems that are not related to the platform but to the fact that the organization does not have a strategic way of working with search.

To give you designers and other design interested people a quick start to this subject I recommend listening to a podcast from Adaptive Paths UX week 2007 where Chiara Fox talks about search and interaction design. (You can download the podcast from Itunes store for free.) It will introduce you to some of the basic things to think about when it comes to getting what you want from your search engine.

Designing a good search experience

When designing a good search experience there are lots of things you should think of. But without getting to involved in advanced filters, navigators, query suggestions and other things you first need to fix the basics. Showing relevant information in the search results. One of the most common problems I meet at new customers is search results lists that make it practically impossible for the users to understand what the result is without clicking on it. All search results look the same no matter if they’re documents, web pages, people, applications, or products. The only way for the user to understand what information they can find in the result is by clicking on it. A search application that forces the user to use pogosticking is in no way better than using poor navigation. So first you need to think about what information needs to be displayed about different types of search result. What information is relevant for a document, or for a web page?

To get you started thinking about this I recommend reading the articlefrom UIe about creating good search results. It will introduce you to some of the basics.The article describes web site search. Enterprise search is off course more complex since you have more types of sources but the basic idea is the same: Show the user the information they need.

So that was two recommendations for your reading list this summer (in case there is a rainy day or two).

If you have any question about choosing the right platform or design good search experiences please contact us. More on these topics will also come after the summer.

From the people here at Findwise, have a great vacation everyone!

Improving Findability – Is your Content Really Available to Users?

Web service award recently issued a press release stating that the web is being flooded in 2008. This flood of information is caused by the demands for availability as well as the users’ demands for finding all information possibly needed, online. So Swedish websites are being flooded with information and navigation and structure aren’t coping with the problem. And so the users can’t find the information… Time to improve findability.

I believe something has been missed here. There is a big difference between just publishing your content online to make it available to users and making it findable. Could you really say your content is available when it’s not findable? When talking about search, I always like to use the quote: “If the user can’t find the information, it’s not there.” You don’t make the information available to users just by publishing it; you also have to make the information findable.

This also has consequences for search. I usually talk about the differences between enterprise search and web search; Enterprise search being more complex with more information sources, more complex information types, where information discovery could be the goal rather than information retrieval. That’s some of the reasons why enterprise search is in need of more complex functionality such as faceted search, categorization or clustering, query suggestion, tunable ranking etc.

Perhaps we have now come so far that “ordinary web search” also is in need of this functionality to get a grip of the vast amount of content available online? At Findwise we see a tendency for our customers to want more functionality in their search applications, in order to add more value for the users of their site.

In the end it all comes down to three questions (asked by Peter Norville in his Google Tech talk)

  • Can our users find our website?
  • Can they find their way around our website?
  • Can they find our product services and information despite our website?

So, making information findable is not about providing a single way of retrieving information. Your site should be able to support several information retrieval models; browsing, searching and asking.

What Differentiates a Good Search Engine from a Bad One?

That was one of the questions the UIE research group asked themselves when conducting a study of on-site search. One of the things they discovered was that the choice of search engine was not as important as the implementation. Most of the big search vendors were found in both the top sites and the bottom sites.

So even though the choice of vendor influences what functionality you can achieve and the control you have over your content there are other things that matter, maybe even more. Because the best search engine in the world will not work for you unless you configure it properly.

According to Jared Spool there are four kinds of search results:

  • ‘Match relevant results’ – returns the exact thing you were looking for.
  • ‘Zero results’ – no relevant results found.
  • ‘Related results’ – i.e. search for a sweater and also get results for a cardigan. (If you know that a cardigan is a type of sweater you are satisfied. Otherwise you just get frustrated and wonder why you got a result for a cardigan when you searched for a sweater).
  • ‘Wacko results – the results seem to have nothing in common with your query.

So what did the best sites do according to Jared Spool and his colleagues?
They returned match relevant results, and they did not return 0 results for searches.

So how do you achieve that then? We have previously written about the importance of content refinement and information quality. But what do you do when trying to achieve good search results with your search engine? And what if you do not have the time or knowledge to do a proper content tuning process?

Well, the search logs are a good way to start. Start looking at them to identify the 100 most common searches and the results they return. Are they match relevant results? It is also a good idea to look at the searches that return zero results and see if there is anything that can be done to improve those searches as well.

Jared Spool and his colleagues at UIE mostly talk about site search for e-commerce sites. For e-commerce sites bad search results mean loss of revenue while good search results hopefully give an increase in revenue (if other things such as check out do not fail). Working with intranet search the implications are a bit different.

With intranet search solutions the searches can be more complex when information not items, is what users are searching for. It might not be as easy to just add synonyms or group similar items to achieve better search results. I believe that in such a complex information universe, proper content tuning is the key to success. But looking at the search logs is a good way for you to start. And me and my colleagues here at Findwise can always help you how to get the most out of your search solution.

Internet life in the Future

I always think it’s nice when I hear people talking about the same things that are on my mind these days. It makes me reflect upon things in new ways and also makes me realize that I’m on to something. I attended a presentation by Björn Jeffery from Good Old (hosted by Region Västra Götaland). His talk on internet strategy was interesting and had many things in common with the keynote by Elizabeth Churchill (Yahoo) that I recently heard at the HCI2007 conference. Two things interested me most; the future of mobility and the inevitable question of integrity. So here are my thoughts today, on internet strategy and the future of internet usage.

Integrity

Today young people have become used to using different web 2.0 technologies such as Flickr, Facebook, Delicious etc. So we have seen the emergence of things such as social search and folksonomies. People gladly contribute with information about themselves and what they think and like. I believe this is a good thing, but there are also some risks with this. These risks are that once something is on the internet and is indexed, it’s out there and it stays there. Many people are not aware of that fact. How do you keep your integrity when everything about you can be found online? Integrity is very important when implementing these solutions in an enterprise setting.

How can people contribute without having to share their stuff with everyone else if they don’t want to? Björn Jeffery mentioned that we’ve gone from sharing nothing with noone to sharing everything with everyone and that he thought this would change back to us sharing a lot of things with many people. I hope he’s right. Teenagers might note care who they share their stuff with, but security and integrity are vital issues when considering enterprise solutions.

Mobility

In these days mobility has become an important thing. We not only expect to be able to find the information we need but to find it whenever we want from where ever we want to. I am actually writing this blog post on a train, and off course I expect to have access to all Findwise and other resources from here as well. As technology changes our behavior and expectations change with it, and so does society. (I covered excitement generators in a previous post about Jared Spools keynote on HCI2007.)

“I don’t use computers, love. This is just the internet”.

quote from Elizabeth Churchills keynote

Today there is no longer an association between internet and the computer screen. Mobile phones have become an increasingly popular way of accessing the internet. So, you can use search to access all your company’s information from a single point of access when ever you need it. Then maybe next step is mobile search on your intranet? That would not only make information become available at all time but from where ever you might be, and exactly when you want it.

So in conclusion of these talks; I think that in the future we will want to be able to access everything from everywhere at any time. We used to talk about time we spent online. That distinction isn’t really there any more. Today our tasks are interweawed, we don’t separate time we spend online and offline. (Something that becomes painfully obvious when trying to work on the train when you’ve forgotten the usbconnection for the mobile internet.) And in that time we spend online we also need to define what things we want to share with whom. If we as designers can solve these things, I think we’re on to something promising.

How Many Users Can You Afford to Annoy?

The second keynote at the Human Computer Interaction conference in Lancaster was given by Jared Spool who talked about Breaking through the invisible walls of usability research. Jared is a very inspiring and entertaining speaker. If you have the chance to listen to him, take it!

One of the things he talked about was the fact that the usability techniques that are widely used today were in fact not designed for large amounts of users. We have all kinds of data about the users’ behaviors online, but can we really use that data in a productive way? As Jared said;

“there is a big difference between data and information, we don’t know what inferences to make from the data we have.”

He also gave examples from a couple of large american ecommerce sites that have millions of users every day. With traditional usability measures you, according to Jacob Nielsens report, can identify 80% of the usability problems with as few as five users. But if you have one million customers, then you could say that 200.000 of the customers would be annoyed. Imagine how much money’s worth of lost revenue 200.000 users is. So how many nines to we need? (90, 99, 99,999?) How many percent is enough? It is apparent that we need to find methods that can solve these problems with usability evalutations and testing.

Jared Spool visualizes how few users actually spend money on an ecommerce site, and how few users the company relies on for their revenue.

Jared also talked about the consequences that web 2.0 have had for web applications and communities. He talked about what things that make people want to use “extra functionality”, as for example review functionality; what things delight people. Things that are excitement generators today soon come to be expected in every application. And when, as Jared said, HCI becomes HHHHHCI; when social networks are widely used, things that delight us or aggravate us, spread very fast. So instead of thinking about the five user rule, think about this next time you plan a release of a new product or application: How many users can you afford to annoy?