Design Principles for Enterprise Search – The Philosophy of UX

In May I attended An Event Apart in Boston (AEA). AEA is a 2-day (design) conference for people who working with websites and was created by the father of web design Jeffrey Zeldman and the CSS guru Eric Meyer. The conference has a broad perspective, dealing with everything from how to write CSS3 and HTML5 to content strategy and graphic design. This post is about an AEA topic brought up by Whitney Hess: Create design principles and use them to establish a philosophy for the user experience.

Hess wants to create universal principals for user experience to communicate a shared understanding amongst team members and customers and to create a basis for an objective evaluation. The principles suggested by Hess are listed below along with examples of how these can relate to search and search user interfaces.

Stay out of people’s way

When you do know what people want stay out of their way

Google knows what to do when people visit their search at Google.com. They get out of the way and make it easy to get things done. The point is not to disturb users with information they do not need, including everything from modal popup windows or to many settings.

Create a hierarchy that matches people’s needs

Give crucial elements the greatest prominence

This means that the most used information should be easy to find and use. A classic example is that on most university webpages – it is almost impossible to find contact details to faculty members or campus address but very easy to find a statement of the school philosophy. But the former is probably what users mostly will try to find.

university website -  xkcd.com/773/

Limit distractions

This principle means that you should design for consecutive tasks and limit related information to the information you know would help the user with her current task. Don’t include related information in a search user interface just because you can if the information does not add value.

Provide strong information scent

There should be enough information in search results for users to decide if results are relevant. In an e-commerce site this would be the difference between selling and not selling. A search result will not be perceived as cluttered if the correct data is shown.

Provide signposts and cues

Always make it clear how to start a new search, how to apply filters and what kind of actions can be applied to specific search results.

Provide context

Let the user know that there are different kinds of search result. Display thumbnails for pictures and videos or show msn availability in people search.

Use constraints appropriately

Prevent errors before they happen. Query suggestion is a good way as it helps users correct spelling error before they happen. This saves time and frustration for the user.

Make actions reversible

Make it obvious how to removes filters or reset other settings.

Provide feedback

Interaction is a conversation so let the user know when something happens or when the search interface fetches new search results. Never let the user guess what happens.

Make a good first impression

You only have one time to make a first impression. It is therefore important to spend time designing the first impression of any interface. Always aim to make the experience for new users better. This could mean voluntary tutorials or fun and good-looking welcome messages.

So now what?

Are universal principles enough? Probably not. Every project and company is different and need their own principles to identify with. Hess ended her presentation with tips on how to create company principles to complement the universal principles. Maybe there will be future blog posts about creating your own design principles.

So what are your company’s principles?

Snapshots of a User Experience Course

In April I attended the User Experience (UX) Intensive course in Amsterdam, hosted by experience design firm Adaptive Path.

One thing I found interesting was the variations of participants’ work focus over the product development process. Some specialize in doing user research whereas others, myself included, cover the whole process from high-level strategy to detailed interaction design.

Looking back on the four intensive days, mixing lectures and hands-on exercises, there are some thoughts I would like to share with you, sticking to topics applicable when developing intranet and company public websites.

Nothing exists in isolation

Design a thing by considering it in its next largest context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, environment in a city plan

Eliel Saarinen – Finnish architect (1873-1950)

This quote came up in the course when covering design strategy. An architect originally stated it, but it can be applied to all design areas, including websites and digital applications.

For instance, lets look at an intranet: it is definitely not used in isolation. It is part of a workflow involving several IT systems and other information channels such as face-to-face meetings. Looking only at Findwise area of expertise: the search function is undeniably an essential part of the website.

Typically, search tries to replicate/mirror the navigational structure of a site. This is reasonable, and good, but surely this relation could go the other way as well – navigation can learn from the dynamics of search and from user search behavior. Navigation and search should be intertwined, rather than being two separate ways of accessing information. Studies show that users are not either searchers or navigators; sometimes users are biased to search and sometimes to click menu items and links. Most of the times users actually combine the two methods when visiting a website. This should be considered when developing a new website – search and the rest of the site should not be developed separately.

Moreover, internal platforms for spreading information and collaboration are typically used in different contexts by different users. An example: The developer use it to up- and download day-to-day work documents whereas the general user mainly view it as a news channel to keep up to date with what is going on in the organization. Yet editors use it to publish information for other employees to access.

In large organizations, applications used by employees are typically owned by different units – units that do not talk to each other. I am convinced that all system owners within an organization have things to learn form each other. After all, they are often serving the same people and might otherwise redo work such as target group analysis. All parts will gain from communicating more across organizational borders.

Why Web Search is Like a Store Clerk

When someone is using the search function on your web site, your web search, it tells you two things. First of all they have a specific need, expressed by their search query. Second, and more importantly he or she wants you to fulfill that need. If users didn’t care where the service was delivered from, they would have gone straight to Google. Hence, the use of your search function signals trust in your capabilities. This means that even if the majority of your website visitors doesn’t use the search function, you know that the ones who do have a commitment to you. Imagine you are working in a store as a clerk; the customer coming up to you and asking you something is probably more interested in doing business with you than the ones just browsing the goods.

This trust however, can easily be turned to frustration and bad will if the web search result is poor and users don’t find what they are looking for. Continuing our analogy with the store, this is much like the experience of looking for a product, wandering around for a few minutes, finally deciding to ask a clerk and getting the answer “If it’s not on the shelf we don’t have it”. I certainly would leave the store and the same applies for a web site. If users fail when browsing and searching, then they will probably leave your site. The consequence is that you might antagonize loyal customers or loose an easy sale. So how do you recognize a bad search function? A good way to start is to look at common search queries and try searching for them yourself. Then start asking a few basic questions such as:

  • Does the sorting of the search results make sense?
  • Is it possible to decide which result is interesting based on the information in the result presentation?
  • Is there any possibility to continue navigating the results if the top hits are not what you are looking for?

Answering these questions yourself will tell you a lot about how your web search is performing. The first step to a good user experience is to know where your challenges are, then you can start making changes to improve the issues you have found in order to make your customers happier. After all, who wants to be the snarky store clerk?

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.

Google Instant – Can a Search Engine Predict What We Want?

On September 8th Google released a new feature for their search engine: Google instant.
If you haven’t seen it yet, there is an introduction on Youtube that is worth spending 1:41 minutes on.

Simply put, Google instant is a new way of displaying results and helping users find information faster. As you type, results will be presented in the background. In most cases it is enough to write two or three characters and the results you expect are already right in front of you.

Google instant

The Swedish site Prisjakt has been using this for years, helping the users to get a better precision in their searches.

At Google you have previously been guided by “query suggestion” i.e. you got suggestions of what others have searched for before – a function also used by other search engines such as Bing (called Type Ahead). Google instant is taking it one step further.

When looking at what the blog community has to say about the new feature it seems to split the users in two groups; you either hate it or love it.

So, what are the consequences? From an end-user perspective we will most likely stop typing if something interesting appears that draws our attention. The result?
The search results shown at the very top will generate more traffic , it will be more personalized over time and we will most probably be better at phrasing our queries better.

From an advertising perspective, this will most likely affect the way people work with search engine optimization. Some experts, like Steve Rubel, claims Google instant will make SEO irrelevant, wheas others, like Matt Cutts think it will change people behavior in a positive way over time  and explains why.

What Google is doing is something that they constantly do: change the way we consume information. So what is the next step?

CNN summarizes what the Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google says:

“The next step of search is doing this automatically. When I walk down the street, I want my smartphone to be doing searches constantly: ‘Did you know … ?’ ‘Did you know … ?’ ‘Did you know … ?’ ‘Did you know … ?’ ”

Schmidt said at the IFA consumer electronics event in Berlin, Germany, this week.

“This notion of autonomous search — to tell me things I didn’t know but am probably interested in — is the next great stage, in my view, of search.”

Do you agree? Can we predict what the users want from search? Is this the sort of functionality that we want to use on the web and behind the firewall?

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.

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!