Mobile clients and Enterprise Search – What are the Implications?

As we all know the smartphone user base is growing explosively. According to www.statcounter.com, internet access from handheld mobile devices has doubled yearly since 2009 adding up to 8,5 % of all page views globally in January 2012. And mobile users want to be able to do all the same things that they are able to do on their PC. And that includes access to the company’s Enterprise Search solution!

The benefits of the sales force being able to search for vital customer information before a meeting or for field service personnel being able to find documentation quickly are quite obvious. So how can an organization tweak its search solution in order to provide convenient access for the mobile users? And above all, what will it cost?

Well, to answer the last question first: much less than you think. Providing for the mobile user is mainly about creating a new front end/UI. The main bulk of your search solution remains the same; indexing, metadata structure and content publishing, for instance, remain essentially unaffected.

But you do need to provide a quite different UI in order for the user interaction to work smoothly considering the specific characteristics of the mobile client primarily when it comes to screen size/resolution and text input. But the smartphone also has a lot of features that the PC lacks – it is always available and it knows exactly where you are, it always has a camera, microphone, speaker, possibly a magnetometer and accelerometer and of course a touchscreen with motions like pinching and swiping etc. And many of these features can be quite useful as the following examples prove:

Illustration 1. Google Mobile Voice Search on the iPhone. Courtesy of UX Matters, www.uxmatters.com

  • Google Mobile App for iPhone: in this app, the iPhone senses when the phone is lifted towards the ear and hence knows when to listen for a search command. Since the phone also knows where the user is, a search for “restaurant” automatically generates hits with restaurants in your vicinity.
  • Scanning a Barcode or QR-code: scanning a Barcode or QR-code with your phone is another way of entering a search string. An example could be a product in a store where the customer could open a price-search-engine and scan the QR-code of the product and see where the best price is.

As you can see, there are plenty of opportunities for those who want to be creative. But for the most part, the I/O will still be done via the screen. At UX Matters there is a great article by Greg Nudelman describing the considerations when implementing search for mobile clients and suggestions for various design patterns that can be efficient (see http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2010/04/design-patterns-for-mobile-faceted-search-part-i.php). I have included a brief summary below together with illustrations courtesy of UX Matters. But first, some general considerations for mobile clients:

  • Use Javascript code to detect what type of device is accessing your search solution and if it is a mobile client you display the mobile interface.
  • Native App or Mobile Web App: Creating a Mobile Web App is easier and cheaper than creating a native App – for one thing you don’t have to create multiple versions for different OS’s (although you still need to test your solution with different browsers/resolutions). Performance wise there isn’t a big difference between Native Apps and Web Apps and mobile browsers are increasingly gaining access to most of the phones hardware as well.
  • Authentication: SSO for mobile web applications works the same as for desktop browsers.  There are also new solutions currently being launched enabling usage of the company’s existing Active Directory infrastructure. One example is Centrify Directcontrol for Mobile enabling a centralized administration within Active Directory of all device security settings, profiles, certificates and restrictions.
  • Use HTML5 instead of FLASH: iPhones don’t support FLASH but HTML5 is a very capable alternative
  • Testing: How the design looks for different resolutions can be tested through various emulators but it is always recommendable to test on a limited set of real smartphones as well.
  • Access needs to be quick and simple: user interaction is more cumbersome on a phone than on a PC. Normally try to avoid solutions that require more than 3 input actions.
  • Menu navigation: links on the right side are normally used to drill down in the menu hierarchy and left up/towards the home screen
  • Gestures: is a very powerful toolbox that can be used in many different ways to create an efficient UI. For example, use “pinch to show more” if you want to expand the summary information of a specific item in the search hit list or “swipe” to expose the metadata (or whatever action you want to assign to that gesture).
  • Be creative: the mobile client is inherently different from a PC, limited in some ways but more powerful in others. So if you just try to adopt design solutions from the PC and fit them into a mobile UI you are missing out on a lot of powerful design solutions that only make sense on a mobile client and you are definitely not giving the users the best possible search experience. Also, since mobile design is still evolving you don’t need to be limited by conventions and expectations as much as on the PC side – make the most of this freedom to be creative!
  • W3C mobile: for more information about mobile web development, see http://www.w3.org/Mobile/ which also includes a validating scheme to assess the readiness of content for the mobile web

Design patterns for mobile UI (with courtesy of Greg Nudelman/UX Matters)

Mobile faceting can be tricky but by using design patterns like “4 Corners”, “Modal Overlays”, “Watermarks” and “Teaser Design” the UI can become both intuitive and easy to learn as well as providing reasonably powerful functionality. As mentioned, these techniques are summaries from an article written by Greg Nudelman for UX Matters. If you are eager to learn more, feel free to check out Greg’s website and his upcoming workshops focused on mobile design http://www.designcaffeine.com/category/workshops/

4 Corners: instead of stealing scarce real estate by adding faceting options directly on the screen together with the search result, semitransparent buttons are available in each corner enabling the user to bring up a faceting menu by tapping in a corner (see illustration 2).

Modal Overlays: the modal overlay is displayed on top of the original page. The modal overlay works well together with the 4 corners design – tapping a corner opens up the overlay containing faceting functions like filtering and sorting (see illustration 2).

Illustration 2. Four Corners and Modal Overlay patterns. Courtesy of UX Matters, www.uxmatters.com

Watermarks: a great technique for guiding users and showing the possibility of using new functions. The watermarks, possibly animated, show a symbol for the available action, for instance arrows indicating that a swiping gesture could be used (see illustration 3).

Full-Page Refinement Options Pattern: gives the user plenty of refinement options to choose from (see illustration 3).

Illustration 3. Two variations of the Watermark pattern and a Refinement Options pattern. Courtesy of UX Matters, www.uxmatters.com

Teaser Design: show part of the next available content so that the user is aware that there is more content available (see illustration 4).

Illustration 4. Teaser design pattern facilitates the discovery of faceted search filters. Courtesy of UX Matters, www.uxmatters.com

Persistent Status Bar: always maintain a persistent status bar containing the search string together with applied filters in the search result page. This helps the user maintain orientation. Note that all of the illustrations above have a persistent status bar.

Conclusion

Although Best Practices for mobile UI design are still evolving, plenty of progress has already been made and there are several solutions and design patterns to choose from depending on the specific circumstances at hand. So an implementation project need not be rocket science, as long as you learn the right tricks…

Bringing enterprise information to the field, readily available in a mobile handset or tablet, will mobilize your employees. The UI requires rethinking as we have seen. And security needs to be addressed properly to avoid having sensitive data compromised. But other than that, you are ready to go!

3 thoughts on “Mobile clients and Enterprise Search – What are the Implications?

  1. “Use Javascript code to detect what type of device is accessing your search solution and if it is a mobile client you display the mobile interface.”

    Why JavaScript? With the use of css3 and media queries you should be able to change the CSS to suite any device. You probably need JavaScript to change menus to dropsdowns etc but not for device detection. Or am I missing something? 🙂

  2. While “The main bulk of your search solution remains the same; indexing, metadata structure and content publishing, for instance, remain essentially unaffected.” can be true, however in case of introducing context-awareness, context data-gathering can change the way we index, create meta-data and so on.

    What do you think about that?

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