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 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 -

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?

Delivering Information Where It is Needed: Location Based Information

I recently started working at Findwise after having finished my thesis on location based information delivery in a mobile phone. The purpose of my thesis was to:

  • Investigate how location based information (as opposed to fixed locations) could be connected to search results
  • Improve quality of location based information by considering the course and velocity of the user

To start with, I created an iPhone application with a location-based reminder system. The reminders described location constraints and users could create reminders with single locations (at home) or groups of locations (at any pharmacy). To find these groups of locations, the system searched for locations with associated information (like nearby pharmacies) and delivered this information without users having to click Search repeatedly.

This is an unusual approach to search as the user is passive, instead the system is performing searches for the user. However, to make search results relevant one has to add contextual constraints to describe when, where and to whom a piece of information is relevant. When all constraints are met, information should be relevant. If not, the system lacks some crucial contextual constraints.

When search is automated, the importance of relevant search results increases and the more you know of the users world, the better you can adjust the results. However, traditional search can also benefit from contextual information. It can be used as a filter where search results that are irrelevant in the current context are removed. Alternatively it could be a part of the relevance model, improving search results by reordering them according to context. Hence, whereas automatic information delivery is probably undesirable for many types of information – contextual constraints can still be of good use!

The people who tested my application created 25% of their reminders as groups of locations and found it useful as it helped them find places they weren’t aware of, facilitating opportunistic behavior. The course and velocity information reduced the number of false-positive information deliveries. Overall, the system worked well as a niche product.

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?

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!

Search and Accessibility

Västra Götalands regionen has introduced a new search solution that Findwise created together with Netrelations. Where both search and accessibility is important. We have also blogged about it earlier (see How to create better search – VGR leads the way). One important part of the creation of this solution was to create an interface that is accessible to everyone.

Today the web offers access to information and interaction for people around the world. But many sites today have barriers that make it difficult, and sometimes even impossible for people with different disabilities to navigate and interact with the site. It is important to design for accessibility  – so that no one is excluded because of their disabilities.

Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, interact and contribute to the Web. But web accessibility is not only for people that use screen readers, as is often portrayed. It is also for people with just poor eyesight who need to increase the text size or for people with cognitive disabilities (or sometimes even for those without disabilities). Web accessibility can benefit people without disabilities, such as when using a slow Internet connection, using a mobile phone to access the web or when someone is having a broken arm. Even such a thing as using a web browser without javascript because of company policy can be a disability on the web and should be considered when designing websites.

So how do you build accessible websites?

One of the easiest things is to make sure that the xhtml validates. This means that the code is correct, adheres to the latest standard from W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and that the code is semantically correct i.e. that the different parts of the website use the correct html ”tags” and in the correct context. For example that the most important heading of a page is marked up with ”h1” and that the second most important is ”h2” (among other things important when making websites accessible for people using screen readers).

It is also important that a site can easily be navigated only by keyboard, so that people who cannot use a mouse still can access the site. Here it is important to test in which order the different elements of the web page is selected when using the keyboard to navigate through the page. One thing that is often overlooked is that a site often is inaccessible for people with cognitive disabilities because the site contains content that uses complex words, sentences or structure. By making content less complex and more structured it  will be readable for everyone.

Examples from VGR

In the search application at VGR elements in the interface that use javascript will only be shown if the user has a browser with java script enabled. This will remove any situations where elements do not do anything because java script is turned off. The interface will still be usable, but you will not get all functionality. The VGR search solution also works well with only the keyboard, and there is a handy link that takes the user directly to the results. This way the user can skip unwanted information and navigation.

How is accessibility related to findability?

Search and Accessibility

Accessibility is important for findability because it is about making search solutions accessible and usable for everyone. The need to find information is not less important if you are blind,  if you have a broken arm or if you have dyslexia. If you cannot use a search interface you cannot find the information you need.

“what you find changes who you become” -Peter Morville

In his book Search Patterns Peter Morville visualizes this in the ”user experience honeycomb”. As can been seen in the picture accessibility is as much a part of the user experience as usability or findability is and a search solution will be less usable without any of them.

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!