Nine ways to fix intranet search

May 6, 2006 at 8:53 am Leave a comment

James Robertson, of Column Two has written a new article, "Nine ways to fix intranet search." I agree with most of what he has to say, however in my experience the key point is the very first one:

1. Make search work like magic

Staff should not be presented with complex search interfaces. Instead, search should work like magic, so that users can type in a few words, hit 'search', and find the information they are looking for.

This means making a range of behind-the-scenes improvements to enhance the relevance of search results, while simultaneously simplifying the search interface.

It also means recognising that the intranet team, as the owner of the search, should be aiming to do the hard work on behalf of users.

This is something that techies of all stripes, whether they are librarians, information architects, content management and knowledge management teams , need to keep in mind. It is easy to forget that not everyone finds technology intuitive and fun! For me, a new program is like a game or a great puzzle. But to many people it can be a source of frustration. I can't tell you how many times I have heard, well they can get those results if "they just need to add these terms" or 'just go to the advanced search.'

It is not their job to do extra work. Power users are a different story. If their job entails a great deal of research and analysis we can expect that they will be able and willing to do some extra work. The typical end user, however, cannot and should not be expected to learn a lot of new techniques in order to find what they need. We have to do the heavy lifting on their behalf. That is why best bets, taxonomy support, and topical guides are so important to have within a system.

I love the ability of our portal to create gadgets or portlets to easily enable similar functions to the traditional library pathfinders and topical guides. Most enterprise portal products have similar abilities. However, if your system does not enable such functions, these are items you can implement via extra pages or page areas.

I do have a comment on one more of James' list items:

3. Refine the results page

The search results page is probably the single most crucial element of the search solution. If this is not well-designed, then staff will have little chance of finding the intranet content they require.

While most users enter only a few search terms, they still expect the desired information to be clear and obvious on the results page.

While this relies on the underlying tuning and configuration of the search engine, it also means that the search results page must be easily scanned and interpreted.

Unfortunately, the out-of-the-box design for the search results page provided by most vendors is extremely poor. Work is therefore required to improve the layout and content of this page.

I heartily agree with the results pages' poor design. In our testing, we found most of the products seemed to have this issue. I would love for vendors to spend more time refining this side of their products! We have found, however, that this is not always a simple task. In our case, to not only remove — but to add requested information in the search results requires coding changes to the UI. For someone experienced in the product's UI development environment, this may not be an extensive project. However, like many organizations, we have an in-house programmer who is doing a fabulous job of learning the tools on the job — yet this is one of the more advanced features.

James makes a valuable point — but the product vendors need to heed number 1 as well! The end users (customers) should not have to do the heavy lifting. It makes more sense to have the default results page simplistic and allow the customer to add elements. One caveat — we do not have the most recent upgrade of our system, which is said to be much more easy to customize.


Entry filed under: User Interface.

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