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Day: April 3, 2007

Search Help and Usability

Preparing for two upcoming meetings with search themes (Gilbane San Francisco and Boston KM Forum) has brought to mind many issues of search usability. At the core is the issue of search literacy. Offering some fundamental searching tips to non-professional searchers often results in a surprised reaction. (e.g. When told, if seeking information about a specific topic such as “industrial engineering,” enclose it in quotes to limit the search to that phrase. Without quotes, you will get all content with “industrial” and “engineering” anywhere in the content with no explicit relationship implied.)

If you are reading this you probably know that, but many do not. In order to learn what people search for on their company intranet and how they type their search requests, I spend time reading search log files. I do this for several reasons:

  • To learn terminology searchers are using to guide taxonomy building choices
  • To see the way searches are formulated, and followed up
  • To inform design decisions about how to make searching easier
  • To see what is searched but not found to inform future content inclusion
  • To view the searcher’s next step when the results are zero or huge

wo results remain consistent: less than 1% of the searchers place a phrase inside quotations, even when there are multiple words; word are often truncated but do not include a truncation symbol (usually an asterisk, “*”). Both reveal a probable lack of search conventions understanding, a search literacy problem. Here are a couple of possible solutions:

  • Put into place better help and training mechanisms to help the lost find their way,


  • Remove the legacy practice of forcing command language type symbols on searchers for the most common search requests

Placing punctuation around a search string is a holdover from 30 years ago when searching was done using a command language. Since only a limited number of people ever knew this syntactical format, why does it persist as the default for a phrase search for Web-based search engines?

The solution of providing a better help page and getting people to actually use it is a harder proposition. This one from McGraw-Hill for BusinessWeek Online is pretty simple with just seven tips but who reads it? I expect very few, although it could dramatically improve their search results.

If you are trying to improve the search experience for your intranet, there are two resources to consult for content usability on all fronts, not just search:, Jakob Nielsen’s Website and Jared Spool’s UIEtips, User Interface Engineering’s free email newsletter. In the meantime, think about whether you need to demand more core search usability or tunable default options from vendors, or whether better interface design could guide searchers to better results.

Why I’m Disgusted with Web Teams

What’s it gonna take to get organizations to take their web sites seriously? By seriously I mean staff them, fund them and manage them? I’m beginning to believe that some newsworthy misinformation-on-the-Web or ecommerce-related revenue losing incident may be the only way that some organizations, both public and private, are going pay attention to the fact that their Web products are an embarrassment and, sometimes, a liability. Is that what it’s going to take? Some unlucky organization’s got to get caught with their Web pants down?

In 1997 I was working on the web team at Cisco Systems. The public web site was serviced by several different groups within the organization and we were constantly battling about who was in charge (sound familiar?). I only mention Cisco by name not to name drop but because it’s significant to my gripe: Cisco Systems, the first big retailers of multiprotocol routers. Cisco gets the internet. Cisco gets the Web. Cisco has a vested business interest in having the Web work for every breathing human on the planet. Cisco would be the first to put the internet on Mars (if it’s not already there). But, Cisco still had a lot problems managing their web site. Why? Because managing a large Web presence is less about understanding the potential and possibility of technology and more about sound operations and management practices– creating an environment where people work together to create a quality product.

Web People (this is a special breed of people who were drawn to work with web technologies during the Web’s commercial proliferation in the 1990s) have many strengths. But establishing sound operating practices and sound management principles don’t seem to be among them. Web people are good at flying by the seat of their pants, doing the impossible overnight for demanding and technologically clueless managers, inventing new products out of new technologies, and complaining about being underappreciated and overworked… but not great about clearly explaining to managers why the organization is at risk because of the low quality of the organization’s web products. In short, Web People are not good managers. It hurts me to say this because I feel like I’m dissing my own people. But, I think it’s for the greater good.

The Web needs to be managed and it needs to be managed by people who understand not just the Web but also business operations and product quality. Unfortunately, this is not a description of many of the plain old vanilla business school manager types we see in organizations. A lot of managers we work with have an aversion to any knowledge that might be construed as specialized. I’m generalizing to make a point. There’s a general view that mangers don’t actually need to *do* anything (particularly anything technical)… that would be for subject experts and individual practitioners—not managers. But not doing something is a lot different than not understanding what you’re managing. Not understanding what you’re managing is bad management. And there is a lot of bad management happening around web sites.

So, on the one hand you have technically-literate but managerially-illiterate individual contributors who know that the organization’s web site is a ticking time bomb. And, on the other hand, you have technically-illiterate but managerially-literate managers who just want to be able to report up that everything is “just fine” with the site. The result is that organizations are stymied by big, unwieldy messed up web sites largely created by a lot of smart, technology-focused Web People who don’t know how to manage their way out of the mess they have unwittingly created. Above them is typically an administrative structure that might know how to manage but won’t take the time to understand the basic technical underpinnings of the Web (“I’m not technical”); so, they can’t manage effectively and make bad, mostly tactical, reactionary choices for their web products based upon the complaint of the moment from the Web People who report them.

These things combined lead to what I consider to be a “deer in the headlights” web syndrome: where lots of smart people in an organization are standing around stunned and up to their waists in bad Web product — and they just stand there knowing that something bad is going to happen but unable to move. It’s a sad sight.

What’s to be done, for all my complaining? Here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Admit Defeat – Admit that you are powerless over your web site and that your web site has become unmanageable.
  2. Figure Out Who is In Charge – Establish some basic organizational norms around the management of your web sites. Make sure the definition of these norms includes Web People and Good Managers.
  3. Make an Operational Plan – Figure out how to get out of the mess that you’re in and how you will work in the future to create a higher quality, strategically-focused web product.
  4. Get a Sponsor – I say this a lot but I also mean it a lot. Find the most senior person that you can in your organization and get them to support you with management mandates and human and financial resources.
  5. Be a Copy Cat – Most organizations have at least one thing that they do really well. Figure out what that is and then figure out why it works. Then apply those principles to your Web Operations plan. While the Web may be new, sound management principles are not.

I’ll talk a lot more about sound Web Operations Management practices and how organizations should approach the staffing of Web teams in 2007 at the Gilbane Conference in San Francisco. Hope to see you either at the Web Operations Management pre-conference tutorial or my talk on Web Team 2.0.

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