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Tag: Enterprise Search Europe

What Experts Say about Enterprise Search: Content, Interface Design and User Needs

This recap might have the ring of an old news story but these clips are worth repeating until more enterprises get serious about making search work for them, instead of allowing search to become an expensive venture in frustration. Enterprise Search Europe, May 14-16, 2013, was a small meeting with a large punch. My only regret is that the audience did not include enough business and content managers. I can only imagine that the predominant audience members, IT folks, are frustrated that the people whose support they need for search to succeed were not in attendance to hear the messages.

Here are just a few of the key points that business managers and those who “own” search budgets need to hear.

On Day 1 I attended a workshop presented by Tony Russell-Rose [Managing Director, UXLabs and co-author of Designing the Search Experience, also at City University London], Search Interface Design. While many experts talk about the two top priorities for search success, recall (all relevant results returned) and precision (all results returned are relevant), they usually fail to acknowledge a hard truth. We all want “the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” but as Tony pointed out, we can’t have both. He went on to offer this general guidance on the subject; recall in highly regulated or risk intensive business is most important but in e-commerce we tend to favor precision. I would add that in enterprises that have to manage risk and sell products, there is a place for two types of search where priorities vary depending on the business purpose. My takeaway: universal, all-in-one search implementations across an enterprise will leave most users disappointed. It’s time to acknowledge the need for different types of implementations, depending on need and audience.

Ed Dale [Digital Platforms Product Manager, Ernst & Young (USA)] gave a highly pragmatic keynote at the meeting opening, The Six Drivers for Search Quality. The overarching theme was that search rests on content. He went on to describe the Ernst & Young drivers: the right content, optimized for search, constant tuning for optimal results, attention to a user interface that is effective for a user-type, attention to user needs, consistency in function and design. Ed closed with this guidance: develop your own business drivers based on issues that are important to users. Based on these and the company’s drivers, focus your efforts, remembering that you are not your users.

The Language of Discovery: A Toolkit for Designing Big Data Interfaces and Interactions was presented by Joseph Lamantia, [UX Lead: Discovery Products and Services, Oracle Endeca]. He shared the idea that discovery is the ability to understand data, and the importance of not treating data, by itself, as having value without achieving discovery. Discovery was defined as something you have seen, found, and made sense of in order to derive insight. It is achieved by grasping or understanding meaning and significance. What I found most interesting was the discussion of modes of searching that have grown out of a number of research efforts. Begin with slide 44, “Mediated Sense making” to learn the precursors that lead into his “modes” description. When considering search for the needy user, this discussion is especially important. We all discover and learn in different ways and the “mode” topic highlights the multitude of options to contemplate. [NOTE: Don’t overlook Joe’s commentary that accompanies the slides at the bottom of the SlideShare.]

Joe was followed by Tyler Tate, [Cofounder, TwigKit] on Information Wayfinding: A New Era of Discovery. He asked the audience to consider this question, “Are you facilitating the end-user throughout all stages of the information seeking process?” The stages are: initiation > selection > exploration > formulation > collection > action. This is a key point for those most involved in user interface design and content managers thinking about facet vocabulary and sorting results.

Steve Arnold [Arnold IT], always brings a “call to reality” aspect to his presentations and Big Data vs. Search was no different. On “Big Data” a couple of key points stick out, “More Data” is not just more data; it is different. As soon as we begin trying to “manage” it we have to apply methods and technologies to reduce it to dimensions that search systems can deal with. Search data processing has changed very little for the last 50 years and processing constraints limit indexing capabilities across these super large sets. There are great opportunities for creating management tools (e.g. analytics) for big data in order to optimize search algorithms, and make the systems more affordable and usable. Among Arnold’s observations was the incessant push to eliminate humans, getting away from techniques and methods [to enhance content] that work and replacing them with technology. He noted that all the camera and surveillance systems in Boston did not work to stop the Marathon bombers but people in the situation did limit casualties through quick medical intervention and providing descriptions of suspicious people who turned out to be the principal suspects. People must still be closely involved for search to succeed, regardless of the technology.

SharePoint lurks in every session at information technology conferences and this meeting was no exception. Although I was not in the room to hear the presentation, I found these slides from Agnes Molnar [International SharePoint Consultant, ECM & Search Expert, MVP] Search Based Applications with SharePoint 2013 to be among the most direct and succinct explanation of when SharePoint makes sense. It nicely explains where SharePoint fits in the enterprise search eco-landscape. Thanks to Agnes for the clarity of her presentation.

A rapid fire panel on “Trends and Opportunities” moderated by Allen Peltz-Sharpe [Research Director for Content Management & Collaboration, 451 Research] included Charlie Hull [Founder of Flax], Dan Lee of Artirix, Kristian Norling of Findwise (see Findwise survey results), Eric Pugh of OpenSource Connections and Rene Kreigler an independent search consultant. Among the key points offered by the panelists were:

  • There is a lot to accomplish to make enterprise search work after installing the search engine. When it comes to implementation and tuning there are often significant gaps in products and available tools to make search work well with other technologies.
  • Search can be leveraged to find signals of what is needed to improve the search experience.
  • Search as an enterprise application is “not sexy” and does not inspire business managers to support it enthusiastically. Its potential value and sustainability is not well understood, so managers do not view it as something that will increase their own importance.
  • Open source adoption is growing but does face challenges. VC backed companies in that arena will have a struggle to generate enough revenue to make VCs happy. The committer community is dominated by a single firm and that may weaken the staying power of other search (Lucene, Solr) open source committers.

A presentation late in the program by Kara Pernice, Managing Director of NN/g, Nielsen Norman Group, positioned the design of an intranet as a key element in making search compelling. Her insights reflect two decades of “Eyetracking Web Usability” done with Jakob Nielsen, and how that research applies for an intranet. Intranet Search Usability was the theme and Kara’s observations were keenly relevant to the audience.

Not the least of my three days at the meeting were side discussions with Valentin Richter CEO of Raytion, Iain Fletcher of Search Technologies, Martin Rugfelt of Expertmaker, Benoit Leclerc of Coveo, and Steve Andrews an advisor to Q-Sensei. These contributed many ideas on the state of enterprise search. I left the meeting with the overarching sense that enterprise leadership needs to be sold on the benefits for sustaining a search team as part of the information ecosystem. Bringing an understanding of search as not just being a technological, plug & play product and a “one-off” project is the challenge. Messaging is not getting through effectively. We need strong and clear business voices to make the case; the signals are too diffuse and that makes them weak. My take is that messages from search vendors all have valid points-of-view but when they are combined with too many other topics (e.g. “big data,” “analytics,” “open source,” SharePoint, “cloud computing”) basic concepts of what search is and where it belongs in the enterprise gets lost.

Search: a Term for the Long Haul, But…

There is no question that language influences marketing success; positioning software products has been a game of out-shining competitors with clever slogans and crafty coined terminology. Having been engaged with search technologies since 1974, and as the architect of a software application for enterprise content indexing and retrieval, I’ve observed how product positioning has played out in the enterprise search market over the years. When there is a new call for re-labeling “search,” the noun defining software designed for retrieving electronic content, I reflect on why and whether a different term would suffice.

Here is why a new term is not needed and the reasons why. For the definition of software algorithms that are the underpinning of finding and retrieving electronic content, regardless of native format, the noun search is efficient, to-the-point, unambiguous and direct.

We need a term that covers this category of software that will stand the test of time, as has automobile, which originated after terms too numerous to fully list had been tested: horseless buggy, self-contained power plant, car, motor vehicle, motor buggy, road engine, steam-powered wheeled vehicles, electric carriage, and motor wagon to name a few. Finally a term defined as a self-powered vehicle, was coined, “automobile.” It covered all types of self-powered “cars,” not just those pulled by another form of locomotive as is a rail car. Like the term “search,” automobiles are often qualified by modifiers, such as “electric,” “hybrid” or “sedan” versus “station wagon.” Search may be coupled with “Web” versus “Enterprise,” or “embedded” versus “stand-alone.” In the field of software technology we need and generally understand the distinctions.

So, I continue to be mystified by rhetoric that demands a new label but I am willing to concede where we need to be more precise, and that may be what the crowd is really saying. When and where the term is applied deserves reconsideration. Technologists who build and customize search software should be able to continue with the long established lingo, but marketers and conferences or meetings to educate a great variety of search users could probably do a better job of expressing what is available to non-techies. As one speaker at Enterprise Search Europe 2013 (ESEu2013) stated and others affirmed, “search” is not a project and to that I will add, nor is it a single product. Instead it is core to a very large and diverse range of products.

Packaging Software that includes Search Technology

Vendors are obviously aware of where they need to be marketing and the need to package for their target audience. There are three key elements that have contributed to ambiguity and resulted in a lethargic reaction in the so-called enterprise search marketplace in recent years: overly complex and diffuse categorization, poor product labeling and definition, and usability and product interface design that does not reflect an understanding of the true audience for a product. What can be done to mitigate confusion?

  1. Categorizing what is being offered has to speak to the buyer and potential user. When a single product is pitched to a dozen different market categories (text mining, analytics, content management, metadata management, enterprise search, big data management, etc.) buyers are skeptical and wary of all-in-one claims. While there are software packages that incorporate many or elements of a variety of software applications, diffusion ends up fracturing the buying audience into such minute numbers that a vendor does not gain real traction across the different types of needs. Recommendation: a product must be categorized to its greatest technical strengths and the largest audience to which it will appeal. The goal is to be a strong presence in the specific marketplaces where those buyers go to seek products. When a product has outstanding capabilities for that audience, buyers will be delighted to also find additional ancillary functions and features that are already built in.
  2. Software that is built on search algorithms or that embeds search must be packaged with labeling that pays attention to a functional domain and the target audience. Clear messaging that speaks to the defined audience is the wrapper for the product. It must state what and why you have a presence in this marketplace, the role the product plays and the professional functions that will benefit from its use. Messaging is how you let the audience know that you have created tools for them.
  3. Product design requires a deep understanding of professional users and their modes of pursuing business goals. At ESEu2013 several presentations and one workshop focused on usability and design; speakers all shared a deep understanding of differences across professional users. They recognized behavioral, cultural, geographic and mode preferences as key considerations without stating explicitly that different professional groups each work in unique ways. I assert that this is where so many applications break-down in design and implementation. Workflow design, look-and-feel, and product features must be very different for someone in accounting or finance versus an engineer or attorney. Highly successful software applications are generally initiated and development is sustained by professionals who need these tools to do their work, their way. Without deep professional knowledge embedded in product design teams, products often miss the market’s demands. Professionals bring know-how, methods and practices to their jobs and it is not the role of software developers to change the way they go about their business by forcing new models that are counter to what is intuitive in a market segment.

Attention to better software definition leads to the next topic.

Conference and meeting themes: Search technology versus business problems to be solved

Attention to conference and meeting content was the reason for this post. Having given an argument for keeping the noun search in our vocabulary, I have also acknowledged that it is probably a failed market strategy to label and attach messaging to every software product with search as either, enterprise search or web search. Because search is everywhere in almost every software application, we need conferences with exhibits that target more differentiated (and selective) audiences.

The days of generic all-in-one meetings like AIIM, the former National Online Meeting (Information Today’s original conference), E2, and so on may have run their course. As a failed conference attendee, my attention span lasts for about one hour maximum, and results in me listening to no more than a half dozen exhibitor pitches before I become a wandering zombie, interested in nothing in particular because there is nothing specific to be drawn to at these mega-conferences.

I am proposing a return to professionally oriented programs that focus on audience and business needs. ESEu2013 had among its largest cohort, developers and software implementers. There were few potential users, buyers, content or metadata managers, or professional search experts but these groups seek a place to learn about products without slides showing snippets of programming code. There is still a need for meetings that include the technologists but it is difficult to attract them to a meeting that only offers programming sessions for users, the people for whom they will develop products. How do we get them into a dialogue with the very people for whom they are developing and designing products? How can vendors exhibit and communicate their capabilities for solving a professional problem when their target professional audience is not in the room.

At Enterprise Search Europe 2013, the sessions were both diverse and enlightening but, as I noted at the conference wrap-up, each track spoke to a unique set of enterprise needs and variety of professional interests. The underlying technology, search, was the common thread and yet each track might have been presented in a totally different meeting environment. One topic, Big Data, presents challenges that need explaining and information seekers come to learn about products for effectively leveraging it in a number of enterprise environments. These cases need to be understood as business problems, which call for unique software applications not just some generic search technology. Big data can and is already being offered as a theme for an entire conference where the emphasis on aspects of search technology is included. As previously noted topics related to big data problems vary: data and text mining, analytics, semantic processing aka natural language processing, and federation. However, data and text mining for finance has a totally different contextual relevance than for scientists engaged in genomics or targeted drug therapy research, and each audience looks for solutions in its field.

So, let’s rethink what each meeting is about, who needs to be in the room for each business category, what products are clearly packaged for the audience and the need, and schedule programs that bring developers, implementers, buyers and users into a forum around specially packaged software applications for meaningful dialogue. All of this is said with sincere respect for my colleagues who have suggested terms that range from “beyond search” to “discovery” and “findability” as alternative to “search. Maybe the predominant theme of the next Enterprise Search conference should be Information Seeking: Needs, Behaviors and Applications with tracks organized accordingly.

[NOTE: Enterprise Search Europe had excellent sessions and practical guidance. Having given a “top of mind” reaction to what we need to gain a more diverse audience in the future, my next post will be a litany of the best observations, recommendations and insights from the speakers.]