31 January 2012

Why “Search” instead of “Find”

In July 2010, I posted “Can search really solve information ‘finability’.”  Since that post, I’ve run into a number of clients who continue to insist that they need to search (even if “search stinks” in their organization).  Yet, almost universally, they report the search experience misses their expectations.  This should be no surprise, as lots of firms struggle with this very problem.  However, I’d like to suggest an alternate hypothesis: they actually want “find,” not “search.”

For better or worse (mostly worse), loads of folks closely associate the act of search with the expectation of locating desired content.  Typically, at least outside of an organization, this means assuming they should navigate to Google or Bing (mostly Google). When they arrive, they enter a few keywords and press “GO.”  At this point, they’re presented with a set of results from which they choose one that looks promising.  In part, any perceived success is just that; they don’t necessarily expect to find what they want.  If, however, they happen to find the object of their desire, they are pleased. 

While both “search” and “find” are verbs, search does not imply a goal, simply an action.  Search describes everything in the scenario I just relayed except the part where you’ve found the appropriate destination.  Find, by contrast, is explicitly the goal and characterized by viewing your content.  If you need a very concrete example, if child goes missing, the goal is not to search for the child.  The goal is to find the child.

Therefore, in regards to content, consider changing the conversation.  Use the word FIND instead of SEARCH.  In doing so, you begin to think of the goal and not of one particular approach.  Further, if we focus on finding content, we can also measure a success rate.

This orientation change opens up a whole world of opportunities.  For example, start with the simplest model: place relevant content on the first page they see on an intranet.  While this may seem wholly impractical (too much content, no context to judge relevance), this kind of solution is possible.  Use what you know about your employees/users.  If you know within what department they work, you can begin surfacing content from their department. Not specific enough? What about adding in the role they serve and surface content targeted to that role (NOTE: a good driver for metadata).

Beyond actually locating the content in plain site, try surfacing tasks associated with the desired content. For example, display tasks like “Submit an Expense Report,” instead of requiring users to search for the expense report form or “Fill out a Timesheet,” which links to the time reporting system (or simply an interface to immediately report time).  In this way we’re presenting navigable elements that are easily understood and focus on actual tasks employees/users need to accomplish without the need to search.

However, if you really must provide search, give them help.  Provide them with a targeted search facility that enables them to narrow the scope of the search (i.e. don’t return results from the entire enterprise if they’re looking for a project related document).  Give them metadata to enable precise queries like “Author = Jane Smith.”  Finally, give them “canned” or pre-developed queries created by “experts” who can construct search queries that ensure result precision.  In this way, we’ve moved away from the simply keyword-driven approach to a more intelligent model that reduces “noise” and improves precision through carefully use of the technology. As an interesting alternative, execute these queries in the background and simply display the result like other navigation on the page; in this way, the user doesn’t actually have to execute the query and you’ve just saved them a step in finding content.

In short, search (as a tool) must necessarily become one of an array of techniques used to find content.  However, it should absolutely not be the first or only approach.  We must think in terms of FIND, not SEARCH.  Find is the concrete goal and has a measurable success rate; search is simply an action that, while measurable, does not necessarily lead to your user’s goal.

24 January 2012

Multilingual SharePoint Sites–Part 2

Some months back, I wrote a post about the basics of multilingual sites in SharePoint.  The post was a good primer for anyone that needs to understand SharePoint-centric concepts regarding multilingual web sites.  Unfortunately, the post didn’t really describe important details outside of the SharePoint sphere.  In particular, the post excluded all the ASP.NET-centric details.  In this post, I want to share at least some of those additional details.


One of the early design goals that Microsoft had for SharePoint was that ASP.NET developers would be comfortable creating SharePoint-based solutions.  The theory is that if you’re a competent ASP.NET developer, you can simply pick up the additional SharePoint API universe; SharePoint is a good .NET citizen, so this idea shouldn’t be a stretch. 

Whether or not you believe a good ASP.NET developer could easily pick up SharePoint, SharePoint does borrow very heavily from many .NET facilities.  With regard to multilingual sites, this includes the Globalization namespace

The Globalization namespace is a group of classes that are responsible for allowing ASP.NET applications to understand the numerous languages and cultures that applications can target.  It includes everything from calendar differences and languages to date/time formats and string comparisons (and a whole lot more).  It also, importantly, provides a facility to allow developers to create a resource pool of commonly referred to assets (e.g. element labels, images).  These assets are all referenced using standard labels, creating an index of asset variants for each culture.  At runtime, based on the culture of the current user (usually indicated by a browser setting), the .NET framework will dynamically select the appropriate asset/resource based on a generic label describing that asset or resource. 

Resources and Resource Files (RESX)

Resources or multilingual assets are defined in a Resource File (RESX). There’s a resource file for each culture represented in the application. All resource files use the same labels to describe the asset, but with a culture-specific value.  For example, the text shown next to the text box where a user would enter their user ID to authenticate with the application would be an example of a reference resource. 


Figure 1 – Resource example for Login Page

In the RESX file, which is just XML, you’ll find the following entry


Figure 2 – Login_UserID label in the EN-US resource file

To add, edit or delete values, Visual Studio provides a “designer” view of the file.  In the designer, you have the ability to quickly and easily define the various labels and the corresponding values.  Figure 3 shows the Visual Studio interface for editing a RESX file.


Figure 3 – Visual Studio designer interface for RESX file

For every culture your application needs to support, you create a specific RESX file.  Each file would be named for the culture it supports and every file would contain the same labels, with values corresponding to the specific culture.  The example presented here, the RESX file is for the culture EN-US (US English). For more information on resource files, naming conventions and details on creating the files, take a look at this MSDN article on resource files

In SharePoint terms, the RESX would correspond to a specific variation of the same culture.  In effect, you will have at least one RESX file per variation.  These files define elements of the user interface that end users do not supply.  Whereas content on any given page is created and managed by content contributors, there are also elements, like the label for the User ID field on the login page, that are “baked” into the code of the application.  RESX files provide a mechanism to define what that label will say in the context of a specific variation or culture selection (usually set by the browser displaying the page).

Information Architecture and Visual Design

Beyond the somewhat mechanical processes for inserting culture specific content into a page, a more critical aspect of multilingual sites is Information Architecture (IA).  The IA defines the navigation paths (global navigation and its relationship to other sections and pages within the site) and the overall interface layout.  This means the decisions about where various interface elements are placed, what nomenclature is used and what sort of content is shown are all made through and by the IA (both the person – Architect – and their output – Architecture).

When developing a multilingual web site, consider that the interface will be at least slightly and potentially radically different based on the language being displayed.  The simplest example is word length.  If we compare an interface in German and one in English, it’s very likely that there will be different space needs for labels in the navigation, as well as content.  As a result, the IA must anticipate interface movement and allow for enough white space to accommodate an interface that will grow and shrink based on the language’s need.  This too is a challenge for constructing HTML and JavaScript, since both components of the web page may need to “react” to language differences.  However, beyond this relatively easy challenge, presenting content is matter of having the appropriate language-specific content.

A more complicated scenario is one involving differences in how a language is read.  For Hebrew or Arabic (as two examples), the languages are read right to left.  As a result, the whole orientation of the interface needs to shift.  The main navigation will need to start from the right, global navigation elements will be positioned in the upper left and text will flow from right to left within the content sections.  As such, you may require a unique master page and page layouts for these languages to sufficient accommodate the display differences.  The same is true for languages that are read vertically instead of horizontally as in Manchu.

Continuing with the above example, you also have the challenge of fonts.  Languages that utilize radically different character sets will require the IA and the designer to consider both font face and size choices. For example, for any font size choice in the cascading style sheet, will the text be readable across all languages represented by the site.  Most European languages have characters with relatively little detail compared with Asian languages.  Font sizes that are too small or font faces that carry too much embellishment may make detailed characters muddled or simply unreadable.  As such, these choices represent both a visual design and information architecture challenge, since font size differences will also present spacing issues to resolve.

Bringing it all together

With all of the details provided in the two posts of this series, here’s a quick review of the important parts:

  • When developing your Information Architecture for a multilingual site, include the various cultures included.  Each culture, in SharePoint terms, will be a “variation.”  A culture, remember, is a combination of a language and a country, represented like EN-UK (English – United Kingdom) or PT-PT (Portuguese – Portugal).  This culture approach makes it easy to distinguish between two countries that share a broad language (e.g. Spanish), but differ in usage (e.g. Spain vs. Mexico).
  • Developing an IA for a multilingual sites involves many more decisions and test cases to resolve than a single language site.  It’s important to explore the implications for your specific IA based on the languages that need to be supported and, when the visual design is complete, any challenges a specific design might pose based on the supported languages.
  • Within SharePoint, decide what variation will act as a the “primary” or source variation.  This is the variation that will syndicate content to all other variations.  For example, if the source variation is German (from Germany), your content will start in German; once a page is approved, it will be copied to the other language variations in your site collection (e.g. EN-UK, PT-PT).  From there, each non-source variation will be responsible for translating, approving and publishing a language specific version of the German content.
  • You will have at least one RESX file per variation.  If you have lots of different cultures, you will have as many RESX files and they must all contain the same labels.  Because labels are not evaluated during compile-time in Visual Studio, you’ll only discover missing (or conflicted) labels in a resource file at run time.  This is not, obviously, a good user experience.  As a result, you should thoroughly test and control the modification of RESX files.  Take a look at this blog series from Carel Lotz regarding one approach to effective RESX management: http://fromthedevtrenches.blogspot.com/2011/04/managing-net-resx-duplication-part-1.html
  • Think carefully about the taxonomy (aka organization) of variations and labels.  As much as the IA process should define navigation, the overall taxonomy will drive label names and how labels are used in the application.  For the project example in this post, we used labels tied to interfaces (interface name prepended on label name).  This is one approach.  However, this approach neglects opportunities to leverage labels across interfaces.  Conversely, label use across interfaces can make maintenance more challenging as label changes will necessarily have different impacts across the application.  Here, experimentation and testing are key.
  • A SharePoint multilingual site is really a combination of SharePoint variations and .NET globalization.  You must necessarily implement both; end users will leverage the variations component and your developers will have to provide matching RESX files for application-specific labels and static text.

As you may have surmised, there are a lot of details to consider when developing a multilingual web application.  SharePoint does provide decent facilities to enable basic multilingual sites and the .NET framework provides loads of flexibility in implementation.   Just be sure to consider the whole picture – it’s a combination of SharePoint centric constructs (aka variations), good information architecture/design and the technical “infrastructure” to make the whole solution work for end users.

16 January 2012

The [Tools are] too much with Us

As 2012 starts in earnest, I am reminded of the poem from which the title of this post has been taken “The World is too much with Us” by William Wordsworth.   In this poem, Wordsworth laments how out of tune with nature people had become during the first industrial revolution.  In much the same way, I see too much focus being placed on tools in the era of SharePoint.  Business users and Information Technology folks seem to be so enamored by the tools and technology, they forget that the focus should be on needs and solutions.  This is especially true when discussing SharePoint and, as I said many times, SharePoint is not the answer.  

Instead, SharePoint, like any technology, needs only to be included insofar as it provides the basis for creating a solution to a specific problem (or problems).  For example, if you needed to manage documents, SharePoint could provide you with a Document Library for storing the files.  Further, you could leverage Content Types and Information Management Policies to enable more precise management of a document’s lifecycle (if that were a need).  However, your specific use of these features should and must be governed by the solution – the overall set of features, functions and the specific solution implementation  in the context of your needs and goals.

When considering how to proceed with your SharePoint project, consider this one piece of advice: start with the problem or challenge first.  Ignore SharePoint and don’t speak of it again, unless you’re discussing how some feature in SharePoint can support a solution.  Even then, try focusing on the solution (give it a name if you have to) and not the tools or features involved.