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.