Deconstructing Some Searches

In the last post in this series, we speculated that search goals might be a useful characteristic to explore.  Let’s consider the interplay between search goals and search results in the four reference search tasks we introduced last time, namely:

  • what will the weather be in Calgary this weekend?
  • how can I fix the <model> laser printer in my home office, which is blinking with a certain sequence of lights?
  • what do I have to do the make my concrete path less slippery in winter?
  • how can I get up to speed on SharePoint 2013?

These were real searches I performed.  Here’s what happened.

Calgary Weather

The weather example is classical information retrieval.  My goal is specific, and I know through experience that I can fulfil it with the simple query “Calgary weather”.  If this recurring information is important to me, I can increase its prominence by delivering it through a persistent widget or app.

Laser Printer

In this case, the goal is explicit (“diagnose the problem, and fix it myself if possible”).  I don’t have a guaranteed search query, but have fixed hardware before and have some ideas. I start with “troubleshoot <model> laser printer”. By the way, if I had previously looked unsuccessfully in my office for the printer manual, I might have started with “download manual <model> laser printer”.  I do a quick scan of the search results to see if I am on the right track.  I am not.  [The ability to do a quick scan introduces the idea of information scent which we will talk about in an upcoming post]. The high frequency terms “laser” “printer” overwhelm “troubleshoot”, stuffing the results with printer sales and printer reviews.  I try “blinking lights <model>”, and get results that are recognizably useful, or in other words, have a high information scent.  One of them helps me  my problem.

Exercise for the reader: How would things be different if I ran a help desk and frequently had to help fix a variety of printers?

Reflecting on this as an information architect, a couple of things cross my mind.

  • I start to see that the world of laser printers has a little ontology (specifications, sales, use, problems, ratings, support), and wonder how I could exploit this.
  • And I wonder how I can learn how to manipulate information scent so that page viewers can assess the value of the page quickly.

Concrete Path

The slippery concrete path example was more problematical.  I am clueless when it comes to DIY, so my goal is not very explicit (“get something to make the concrete path less slippery”), and I expect a bit of fumbling around.  I am not disappointed.  I make a big misstep in the query by asking for “concrete surfacing”.  Adding “exterior” doesn’t help. I still get lots of product sites, talking about things I don’t understand.

I have an ah-ha moment, and enter “concrete path slippery”.  Good call, I find lots of question-answering forums answering my problem.  I still have work to do, but I know I’m in the right sort of place. Now, I have to drill into a variety of options in true evaluation and decision making mode.  In doing so, I learn about evaluation criteria such as appearance, permanence, cost, etc.

Reflecting on this as an information architect, a couple of things cross my mind.

  • I see a distinction between product sites and question-answering sites, and wonder if there are broad categories of site that I can exploit, perhaps as metadata in an enterprise search solution.
  • I also notice that I started to makes notes on a piece of paper.

SharePoint 2013

The SharePoint 2013 example raised some other points.  I understand SharePoint 2010 very well when it comes to designing knowledge rich solutions, have formerly done a lot of development, and avoid infrastructure. Nevertheless, I chose an initial query “what’s new sharepoint 2013” to get an overview of the new stuff.

SharePoint 2013 is huge, and I realise that my goal is ill-formed.  Over period of time, I refine my goal, first to “how can I get up to speed on SharePoint 2013 search and information architecture?”, and finally “what do I need to become a consulting information architect in SharePoint 2013”.  This refinement of goal came about as a result of interacting with the whole information space, and turned out to be instrumental in screening content in or out.

This latest goal did not perform well as a query term. The query “how can I become a consulting information architect in SharePoint 2013” pulled in SharePoint consulting groups as well as SharePoint 2013 information architecture.  I needed a strategy for formulating my query.  My survey of the What’s New information had identified a list of focus areas that I felt I needed to drill into;  I used the names of these areas as the basis for a deep dive.

Reflecting on this as an information architect, I noticed

  • I worked in both survey mode and deep dive mode. I wondered how content providers support these different modes through different IA or UX patterns
  • There was quite an ecosystem of information sources
    • large, highly structured, richly interconnected sites from Microsoft
    • blogs providing practitioner experience, tips and tricks
    • training providers.
  • Some sites had curated overview content.  This takes work and categorization. It works well if the overview gets the audience right.  Microsoft had categories for the reader to select their role as Manager, Developer, etc.  I’ve done this sort of curation for New Employee Quick Reference microsites, and wonder whether there are general principles for when and how to do this
  • My “deep dives” were not infinitely deep.  Once I understood an area to a certain level, I stopped looking at that area and moved to a new one [information foraging]
  • I built my own information structures, ranging from annotated lists of links to scrappy diagrams to documents;  some of these become permanent summaries, others were intermediate stepping stones to understanding, and got trashed when they had served their purpose.

All in all, I found this deconstruction of the four searches useful.  It started to cement my understanding of the intricacies of search, and it gave me enough thoughts for solutions design that I am encouraged to continue.

Stay tuned

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