The world is a mobile place, we all know it. So, is there a way for enterprises to search effectively when using a combination of mobile devices? 

The challenges of searching on mobile devices in the consumer sector are fairly well understood. In 2011 Greg Nudelman wrote Designing Search -- UX Strategies for eCommerce Success which had a strong mobile focus and there is an excellent chapter on mobile search in the recent book on Designing the Search Experience by Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate. There is a consensus that natural search interfaces will be an important feature of mobile search design. 

However very little attention seems to have been paid to mobile search in the enterprise, and in particular the way in which users will search using a combination of smart phone, tablet and pc devices. Until now the assumption has been that searches will be carried out on a desktop screen which increasingly is having to accommodate filters ad facets on both sides of the display. Using this layout on a tablet is not easy when the virtual keyboard occupies perhaps half the screen area.

Cross-Device Search

shutterstock_111848645.jpgSearch in general often involves multiple searches in multiple sessions as the user refines a search query. It is not difficult to envisage a situation where a search is carried out on an office pc to create an initial set of results which the user wishes to refine on their tablet or smartphone en route to a meeting.

At the meeting they may then want to share a small collection of results with others around the table, or more likely with a virtual team. Team members may themselves wish to extend the search, initially on their smartphone and then later on a tablet or pc.

What is emerging here is not only cross-device search but also collaborative search. Research has been carried out on collaborative search but not across multiple devices. The search application will have to maintain the search results list and then be able to present it on request on a second device. This functionality is not a feature of most current search applications. The user may want to carry out several searches ahead of a business trip and would like to be able to label them so that they can be listed out on the smartphone.

There will undoubtedly be a predictive element to search resumption. Although it might be easy to assume that a search carried out on a smartphone within (say) 30 minutes of a desktop search will be a task continuation but that may well not be the case.

Keyboard or Voice

It is sometimes forgotten that smartphones are indeed telephones. There is likely to be a transition from the keyboarded query on the pc to voice-driven refinement on a smartphone, and in addition a transition from keyboard to finger/thumb swipe. The search refinement may well be undertaken in challenging circumstances, perhaps when waiting in a queue in a departure lounge. Consumer-based mobile search takes these into account but only in the context that the search session began and ended on the same device.

Management of Retrieved Documents

A project manager may have retrieved a list of related projects in their office and in reviewing them on a smartphone now wishes to send several different projects to members of their team. Adding documents to emails is always a challenging task when listed by a file name! The project manager will probably prefer to manage this task within the search application so that they can send different collections of project-related documents to their team or to clients.

Search Log Management

Reading between the lines of search logs is already quite a challenging and under-resourced task. The logs are likely to increase in complexity as a search is carried out in multiple but related sessions. Collecting the log information from the mobile device and integrating it into the master logs is not going to be easy and yet the analysis is likely to be of considerable importance in developing good cross-device hand-over management.

In particular, the time between sessions may be an important parameter in deciding on the value of predictive presentation of search results from another device. It could well be that the requirements in the desktop-to-smartphone direction are different from those in the smartphone-to-desktop direction, with tablet use adding to the complexity.

Supporting the Mobile Elite

An important reason for starting to pay close attention to mobile search is the emergence of a "mobile elite." Recent research by Unisys together with Forrester indicates that a mobile elite is emerging that is very much in the vanguard of driving businesses forward in a highly innovative way. This elite will have high requirements for access to the best possible information the business possesses, whether they are sitting at a desk in the office, on site with a major potential customer or working in a global virtual team.

In my view, companies should begin to investigate the enterprise search requirements of mobile employees which will result in a new set of personas and use cases. In addition it might be wise to check with all the incumbent search vendors about the roadmaps they have for supporting cross-device search in 2014.

Image courtesy of cristovao (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Interested in Enterprise Search? Read more by Martin: Is There a Future for Enterprise Search?