Focus on mobile

Enterprise search interface functionality continues to increase in response to user demands for manageable search results and the need for exploratory search. Lists of facets and filters, drop-down search box functionality to show hits by term, type-ahead query construction and more decorate the desktop as we go hunting for that vital piece of information, often embedded in a document. (How intuitive these interfaces are is a question for another day — the UK National Archives now offers users a guided tour of its web search interface!)

Users can see a full set of facets and search results at the same time on a desktop, yet mobile devices — even tablets — lack the space to show both together. This is a problem. Both need to be seen in context of each other to help users progress to the next stage of discovery.

Mobile enterprise search brings with it other problems, such as spotting highlighted terms in the summary of result, scanning through a document to find query term occurrences and saving results when there is no local printer. Yet the importance of accessing enterprise applications, such as an intranet or enterprise search, using a mobile device is widely accepted. 

Mobile Search's Status

Getting a sense of how businesses are implementing and using mobile enterprise search is difficult. Surveys from AIIM and Findwise provide a clear picture of enterprise search use, but few specific insights into mobile access to search. Sixty-five percent of respondents to the AIIM survey (registration required) agreed that employees struggle to access internal information from mobile devices. That is not good news.

You might expect search vendors to be promoting mobile search solutions. That is not the case. Finding information about mobile device support on vendor websites is very difficult, especially when (e.g., Sinequa and Attivio) the website fails to include a search feature. While a passing mention of mobile app support might be made, I have yet to find a detailed vendor description of how it presents mobile enterprise search, with sample screen shots.

Mobile Use Cases

Organizations rarely make an effort to think about mobile search use cases. It should probably start with location. Think of an employee walking down the street with a briefcase in one hand and mobile phone in the other, who wants to check on some client details before a meeting. The only access device is a thumb. The alternative is to stop, put the case down on a busy London street with people constantly bumping into them and start to prod the interface with a couple of very sweaty fingers. Many otherwise creative search interfaces appear to assume the user is sitting at his desk. Why?

People won't usually turn to mobile search for exploratory searches, but for searches that could be facilitated by location information. In the case above, knowing that the employee is on Threadneedle Street in London could be used to provide client information within a radius of the location. However that requires the index to include location metadata and present it in a useful way. The other option is to use voice-recognition for search, a technology that (via Siri and Cortana) is progressing with remarkable speed and quality.

Users sometimes turn to mobile devices in conjunction with desktops and tablets for search  — another factor to take into consideration. Senior Researcher Ryen White and his colleagues at Microsoft have undertaken some interesting research (pdf) in this area, though the research focuses on website search rather than enterprise search.

Innovation Required

Providing good mobile search experiences will only increase in importance. It cannot be ignored as a side-show issue. Nielsen Norman Group's Senior User Experience Specialist, Kathryn Whitenton described an approach that Amazon and eBay have adopted in an interesting recent blog post. This approach provides a "tray" overlay that displays both the filters and enough of the screen to give a sense of the success of applying a specific filter. While again a consumer application, it is easy to see how it could be applied to enterprise search.

When you finish this post, pick up your mobile phone, access your intranet and search on any query that comes to mind. Ask yourself if the search experience is fit for purpose, and then imagine doing the same search walking down a very crowded street.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  David Guyler