Do you suffer from IDF on a regular basis? IDF (Information Discovery Failure) usually occurs when the website or intranet information architecture fails to find the information required and you then have no option but to use the search application. You know before you start out that this is not going to be a good user experience.

Good practice in web page design is now well established but somehow the designers forgot about the usability of the search application. Your first challenge is to find the search box.

Is it floating at the very top right of the page rather like a polar bear in the snow? Is it given a prominent placement within the web page on the right hand side, in the middle or on the left? These are just examples from four major UK universities.

It may come as some surprise to find that there has been a significant amount of research carried out into search user interface design. On the bookshelf of any web designer should be the books by Marti Hearst (and also spend an hour in her company), Peter Morville, Max Wilson, and Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate.

Tony and Tyler’s book has only just been published but a glance at Tony’s five-part blog series on search design will ensure you place an order sooner rather than later.

And Now Comes Big Data!

There is a lot of talk about big data and the way it is going to transform business performance, but there seems to be little recognition of the importance of the search interface in providing usable information.

Take a look at a blog posting (more of an article in fact) by Jeffrey Heer and Ben Shneiderman in which they set out a taxonomy of visualization tools. It really does not matter what database schemas are going on underneath the bonnet, or how many data scientists you hire -- if the user cannot conduct a dialogue with the application through a highly usable user interface you might as well burn the investment money for all the good it will do for your organization.

Search in Practice

I love the quote on Tony and Tyler’s web page:

Search is not just a box and ten blue links. Search is a journey: an exploration where what we encounter along the way changes what we seek. But in order to guide people along this journey, we must understand both the art and science of search.”

That is certainly the case, but seeing search in action (even if frozen in time) can also be very educational.

In November the Nielsen Norman Group published the third edition of Intranet Usability Guidelines. The numbers are impressive. 1400 pages, almost 1000 screen shots and nearly 800 guidelines. Just as well I’m a speed reader. I started out with Volume 6 on search and employee directories and if the other eight volumes are as good and enough people buy them, the intranet world should experience a quantum increase in usability knowledge.

Volume 6 runs to 180 pages and offers 113 guidelines, almost all of which are illustrated by screen shots from over 40 intranets. The main sections cover the search front end, presenting multiple search functions, designing search results pages, managing the search application and finally a very good section on employee directory search.

I was interested to note that most of the intranets were either using a Google Search Appliance or the standard search in SharePoint. The NNGroup authors comment

SharePoint search and the Google Search Appliance are both attractive because they seem to offer a simple solution -- SharePoint because it is already built in to the platform, and the Google Search Appliances because they are supposed to be extremely easy to set up. Although these statements are true to some extent, the teams we visited found that these tools were by no means a panacea that solved all their search problems. Both products still required significant investments of time and resources in order to connect them to legacy content sources, tune the search results, and customize the user interface. In some cases, these tools introduced new problems because it was difficult to change the standard user interface or search engine algorithm settings. “

This comes from what I think is the best section of an excellent report; pages 36-38 on why intranet search is so difficult and what it takes to get the best from the search investment. The investment for Volume 6 is just US$ 148. US$ 698 buys you all 1400 pages.

Make 2013 the Year You Eradicate IDF

You may not believe the figure but there is an Oracle report that indicates that the inability to find information could be impacting revenues by 14 percent. If your employees are suffering from IDF then the quickest and cheapest solution is to fix the current search application.

Providing a highly usable search interface may be the best investment you make this year. However no matter how much time you spend reading the books I have highlighted and the NNGroup report, you cannot design a good interface without testing it on real users with real questions. Wikipedia is a good case study.

But that’s a subject for a future column!

Image courtesy of Vladimir Melnik (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Missed Martin's predictions for what 2013 holds for search? Go no further: Search in 2013 Will Become a Business Critical Application