Design thinking and enterprise search – some commonalities

There is a great deal of interest at the present time about design thinking, and James Robertson has made a good case for incorporating design thinking into intranet development. There was a good article on design thinking in the September issue of Harvard Business Review by Jon Kolko. This was summarised in the Interaction section of the November issue.

“Design thinking is moving closer to the center of many enterprises. Its principles include a focus on emotional experiences, testing with prototypes, tolerance of failure and and making complex technology easy to use. But a design-centric culture requires understanding that the ROI on design is hard to quantify – and appreciating what design can and cannot achieve”

So now let me replace ‘design thinking’ with ‘enterprise search’

“Enterprise search is moving closer to the center of many enterprises. Its principles include a focus on emotional experiences, testing with prototypes, tolerance of failure and making complex technology easier to use. But a search-centric culture requires understanding that the ROI on search is hard to quantify – and appreciating what search can and cannot achieve”

Perhaps the search community should be tracking how design thinking is being adopted by enterprises and seeing what lessons can be learned. Incidentally if the ’emotional experience’ in design thinking seems not to make sense in search just look at the face of a user when they have found the information they need to drive the company forward. I’ve seen more strong emotions in search than I have with users of ERP systems!

Martin White

Four polar bears and two purple martins

As a search consultant I put great stress on the need to have informative titles. The title of this blog post is informative but the link is visual rather contextual. In 1998 I was starting to become very interested in intranets, co-authoring a report for TFPL on intranet management. I could see there were possibilities as a consultant in this area but at the time I had very little knowledge of information architecture despite (or perhaps because of) a career in information science. In 1999 I attended the first Intranets conference in San Francisco, met up with Lou Rosenfeld and discovered ‘Information Architecture for the World Wide Web’, the book that he had co-authored with Peter Morville in 1998. The book was a revelation, as it brought together information science, librarianship and web design, producing a tool kit for intranet managers and would be intranet consultants,

The book was immensely successful and in 2002 a second edition was published, followed by a third edition in 2006. Somehow the third edition did not quite work for me but it was still 500 pages of invaluable insight and advice. Peter Morville had by now moved into the findability sector and Lou Rosenfeld had started up Rosenfeld Media. Now we have a fourth edition, with Jorge Arango added to the writing team, with the subtitle transformed to ‘for the web and beyond’. Although the core principles remain the same the book has been tightened up (50 less pages) and yet remains immensely readable. The writing style is also consistent throughout the book, which is no mean feat with three authors. I’ll be reviewing the book in the next week or so.

As an author of an O’Reilly book you do not get to choose the colophon on the cover. The IA4WWW has been known as the ‘polar bear book’ since it was first published. Someone in the O’Reilly art department had a nice sense of humour with my book on enterprise search, as the picture is of a purple martin. The second edition is has just been published, having grown from 160 to 280 pages. Because of a change in O’Reilly house style the bird points to the right on the first edition and to the left on the second edition. The strap line, Enhancing Business Performance’ remains the same.

The challenge in writing a book is not what to include but what to leave out. As chair of the Enterprise Search Europe conference last week I gave up trying to maintain a list of items mentioned  by presenters that I should have included but didn’t. Luckily there is an Errata section on the O’Reilly website and I will be launching a new enterprise search website in the next couple of weeks. All I can do now is wait for the reviews and the emails.

The second edition of Enterprise Search is my seventh book. Will there be an eighth? You’ll have to come to the IntraTeam Event in Copenhagen in March 2016 to find out.

Martin White

Enterprise Search Europe 2015 – themes and reflections

As Chair of Enterprise Search Europe 2015 I am inevitably biased, but in my opinion this year the quality of the papers and of the discussions, was very high indeed. The conference took place in the Olympia Conference Centre in west London, and as usual the exhibitors were arranged around the main conference area. This year we ran just a single parallel session other than three roundtable sessions on open source search development, SharePoint 2013 search implementation and the use of search logs to enhance search performance.

I’m not going to try to provide summaries of the presentations, other than to say that the presentations by Charlie Hull (Flax), Steve Woodward (Astra-Zeneca), Dayle Collins (PwC UK), Ian Williams (NHS Wales) Anni Waarst (COWI), Lesley Holmes (Nottinghamshire County Council), Alban Ferignac (IFCE, France)  and Paul Cleverley (Robert Gordon University) were outstanding examples of how search can make a significant impact on business performance.

Over the two days a number of themes emerged, and these included

  • Search is a superb integration platform, capable of bringing together unstructured and structured data with equal ease
  • This integration capability is most evident in the development of search cards, in which information from multiple repositories is brought together into a display that presents information, not just a list of results
  • This integration capability puts search as the core platform on which to develop digital workplaces, and indeed both the Astra-Zeneca and PwC applications were far closer in both concept and delivery to a digital workplace than to either intranet or enterprise search
  • Making sure that user requirements are fully understood is essential, because search has to support the way in which they work, not just the way they query a repository
  • There needs to be the staff resources to undertake the user research, train and support users and make full use of the capabilities of the technology, The search team for PwC UK was so large that I had to clarify with Dayle Collins in mid-presentation that he was just talking about the UK operation and not PwC world-wide!
  • There are no quick fixes in search implementation. It is a long journey of multiple steps and the direction has to be set by users and not by the IT road map of the technology.
  • Open source search and commercial search can both provide excellent solutions. In planning the conference I made sure that both search business models were equally represented. Jeff Fried made the point that it is not one or the other, but possibly both in concert.
  • Migration from one content platform to another, and/or a migration of search application, are complex tasks and need both very careful planning and excellent communications with users and stakeholders.

Two of the most lively of the many discussion periods were about the value that information retrieval research can bring to enterprise search and possible approaches to making a business case for search investment. It was interesting to note that the best attended round table was the search logs session facilitated by Helen Lippell. You can catch up on comments from the conference at #eseu2015.

Martin White

The intranet users everyone ignores – publishers

This post is the result of listening to some of the comments made in the discussion sessions at IntranetNow on 13 October. Several of the presentations highlighted the importance of undertaking user testing with real users, preferably with video recording. There were also references to the benefits of using personas as a way of segmenting user needs at the outset of an intranet launch or re-launch. There was a mention of empathy mapping, which I am only just getting around to using, but it seems to be potentially a very useful tool. So far, so good. But there is one group of very important users that is never taken into consideration.

Publishers! An intranet without content has no value. An intranet with outdated content or incorrect content has an even lower value then zero because it then becomes dangerous. Time and time again I hear questions raised about how publishers can be incentivized to contribute in the same breath as a comment about the challenges of the publisher interface. In the case of a website there is often just a small team of content publishers who know the CMS inside out, including all the short cut keys. An intranet has a mix of publishers which may include

  • Publishing content on a regular basis which has a consistent structure and format
  • Publishing content that they have no idea about what it is about because their manager does not want to be a publisher themselves
  • Reviewing and revising content where the person who should be doing it has left the organisation
  • Publishing content that is for the team/department they work for
  • Publishing content about the team/department for the wider benefit of the organisation
  • Publishing content on an ad hoc schedule and to various different formats
  • Creating new types of content
  • Publish content in a language that they may speak but cannot write with the same ease (English is easy to speak but a challenge to write well)

All of these requirements need a careful combination of training and user interface design, and it’s the user interface design that rarely gets much attention. Even with initially good training a poor publishing UI (welcome to SharePoint!) will inevitably take its toll on publisher enthusiasm and quality management. In a number of recent projects I have persuaded the intranet team to work up some publisher personas along the lines of the examples above. All too often I find that they have relatively little knowledge of the varieties of publishers and have not specified the user interface on the new intranet, just taking whatever the IT development team think is a good generic interface. I think it is time we gave the publishing process much more attention throughout any intranet redevelopment project, especially where the reason for the redevelopment is that content quality is poor. We may be fixing the wrong problem.

Martin White

Introduction to Information Behaviour – Nigel Ford

I have had the honour of being a Visiting Professor at the Information School, University of Sheffield since 2002. Every time I walk into the department I am in awe of the calibre of research and teaching. I’m saying this up front as I am inevitably biased in reviewing Introduction to Information Behaviour by my colleague Professor Nigel Ford. I’m going to start this review in three related places. The first was a fascinating presentation at the Findwise Findability Day by Abby Convert on information architecture, the second is a recent blog post on a paper by Professor Reijo Savolainen about cognitive barriers to information discovery and the third is a book entitled The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin. The commonality of all three is the mental models we use to manage the process of interpreting the semantic content of information.

This is a particular issue for the design of search applications. I would argue that company of 12,000 enterprise search users does not deliver a single application but 12,000 different versions as each user will have their own mental model. The concept of information behaviour was first proposed by Professor Tom Wilson, Head of the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield (which is now the Information School) in the early 1980s. It is important to understand that information behaviour is not just about information seeking, though that is where much of the research has been focused because of the need to optimise the performance of search applications as information overload became a feature of daily work and living.

In his book Nigel Ford has managed to maintain academic rigour in his analysis of the research that has been carried out whilst also writing a book that will be of great value to students of any information-related discipline as well as intranet and search managers. There have been a great many different models proposed, each with strengths and weaknesses, the weaknesses stemming primarily because of the need to delineate cognitive processes in the brain in a way that even cognitive psychologists find very challenging. Take a look at this recent paper from Nature to gain an idea of the challenges of mapping cognitive processes in the brain.

The main sections of this 250pp book cover the basic concepts of information behaviour, what we know of information behaviour, and finally discovering and using knowledge of information behaviour. This last section is especially interesting to me as it sets out some of the issues that need to be taken into account when working on projects for clients that involve any element of the use of information discovery applications. I also found Chapter 5 on how information behaviour can be collaborative of considerable interest, especially given my comments on the new book on collaboration by Oscar Berg.

I just wish that Nigel had published his book before I completed the text of the 2nd edition of Enterprise Search as I would have taken a rather different route in a few places, but I have managed to add a citation to the book at the very last stage of production. This is a book that all search managers should read, as well as intranet managers developing portal applications which push the boundaries of the mental models of probably the majority of users. Reading this book will help you understand why you may be finding that user adoption is not as high as expected, and may well turn you into a mind reader as well as a line manager.

Martin White


Collaborating in a Social Era – Oscar Berg

My collection of books on collaboration is quite large. Many are in the loft because the authors have little of interest to say, often scaling up a collaborative working approach in a specific organisation to a generic model. Two books have stood the test of repeated reading are Collaboration Roadmap by Michael Sampson and Collaboration by Morten Hansen. For some years now I have benefited substantially from Oscar Berg‘s blog. He always has something interesting to say and so I was delighted when Intranatverk added a book by Oscar to what has the promise of being a very good portfolio of books. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I met up with Oscar for the first time, thanks to an invitation from Kristian Norling to participate in an Intranatverk event in Malmo.

The subtitle of the book is “Ideas, insights and models that inspire new ways of thinking about collaboration”, which sums the book up in a sentence. The 250 page is divided up into 15 chapters. I’m not going to list them all but just a few will give you a sense of the ethos of the book

  • The curse of physical proximity
  • The struggling knowledge worker
  • The tyranny of email
  • Making change happen

At the heart of this book a collaboration pyramid model that Oscar developed in 2012. The top three layers (act; coordinate; form a team) are elements of a structured team-based collaboration approach. The next five layers (contribute; communicate and connect; find and discover people; share what you know, have, think and do; and make yourself visible and participate) are more social in nature. Oscar makes the point that to enable collaboration to happen naturally across groups and locations an organisation must help its employees perform the activities in these five lower levels. However these are difficult to scale beyond organisational groups and geographic locations.

This book is full of wisdom and diagrams, both of which are usually absent from books on collaboration (the two mentioned above are distinguished exceptions) together with a good collection of references. The literature on collaboration is vast – I was surprised to find that I have collected close to 400 reports and research papers on collaboration in just four years! The wisdom comes from the nature of Oscar’s work as a consultant, where clearly he has stepped back at the end of each engagement to do a classic ‘lessons learned’ exercise. The diagrams are of great value as a tool to initiate discussions inside an organisation and can be downloaded from Flickr. A very generous offer,

I know from our discussion in Malmo that Oscar does not see this as the definitive book on collaboration. To me what is missing is a discussion about the challenges of virtual teams and of organisational/national cultures. As an information scientist and a chemist I feel that the move sideways into information value in Chapter 6, and its metaphor of information being like water, do not quite work. As a note to Intranatverk, your books need a detailed contents page or an index, but having neither makes it difficult to dip into the book.

That apart this is a book that will make you think about collaboration in some very useful ways, and the problem in most organisations is that the technology comes before the thinking. For another perspective on this book read Martin Risgaard’s review.  I can recommend this book very highly indeed. It sits alongside my two established favourites and I have reserved a space for Oscar’s next book on the subject.

Martin White

Findwise Findability Day 2105, Gothenburg

Findwise celebrated its 10th birthday by hosting a Findability Day on 1 October in Gothenburg, its home city. There were over 200 delegates in the audience at the Brewhouse, a mixture of Findwise clients and others interested in learning more about search. The opening presentation from Mattias Ellison was a summary of the outcomes of the Findwise Enterprise Search and Findability Survey 2015. The report is not yet up on the Findwise website so you will either have to wait until it is or come to Enterprise Search Europe in a couple of weeks’ time when Mattais and co-author Carl Bjornfors will be giving a presentation. Next up was my keynote that highlighted areas where in my opinion organisations need search solutions and search-based applications but no-one (least of all commercial vendors) were offering them. These include collaborative search, significantly better search for colllaboration and ESN applications, mobile enterprise search and providing users with a range of search UIs.

Most of the other presentations were from Findwise customers, but as always at these events there is no ‘hard sell’ from Findwise. When there is a Findwise consultant on stage they are always in the company of one of their clients. For me two presentations stood out. One of these was  from Exalead,  which has transformed itself from an enterprise search provider into a provider of specialist product management applications for manufacturing companies, including a 3D search capability. The second was from Abby Covert, an IA specialist from New York, with an outstanding 50 minute presentation on the value of ontologies, taxonomies and choreography in providing effective access to information. The only disappointment was the final presentation from IBM that was notionally about information governance but was, as always of course, just a frenzy of PowerPoint slides.

The event was organised by Mirna Lenntun Zunic and Olof Belfrage. Timekeeping and food were spot on and the venue layout was ideal for continuing conversations over a coffee or (at the end of the event!) a beer. I would encourage anyone with an interest in enterprise search to consider attending the event in 2016. The support that Findwise gives to the enterprise search community from this event and from the sponsorship of the survey is highly commendable.

Martin White

SP2013 intranet launch good practice – some case studies

In late September I was invited by Kristian Norling to talk to members of the Intranatverk community in Malmo,  Intranatverk is the Swedish subsidiary of IntraTeam. The meeting was actually a small-scale conference, with around 50 attendees from Sweden and Denmark. Many of the papers described projects that involved migration of SharePoint 2007 or SharePoint 2010 to SharePoint 2013. Because this was not a public event I will not disclose the identity of the presenters or their organisations. I certainly gained a fresh insight onto the challenges of migration, launch and management of SP2013 intranets.

For me the good practice that emerged was along the following lines.

  • Migration to SP2013 is a complex project, especially from SP2007, and it requires careful project management and substantial support from stakeholders
  • All the presenters emphasised how important it was to maintain very good communication with stakeholders, both the obvious senior management stakeholders and also users within the organisation who could provide department/subsidiary level communications out to users and also channel back comments to the intranet project team.
  • The launch process needs to be carefully planned. One organisation had a ‘silent launch’ where teams were introduced to the new features that would be available even though they only existed in wire-frame formats. Even at this stage important discoveries were made about user requirements which had not previously been on the specification. A presentation to all stakeholders in time to undertake remedial work was also recommended.
  • During the development stage of the project the team size tends to be quite large. Several of the teams found that the sudden reduction in staffing as the development project came to an end left them seriously under-resourced for the post-launch challenges. No matter how thorough the user testing had been there always seem to be issues that did not surface during testing.
  • In one case the number of publishers increased from 40 (in a very centralised publishing model) to over 4000 within a few months of launch. Fortunately the organisation had invested in the development of e-learning applications for publishers but it still meant that the level of support to publishers was less than ideal.
  • The delivery of personalised news was raised by several speakers. In principle personalised news seems to be a good way to manage potential information overload, but in the event things did not go to plan. Users may have multiple roles and interests, they may be interested in a news feed from a country office just because a friend works there, and people seemingly with the same roles and responsibilities found they had different news alerts. In one case the entire newsfeed application had to be discontinued and re-developed.

Overall everyone seemed pleased with the functionality that SP2013 was giving them, especially in being able to integrate other applications into an intranet portal platform and to be able to provide an enterprise social network capability. This was my first visit to Malmo (which is just 30 minutes from Copenhagen Airport by train) and I can commend it as a city worthy of a visit, with a seemingly endless number of good restaurants.

Martin White


IntranetNow Diamond Award 2015 – List of nominations

There is now less than four weeks to go before the Intranet Now conference, in London on 13 October 2015. It gives me great pleasure to publish the list of the people who have been nominated by members of the global intranet community for the Intranet Now 2015 Diamond Award. I can still remember walking (actually, struggling!) home with the box containing the vast (glass!) award last year. Hopefully this year the organisers will provide a bag for the purpose! It takes quite a lot of regular maintenance to retain its shine and sparkle, just like all intranets. Take a look at the photos from last year

The nominees are:

Luke Oatham (Helpful Technology) for his Intranet Diary blog and tweets (@Luke_Oatham).

Sam Marshall (ClearBox Consulting) for his talks, blog, newsletter and tweets (@SamMarshall).

Rachel Miller (All Things IC) for her blog, community involvement and tweets (@AllThingsIC).

Darren Caveney (Comms 2point0) for his shared blog, and tweets (@DarrenCaveney and @Comms2point0).

Gerry McGovern (Customer Carewords) for his newsletter, his blog, talks, books and tweets (@GerryMcGovern)

Jane McConnell ( NetJMC) for her digital workplace research and evangelism, talks, blog and tweets (@NetJMC).

James Robertson (Step Two Designs) for his globe-trotting, talks, Intranet Innovation awards, books and tweets (@James_StepTwo).

Kristian Norling (Intranätverk) for his events, book publishing, and tweets (@KristianNorling).

This is an impressive list and reminds me how fortunate we are that the nominees see it as a core element of their work to share their experiences and expertise with the intranet community at large. In addition all these nominees have a passion for what they do and for the furtherance of good practice in the design and management of intranets and digital workplaces. I’m looking forward to presenting the award to the winner in London next month. Any and all of the nominees would be worthy winners. There are eight on the short list, so that means that the IntranetNow event will have to continue to at least 2024 just to be able to acknowledge their contribution.

Martin White

Search is not ‘intuitive’ – outcomes of an information scaffolding study

One of the challenges faced by search managers is trying to demonstrate that search is not intuitive and that training is important. Now at last there is research to support the case for training. The concept of information scaffolding is that scaffolding refers to the assistance offered to students that enables them to successfully complete a task. In terms of information search skills acquisition, studies of how experts search are one means of identifying the sequence of knowledge and skills that need to be acquired in order to progress towards expertise in searching. In a paper in the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science the outcomes are presented of a study in which a group of graduate students were mentored by an experienced information professional in searching a range of academic research resources, which might well resemble an enterprise search environment.

The graduate students were asked to rate their level of confidence and knowledge in using various elements of the search applications. There were 22 of these, ranging from a knowledge of the scope of the repositories to the value of proximity searching. This number alone may come as a surprise to people who think that all you have to do is type a query into Google. Over a set of five sessions with the mentor there was a significant improvement in almost all aspects of search skills. It is important to remember that these were graduate students, who will already have used various search applications (such as library catalogues) in their undergraduate work.

Now this is a very small-scale study but as far as I am aware it is the first of its type. If you work in an organisation with a manager that thinks that training in search skills is irrelevant and a waste of time it might well be worth putting Table 4 in front of them (it shows the improvement in skill levels) and asking them to defend their position. Or send them a memo headed “The Benefits of Information Scaffolding”. That should catch their attention!

As Chair of Enterprise Search Europe 2015 I should of course end by reminding you that registration is now open. See you in London on 20/21 October and be part of an information scaffolding experience.

Martin White