Building a Search-Driven Killer App – Part Four, User Experience

In the final part of this series, I’ll introduce and discuss the User Experience pillar. This is the easiest of the four pillars for everyone to understand because it relates to the topics involving the search user interface (UI). The user interface is what your users interact with, so it’s really important that it provides a great experience from a usability and visual perspective.

You may have done an outstanding job with everything on the backend of the search process with the other three pillars, but you won’t get adoption out of your users unless you do an equally outstanding job on the front-end with the user interface. Your users won’t care how awesome your index is or how incredibly enriched the metadata is. All they will care about is the way the search UI looks and how it provides the right level of usability to surface all that information from your awesome index.

SharePoint 2013 provides UI features that can enable the creation of some pretty nice looking user interface elements, especially with the use of master pages and display templates. Display templates will allow you to easily customize the way search results can be presented to the user. The out of the box search item display template is very bare bones and does not provide much information to the user other than a title, summary and a URL to the item as seen in the image below.

This default out of the box search results item display template is not very helpful in allowing the user to determine if the items in the search result are what they are looking for. Keep in mind that most users are using search because they don’t really have a good idea of the exact item or items they are looking for. Providing the users with additional information about each result item goes a long way with helping them determine if the results shown are what they looking for. Creating a custom search result item display template to show additional metadata available with each search result will do just that. If you’ve followed the principles of metadata enrichment, why not display that information in the search results? Take a look at the image below which uses a custom display template to show additional metadata about each search result.

Compared to the default template, the above template provides a lot of information about the results. Using a law firm as an example, the above results allow the user at the law firm to easily identify documents for a particular client regarding the subject of “family law”. There is no mystery to these search results as opposed to what is shown by the default template. Remember, a majority of searches performed are for generic terms, so the results returned are also going to be fairly generic. Showing the extra metadata allows the user to visually inspect the results and filter out the noise.

Another way to improve how search results are presented is to employ hover panels. Hover panels can be created to show additional information about each search result item without having to clutter up the main set of results with too much ancillary information. Hover panels can be defined and styled in the display template. Below is an example of how you can use a hover panel to provide more information about the items in the search results.

There is a fair amount of information available from Microsoft and others on how to create custom display templates and associate them with result types. Display templates provide the ability to customize the styling of the search results so you can build some really snazzy looking search results.

Most enterprise search scenarios center on the need to find documents within an organization. It’s pretty common to find that the majority of enterprise search indexes are comprised of content from Microsoft Office type documents or PDFs. Most users have a general idea of the content they are looking for in a document and therefore will query the search engine based on a few key terms, which on average is around two to three terms. For example, they’ll search for “employee benefits”. A search based on a few terms will return lots of “generic” results that match those terms. When dealing with documents in search results it won’t be readily apparent based on the title, and the very short summary of the document, whether the documents in the search results have the relevant content they are seeking.

The user has to download a copy of the document from the search results and then open the document in a compatible reader in order to determine whether a document has the content they are looking for. It can be a time consuming endeavor to download and inspect each file in the search results in a serial fashion. Providing a way to quickly preview each document in the browser without having to download it is a usability feature that everyone loves. It makes the process of finding the right document incredibly efficient and allows the user to quickly go through the search results to find the document they are looking for. Features like showing a hit map within the document preview window of the occurrences of the search terms is another feature that helps the user evaluate the document for its relevancy. Below is an example of an advanced document preview that allows the user to quickly inspect the document to determine whether it contains the content they are looking for.

As I mentioned earlier, most users will begin their search with two to three search terms which will result in a large and very broad set of items returned by the search engine. The refiners in SharePoint 2013 provide a nice way to drill down into the result set and narrow it down to a manageable set of results. Here again, the user experience can be improved from the out of the box refinement with the addition of some key usability functions to the refinement experience. Let’s examine the out of the box refinement experience with the image below.

The image above represents the SharePoint 2013 out of the box refinement experience. This is a good start, but it can be greatly improved. One of biggest drawbacks of the out of the box refiners is that the user can only select one refinement value per refiner. What if, for example, the user wanted to narrow the results down by result type to PDF, Word, and PowerPoint documents? What if the search results involved hundreds of thousands of documents with thousands of Authors? It would be difficult to sift through all of those Authors to find the one they are looking for. The same problem would also present itself here, but it would be worse because of the sheer number of Authors. The image below shows how the functionality of an enhanced refiner would boost the usability of the refiners and provide visual pop to the search experience.

Multi-select refinement allows the users to have finer control of more than one value at a time. Often, the user might not know the exact refinement value that will get them to their desired result and therefore allowing them to select more than one refinement value enhances the search experience.

Search within functionality allows the users to narrow down the list of refinement values when a large number of refinement values are available. This becomes very useful with the user is dealing with something like an Author refiner or any refiner that will result in a large number of refinement values.

Date ranges and calendars provide more granular refinement choices for date-based refinement than a simple date slider.

Some refiners are better presented as a graph. This allows the user to visually identify the associated metadata and determine how they should refine the search results.

Multi-select and search within a taxonomy-based TreeView refinement provides flexibility in performing faceted refinement.

The images above give you a glimpse into what is possible when it comes to taking the refinement user experience to the next level. However, providing all these fantastic refinement options presents us with another problem. The typical search experience will involve more refinement to narrow the search results down to a manageable set. It’s quite possible that the user will refine on several levels before they get to a satisfactory set of results, but he has no way of knowing how he got there. Refiner breadcrumbs give the user a visual representation of the refinement path followed to get to the set of results being viewed at any given point. Below is an example of refinement breadcrumbs which allow the user to remove a refinement value without having to start from scratch.

In summary, this concludes why creating a search application is far different from just creating another SharePoint site. While Microsoft has built a strong platform for rich and immersive search applications, it takes what we here at BA Insight refer to as the “four pillars” to build a true search-driven application.  As discussed throughout the blog posts, the pillars are, Context, Content Acquisition, Information Enrichment, and User Experience. Employing the four pillars ensures that you have implemented a search-driven application that your user community will continue to gain value from and use on a regular basis.

Here is a recap of all the blog posts that were part of this series:

•    Building a Search-Driven Killer App, Part 1
•    Building a Search-Driven Killer App, Part 2
•    Building a Search-Driven Killer App, Part 3
•    Building a Search-Driven Killer App, Part 3 Continued


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