The Search for Intelligent Search – Is it Delve?

“Jeff, do you have any insight into how people really use Delve?  People are asking me because of the recent announcement…I am confused about whether/how to roll it out, and it seems like a moving target. Can you shed some light on it please?”

I get this kind of email regularly.  Last week, after Microsoft announced a set of updates to Intelligence-powered search, Delve, and Microsoft Graph, I had six emails like this.  Hence this blog post – I’ll lay out the actual news, with some context, plus some observations and tips about how to take advantage of Delve.

The Delve news in context

Last week’s announcement included three things:

  • A new personalized search experience within Delve rolling out in Office 365
  • Additional content and signals, specifically documents from Office 365 Groups and modern attachments in Outlook
  • Improvements in query latency, relevance, and content freshness

Microsoft’s Mark Kashman joined me on our Shared Insights podcast to discuss the news and related trends and developments, which was a lot of fun and also quite illuminating.

Delve is now three years old, and I view this news as a part of a long evolution.  Microsoft has fielded regular enhancements with a steady focus on making the Graph intelligent, providing effective search and discovery, and also powering other experiences in Office 365.

The personalized search experience is an evolution of the “modern search experience” which was announced at Ignite and is already rolling out in Office 365.  It starts with “zero term search” (showing you results before you type anything, based on what you have been doing recently), and then does search-as-you-type from there.  The personalized part is also an evolution, since Delve was already personalized to some extent.  This is the next step – using more information about you to tailor a search and discovery experience specific to you.

Similarly, the additional signals and content are not a surprise.  Over the last 3 years there has been a steady set of new signals and new content sources from within Office 365, so this is a continuation of that trajectory.  The performance improvements are also an evolution – one stage of these improvements was covered at Ignite and discussed in our podcast with search experts from Ignite.

Essentially, the news is “Microsoft is on course, and continuing to invest in Delve”.

Intelligent Search – Separating Hype from Reality

The backdrop here is an industry-wide wave of new, intelligent search and discovery experiences.  A new wave of systems is emerging that apply machine learning, AI, NLP, and more to provide more effective and adaptive search, intranets, and digital workplaces.

This is extremely exciting, but also very confusing, because there is a huge amount of hype. Everywhere you look across our industry you see claims about cognitive computing, AI-based search, breakthrough machine learning, and semantic technology.  To try to help with this, I recently published two articles in CMS wire:

Microsoft is a leader in this movement and is in a unique position to leverage a huge user base and very rich set of signals from Office 365.  They contribute to the hype and the resulting confusion, as well as adding the regular rebranding Microsoft is famous for.  I’m not surprised to get so many questions about what is going on:

  • Discussions about Delve now all start with a landscape of AI and machine learning – to take advantage of the buzz around this megatrend.
  • There is no longer any distinction between the Office Graph (the search-based social graph that drives intelligence) and the Microsoft Graph (the unified API across different services within Office 365).  Instead, it’s all now called the Microsoft Graph – so that everything has the halo of intelligence.
  • Delve is becoming a broad brand for social networking and document discovery features in Office 365 – surfacing in Delve itself across OneDrive, Outlook, Team Sites, User Profile Sites, SharePoint Home, Video Sites, and more.
  • Delve Analytics was rebranded as MyAnalytics

However, compared to a lot of the industry hype, the Delve and Microsoft Graph rollout seems very down to earth.  The evolution of Delve is quite pragmatic, and Microsoft is adding things on a very data-driven basis.

Mark Kashman picked up product management responsibility for Delve this spring, and he has added a lot.  Mark has a wonderful style in his explanations – clear, not overhyped, and not condescending.    Mark’s recent webinar on Search Explained (you can get his slides from slideshare here) spent most of the time covering the basic aspects of Delve rather than giving all the air time to new shiny features.  That is exactly what I find most people need.

Mark has also focused attention on one of the main obstacles to adoption: concerns about security and privacy.  The compliance, security, and trust story for Delve is pretty strong, and there’s a detailed post covering security and privacy in Delve.  Delve users only see content for which they have permissions, and there are opt-in and opt-out controls at the user level and tenant level.

Despite Microsoft’s assurances and the fact that Delve has strong security and attention to privacy, the concern that Delve will have the unintended consequence of violating formal privacy rules – or users’ expectations of privacy –  is not completely unjustified. If permissions are set incorrectly, content is more likely to be exposed in Delve than it would be otherwise.  It’s a classic moment in a search project when someone finds a spreadsheet with employee salaries that was inadvertently left widely readable.  The same can happen with Delve, even more so because content is being surfaced that you didn’t explicitly look for.

Based on their telemetry, Microsoft tells me they have seen a pattern of about 5% of organizations that opt out of Delve due to initial security and privacy fears, and that the majority of these have opted back in after become more comfortable. From the document card in Delve it is easy to see who has access to that content and also to immediately stop sharing it.  I haven’t ever heard of someone halting a Delve rollout due to unintended information leaks, and if you pay some attention to this ahead of time you can smooth your journey.  My advice is always to have a few days of testing for this kind of thing before going live with any new search or discovery experience.

How are people using Delve?

The second obstacle to Delve adoption that I hear is lack of a clear use case.  People just don’t know what to do with Delve, at least at first, so it can become just a pretty demo.

Microsoft doesn’t actually make this much easier, because they focus on such broad-brush scenarios.   The outcomes on the standard slide (“know what’s happening”, “work smarter”, etc.) are real and useful, but so general that they become almost meaningless.    Delve is only one of the 25 applications that I have on my waffle, and it takes a clear explanation as well as a positive experience for users to notice it and use it, much less make it their homepage.      (I just counted, and 23 of those applications have search boxes, only five of which tie to the Graph today.  No wonder users are confused!).

The Office 365 team is intent on using the Microsoft Graph in more and more of these apps.  If you use OneDrive for Business, SharePoint home, the SharePoint app, Delve Profiles, modern Team Sites, or O365 Video, then you are using the Graph.  So the top way people are using the Graph is really through their use of any of these apps.

The two upcoming applications that I am particularly excited about are:

  • Tap in Word and Outlook lets you find and use relevant content from within your organization without leaving the document or email you’re editing.
  • The WhoBot within Teams lets you find people and what is important to them.  (I haven’t been able to get my hands on this one yet, though.  According to Bill Bliss, who owns the feature at Microsoft, “I don’t have a specific date to share, unfortunately, but we’re hard at work finishing it”).

With Delve itself, I notice that some people take quickly to a new way of working, whether you call it “work like a network” as Microsoft does, or “working out Loud” as is popular in knowledge management circles.   This really is a new way of collaborating and is explainable in scenarios like these:

  • Make your work easily visible, where people can comment, like, agree, or disagree. This creates a conversation that inspires new ideas.
  • Find out what your teammates are actively working on so that you can engage with them and help shape the final product.
  • Discover documents from people around you that are useful to your current focus, saving time and adding in the best ideas in the process.
  • Create a board and share it with others so that you build up a meaningful, topical collection of information together.

Personally, I use Delve constantly.  I often use it to find something I know is work in progress, without bothering the author.  I also use it to monitor people and have a sense on whether they are working on what they committed to, and if they are roughly on track – so I don’t need to ask for status unless I sense someone needs a little extra nudge.

Search is still the center of Delve

I have asked a lot of people what they use in Delve.  What do you think they say?

“The most powerful feature of Delve, in my opinion, is search.” 

To me, this is a huge laugh, because Delve IS search in my eyes.  It’s built on the search fabric in Office 365, uses search techniques for surfacing the intelligence it provides, and touts “Discovery” patterns that have been mainstream in the search community for years.

The new personalized search within Delve underscores this.  At the end of the day, search has become such a pervasive paradigm that people use it wherever they find it.  The technique of personalizing search isn’t new, but the world is no longer confused about search that gives different results to different people.  It’s the right time to apply personalization at a new level.

Delve doesn’t replace traditional search, and Microsoft is quick to point out that the Enterprise Search Center in SharePoint isn’t going away.  What is a surprise to many is that fact that old content doesn’t surface in Delve – it takes people recently acting on that content for it to show up.  This makes sense when you think about it, because it’s the activity signals that drive relevancy in Delve.  But if you want deep research or a complete search of your content, then you should use the traditional search center.

Adding to the Graph

The third obstacle I hear to Delve adoption is incomplete content.  I have visited many customers where the Delve tab is basically empty, because most of their content and activity is outside of Office 365.  It literally says “it’s lonely in here”.

There is unfortunately no API to push content or signals directly into the Microsoft Graph.  This is a bit of a sore point, since Microsoft has demoed and promised this about two years ago, but they pulled back and there continues to be no near-term plan to open this up.

The good news is that the cloud hybrid search capability in SharePoint 2013 and 2016 does populate the Microsoft graph with on-prem content.  We’ve used this quite extensively at BA Insight to bring in content from any of our 60+ connectors and surface it in Delve as well as in the search center.  This capability is highlighted in a Microsoft case study about BA Insight extending the Microsoft Graph.  It’s been very gratifying to help customers use this and go live with very powerful search and discovery across all their content.

Demystifying Delve

Delve and the Microsoft Graph aren’t perfect, but it’s great that they are continuing on course.  Last week’s announcement may not be surprising, but it is exciting nevertheless – both because the personalized search and performance improvements are significant, and because it signifies continued heavy investment in search and discovery from Microsoft.

To the folks who emailed me with questions – thank you for your emails and the impetus to lay out this blog post.  Please confirm that you got what you needed – or let me know if you didn’t.

As always, I am eager to hear about your experiences, stories, and opinions.  I’ve been in search for a long time, but I’m never tired of it.  On the contrary – we’re beginning a whole new chapter, with a new breed of intelligent search.