find∙a∙bil∙i∙ty n. – “the ease with which information contained on a website can be found, both from outside the website (using search engines and the like) and by users already on the website”
I prefer this term to “search” as it focuses on outcomes (how easy it is to find something), rather than inputs (what someone may or may not put into a search box). It also transfers the onus onto those in KM to make something really easy to find, rather than on lawyers knowing what they should or shouldn’t be typing into that box.
I’ve noticed a bit of a sea change amongst those of my clients who have had enterprise search rolled out for more than a year or two. Firms have reviewed their search logs and usage statistics and found that their lawyers are finding some good things but not always The Very Best Things from the deep smarts of their firm. They are now looking for ways to further optimize the search experience for their lawyers. I feel optimism in my bones as firms realise that awesome algorithms are just one piece of the puzzle. For most of us, tinkering around even with the simplest algorithms and weightings can end up causing unintended consequences for other users. And until someone in our field earns their millions by figuring out a simple law firm equivalent to Google’s PageRank algorithm, as Ryan McClead sets out in a 3 Geeks blogpost from 2012, we need to find other magical ways to match the ease, simplicity and quality of the Google experience.
So how are these firms optimising their search experiences? How are they integrating search technologies into a broader findability platform? Their focus is on maximising the usability and findability of 3 main user interfaces at the firm.
(1) The Search Box.
The first key question when a firm buys enterprise search is: where will you put the search box? The majority create a new blank ‘search page’ and stick the search box somewhere in the middle of it.
Lawyers will always want Google (as Connie Crosby insightfully explains here on Slaw). So we try and deliver Google by replicating their just-a-search-box-on-a-page interface. But searching for client matter information or researching deep expertise on a legal topic is not the same as looking for the currency used in the Bahamas. On top of that, not everyone is a searcher and not every knowledge journey is best performed using a search box. At law firms we need to design for both our search and our browse audiences.
I’ve adapted a Donald Rumsfeld speech from 2002 to illustrate the different knowledge journeys:
A. We use keyword searching to retrieve the:
- Things you know you know, and
- Things you know you don’t know
Here, lawyers are usually looking for “known items” as well as the more general “I need everything you have on a particular topic”.
B. While we tend to browse an information space to retrieve the:
- Things you don’t know you know (ie. that which you’ve forgotten), and
- Things you don’t know you don’t know
Here, lawyers may have an idea of what they are looking for but may only “know it when I see it”. Or, they may have no precise search term in mind, turning to the back-of-the-book index for inspiration, serendipity or the entry point you need. Browsable options and navigation schemes also give lawyers an at-a-glance view of the collection they’re looking at.
So whilst creating a Google-simplicity page seems a great idea at first, most firms that are one or more years into their search maturity start looking at ways to integrate that search box with an experience that already exists. But bunging a search box on an intranet homepage (for example) turns out to be more complicated than it sounds. A findability platform that supports searching and browsing for content is like designing a full-on website. So, for inspiration I look beyond the legal industry to see how other websites have integrated both search and browse experiences into a single fundability interface.
(2) The Combined Search & Browse Interface.
A lot of the good websites that we use every day have often followed a design practice to create a ‘strong information scent’ on their pages.
It may sound a bit weird but there’s substantial data out there by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to support the analogy of “wild animals gathering food to analyse how humans collect information online”.
When lawyers are presented with an interface, they will quickly evaluate the links and options presented, looking for the ones that “give them the clearest indication (or strongest scent) that it will step them closer to the information they require” (StepTwo Designs).
A good waft of information scent comes about by supplementing what’s on that page with bucketloads of context that tells lawyers why they should click on this link or put a search term in that box. It tells them that they have indeed reached the right page. It can highlight that the firm’s deep expertise and knowledge of a particular topic is not far from here.
Think of any well-designed online retail website and how they provide a strong information scent when you’re shopping for Christmas tunes online, or a niftier snow shovel that can cope with the snow and ice this year, or (you’re not sure what yet) something a little bit special this Valentine’s Day. When you visit sites like Amazon, Home Depot, or Etsy, is there any doubt about the types of products and goods you can find there? Those engaging and eye-catching ads on the homepage provide a strong aroma of why they are the perfect place for you to stay a while and spend your cash. The navigation and signposts on product pages not only tell you where you are, but they also tell you where you can go next, and what you’ll find there – keeping you on their site and hopefully popping more and more things in your shopping trolley as you go.
News sites have a similar approach. By highlighting content on their homepages and by using ads on individual story pages (however much the flashing distractions drive me barmy) from across their navigation, they hope to provide a strong scent for all the different sections of news they cover – sport, entertainment, national and world news. These sites showcase the very best of what they have to offer. They’re saying, “kick back and stay a while – we have everything you’re looking for right here”.
By creating a stronger information scent on our Knowledge and Practice Group Pages we could show why clicking around these pages and using this search box, which includes the richer precedent and research content, is A Really Good Thing.
(3) The Search Results Page
One of the most important findability UIs is the search results page and firms are adopting some great UX and design practices to help optimise the experience. Quite apart from needing good facet design (which deserves its very own article) firms are adding ‘best bets’ and ‘sponsored links’ functionality to their search results pages.
What are lawyers searching for? What search terms are they using? Your search logs contain valuable insights into the what and why of your current search implementation. Which of your model precedents do you want returned at the very top of a lawyer’s search results? These are your best bets. The “sponsored links” are different – they’re the “you might also be interested in” ads that Google returns on its pages. This feature can highlight useful content from across your other collections and add to that strong information scent on your search results pages. With the flood of information at our firms we need to employ every opportunity to showcase our curated and recommended content.
I believe we are reaching the next stage in our search maturity model. We are moving beyond simple search and exploring the integrated search and browse platforms that we see on the Web. We’re discovering new and magical ways to improve the findability experience even without the magic bullet of a PageRank algorithm.