Information-Seeking Patterns to improve SharePoint search

Improve SharePoint Search by using the patterns that people use when looking for information

Agnes Molnar

by Agnes Molnar on 3/20/2014

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Applies to:
Microsoft SharePoint, Search, spx

People use certain patterns when they look for information. I've pulled together some of the patterns I see frequently to help people think about Search in SharePoint. I always use these bits of monologue in my conference sessions, as they help people understand Search much easier, grab the attendees’ attention, describe Search use cases very well.

So here is how I see common Information-Seeking Patterns--that is, how people go about looking for something they need.

1. "I know what I'm searching for AND I know how to find it." This story is obvious: I know what I'm searching for: 

  • An email sent by my manager last week telling me I'd be promoted from 1 Jan;

  • A document describing the fire alarm rules in the office building;

  • Every document related to customer XYZ;

  • Bills that are unpaid for more than 60 days now,

I know how to find these: 

  • There's a well-planned and well-designed Search center where I can enter my query and can refine afterwards       

  • I know what to expect from this site and how to use it       

  • I know I have to use the search function of Outlook

  • I know the structure of the navigation of our document management system so that I know where this piece of content is expected to be stored

Don't forget: Findability is not always about search! Search can help and support findability, of course, but we also have navigation, company knowledge base, link collection, etc. that could help (if deployed and used properly).

2. "I know what I'm searching for BUT have no clue how and where to find it." I know what I am searching for; I know what I am interested in, what information I need to find to be able to do my job. But in this case, I DON'T KNOW where to find it. I don't even know how to search for it; I may not even know who to ask.        

  • Our company doesn't have any Search solution       

  • Our company does have a Search solution but it is useless       

  • The Search solution is not communicated       

  • I am not trained to use the Search solution

You can find millions of other reasons in enterprises that don't provide a good, well-known solution for Search. The end result is the same: Users don't know how and where to search. The cascading effect of this is even worse. Since users cannot find the information they need, these companies will always resort to unknowingly adding duplicates or even multiple copies of a content and documents whenever a user is unable to find the existing ones. Ultimately, people develop less and less confidence in Search due to their negative experiences.

3. "I don't even know what I'm searching for." Well, this might sound funny. It may even be unbelievable, but this happens much more than you would expect. Just imagine the following scenarios:        

  • I'm searching for something that proves I am right regarding X

  • I’m searching for some nice diagram for my marketing presentation next week that will wow my managers       

  • I'm searching for something that could help me to decide whether I should go for option A or B       

Are you getting this? These are the scenarios that I call "soft queries." These happen when I cannot really specify all the characteristics of the content I'm looking for. But I feel what I need and expect the Search Solution to help me to find the optimal results. For this, Search must be interactive and user-friendly, easy-to-use and easy-to-understand. These characteristics make Search a huge help for information-workers in these kinds of scenarios.

4. "Am I searching???" I know, this one sounds funny. Some of the attendees in my presentations think it's about the lazy detective who's expected to look for evidences and find the burglar. But, no, it's not about that. It's about the fact that some applications are based on Search, and the users are unaware that the search engine is running in the background. These are Search-based applications.

For example, if you work in a Call Center, you don’t "search" for customer data. When a customer calls, you simply enter the customer ID, and all the pertinent data for that customer (insurance, contracts, call history, mailings, payments, open cases, etc.) gets displayed. You're not thinking about search when you get these details. That's it.

Another instance is if you work in a legal company and you need to get everything about a customer, about a case, type of case, precedents, etc.. You just use your legal application that can provide all the information you need. You don't care if it's on SharePoint or something else, you don't even care if it's driven by the search engine. You don't need to know how it works, and you don't even need to care. The only thing you need is to get your job done- as quick and as well as possible.        

The beauty of these scenarios is that they're technology-independent. They're true if we talk about SharePoint Search, of course, as I mostly do. But they can be used for anything else. They're generally true, in my experience, depending on the maturity of the organization.

What do you think? Which one(s) can you find in your organization?

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