Mobile search – new thinking needed

by | Feb 7, 2011 | Intranets, Search

I’m giving a paper on mobile search at the IntraTeam event in Copenhagen, and decided that today was a good day to pull together some of the mobile search resources I have been acquiring over the last few months and write the paper. Mobile search is a much more difficult problem that it may seem at first sight.  One of the real experts on this topic is Greg Nudelman, who is speaking at the Enterprise Search Summit in New York in May this year.  A good place to start is with an excellent analysis of mobile usability problems from Jakob Nielsen. One of the concerning outcomes of a research study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group in 2009 is that some of the tasks took much longer to complete than they did in 2000 with WAP-enabled phones!

Some of the challenges that need to be taken into account include

  • The lack of a physical keyboard on many smartphones, making the entry of search terms quite a challenge
  • The small screen format which will reduce the number of results presented, and also the amount of metadata that is associated with each result
  • The screen format will also reduce the space available for filters and facets
  • Users will not wish to scroll down a long list of results, especially if there is a danger of a loss of signal that terminates the session

Although in principle there is the ability to use locational information to prioritise the search results this requires the relevant metadata to be incorporated into the search algorithms. This data could also be misleading when the Eurostar and Thalys services are travelling at 5km a minute, so the user needs to be able to turn the functionality on only when required, and that is another button on the screen and a latency issue with the search server.   The screen situation improves a little when the smartphone has an accelerometer to detect when it is being used in landscape rather than portrait mode.

So far the search vendors seem to have all but ignored the potential scale of demand for high-usability high-relevance solutions on smartphones.  Only Isys-Search seems to be taking a proactive approach with its Anywhere product.  The product brochure on Autonomy IDOLme  dates from 2007. That’s a phone generation ago!  In a telephone conversation with Autonomy last week I was informed that this is not a core Autonomy product. Coveo and Google also have some  information on mobile-enabled search. Other than Isys-Search none of the vendors I looked at were offering solutions which indicated that they had really begun to appreciate the opportunities and challenges.  If you want to learn more about mobile search come to IntraTeam in Copenhagen next month.

Martin White   (follow me on Twitter)