People want answers. But even with all our information systems – or maybe because of them! – answers can be hard to find. Even if a search engine returns some good results at the top of the list, users might still have to read through a lot of content before they find exactly what they are looking for.
If we begin the content creation process with the end in mind, helping people get answers and perform useful tasks, we can identify the things that really matter and then structure our content and configure our search applications to better answer people’s real-life questions.
Watch easyDITA’s Patrick Bosek and Earley & Associates Paul Wlodarczyk as they explore ways to structure your content and configure your search applications in a recorded webinar.
Here are 5 things you need to do to get search right:
1. Shrink Your Content – To deliver just the information your users need, and not just “throw a book over the wall” and make them search through it, you need to componentize your content into digestible chunks. This will enable a search engine to return topics and tasks that are targeted to specific situations.
You can still make a book out of those pieces by combining them all together. Even better you can make a book and a web page and a smartphone app from the same content. Reusing those bits of content in a lot of different deliverables can save you a pile of money, especially if you have to translate each one into ten different languages.
2. Know Your User – The process of writing “minimalist” content starts by thinking like a user. What kind of information do they want? Are they asking:
- How do I perform this task?
- What rule applies to this situation?
- What is the ID code for this product or customer or location?
Next, define the kind of answer they’re looking for: is it a step-by-step procedure, a concept, a simple Yes or No, a number? The goal will be to deliver the answer in the most convenient way you can. Often, that means displaying your “best guess” right on top of the search results.
Only develop reference materials and explain concepts that your users want to know. A large software company recently discovered that over ten million of its web pages had never been viewed. Don’t let that happen to you.
3. Define Your Terms – In search, the difference between a good answer and a not-so-good answer often comes down to context. Your results are bad because the search application didn’t understand that that the answer had to relate to cars registered in New York State, or people over 65, or products under $500.
You can give search the context it needs with a solid structure of taxonomy and metadata. Taxonomy establishes a set of structured relationships. Here’s an example: when we look at this list we see immediately that it contains some equivalent terms:
- University of Virginia
- VA universities
- Virginia college
- Commonwealth trade school
A computer can’t see the implicit relationships that we understand naturally. For a search engine, we need to make these relationships explicit by giving them structure: parent-child hierarchies, synonyms, etc. That’s taxonomy.
Metadata has a similar purpose. By tagging content with keywords you describe both their contents and their context. Connecting metadata to your taxonomy enables you to enforce consistency in your keywords and tags.
Once you’ve set up a taxonomy you can index all your content. Giving your search engine the ability to display indexed content will greatly improve the speed and relevance of your search results.
When you’re setting up your structure, don’t forget step 2 – Know Your User. If you don’t base your taxonomy and metadata on the types of questions your users ask, the kind of tasks they are trying to accomplish and the terminology they use, then it won’t be much good.
Need a good, easy way to start building a “search-first” taxonomy? Read this blog.
4. Get Feedback – Creating a great search experience is a process of continual tuning and tweaking. Institute feedback loops; you can learn a lot by analyzing chat logs and the phone conversations at your help desk. One of the most important things you can find out: What questions do your users have that are not answered anywhere in your current documentation set?
As you examine the questions your users are asking and how they ask them, new relationships are revealed. By making changes to your taxonomy and search application, you can improve your results without having to change your content.
Here’s an illustration: Support and TechDoc are in a rowboat full of holes of all size. Support is bailing as fast as they can while TechDoc is running around finding and patching holes. The water rushing in is your customers’ questions. If you can figure out where the biggest holes are, you can keep the boat afloat and get where you are going.
5. Don’t give up! It’s a Process – Writing minimalist content that is focused on the user and giving that content structure with taxonomy and metatags will be a big change for some organizations. Is it worth it?
We recently worked with a big financial services company with a small army of salespeople using one critical software application to quote and sell products. They were spending millions of dollars supporting that system; their help desk was fielding over 2,000 calls a day, and they had no idea what the root causes were.
Despite hundreds of job aids, manuals, and high-quality how-to videos posted on SharePoint, sales support call center volumes continued to grow. It was easier for salespeople to pick up the phone than it was to search for answers, and the problems people were having with the system were hurting sales.
By following the steps outlined here, a solution was built and deployed in just four months. Here are some of the benefits they realized:
- Grew revenue by enabling self-service
- Reduced help desk call volumes
- Enabled higher productivity
- Reduced costs by reusing content
- Increased reach by publishing to multiple channels
Is this achievable in your organization?