Today BA Insight announced a new version of our Visual Refiners application (you can read the announcement here. The focus of this release is bringing mobile search to Office 365 – so in addition to the core features of Visual Refiners, we’ve added support for:
Visual Refiners provides controls for drill down and refinement with many different presentation elements including tree refiners, pie charts, histograms and dashboard layout. It also includes a number of other features and controls; you can get an overview of its features and benefits on our web site.
Don’t you wish you could provide the same user experience to your users that sites like Amazon and Expedia provide? The capability to browse content by filtering on refiners is key in helping them have a superior experience. And the user experience – always an essential ingredient in the success of search and search-driven applications – is more and more central as user’s expectations rise, informed by better and better experiences with consumer sites.
The problem in our industry is that few internally facing sites get this right. It’s much harder than it looks.
There’s a maxim in the user interface and user experience (UI/UX) design community that the simpler and easier a UX is to use, the harder it is to build. That is very true for search. The expectation is that search will have a very simple, easy-to-use interface with no training required, despite some very daunting factors:
Faceted search (also called faceted navigation and refinement) is so familiar and universal today that you may be surprised that it was revolutionary when it was invented. About 15 years ago, a research project at UC Berkeley under Professor Marti Hearst came up with it under the name FLAMENCO (which stands for FLexible information Access using MEtadata in Novel Combinations).
The faceted search approach caught on quickly. From its origin as an academic prototype in 2003 it quickly became a feature of high-end e-Commerce sites such as Amazon.com. By 2007 it was a standard feature of online shopping sites, and it started showing up in sites behind the firewall too. By 2009, when Microsoft introduced refiners in SharePoint search, and Daniel Tunkelang’s “Faceted Search” book was published, facets were a proven way to make search work. Every book on UX design now includes this pattern.
But today, in 2017, though faceted search is ubiquitous, it is still rarely deployed effectively for employee facing search. Why?
For example- say you want a control to export results, so you write a web part that gets the full search results and dumps it out. But it’s actually hard to get the full set - search engines limit result sets to a page and get much slower as the page size is bigger, so there is a maximum page size. And the count you get in the search result is not accurate and might change between pages.
Another example- your refiner is hierarchical, so you create a tree control. But you discover that SharePoint sometimes gives you the full path and sometimes it doesn’t. You find that some people want to match on interior nodes. And when you do a multiselect on the hierarchy, weird things start to happen.
I could go on and on. I have seen many examples of these kind of controls failing, even though they are built by competent and well-intentioned developers. It’s sad to see people re-invent the wheel and then not have it even work.
That’s what motivated us to build Visual Refiners in the first place. These patterns come up over and over in search, and they are best done as product-quality code that’s professionally maintained.
The mobile environment is growing and everybody is trying to improve the elements that are present in apps and create the mobile user experience. When going from desktop to mobile design, you quickly realize that things are completely different. A small screen limits how much you can see and control, and users are often working with one thumb and one eyeball.
For Visual Refiners, that means making refiner controls go full-screen on mobile devices and providing mobile-friendly controls. We’ve also found that many mobile implementations are custom (in part because SharePoint has been very slow to accommodate mobile well). Therefore, we’ve tried to make sure that every element can be controlled via CSS, while still guarding people from doing things that don’t work well in search.
Making a great search UX is hard, and doubly so on mobile. The limited awareness of search-driven UX I mentioned above also has bigger impact. I reviewed a mobile search design for one of our customers, done by one of the premier design firms in the country (who shall remain nameless). Their design involved going through refinement dimensions a few at a time on different screens, in a fixed order, and then showing results. This is a non-starter for search. Depending on the data and query, different dimensions may or may be relevant or available. It is also easy to end up with no results, unless you provide immediate feedback about how many results you’ll get from a choice of refiner values. We were able to apply Visual Refiners and use the design firm’s look and feel, resulting in a great mobile experience. But I had to argue and explain these elements many times to the UX designers (who were very experienced) before things clicked.
In addition to mobile support and Office 365 support, there are several other notable features in the new Visual Refiners release.
Visual Refiners has a bright future. There is still active research around mobile search user experiences, both in academia and in the industry. New design patterns are showing up in consumer mobile search, along with new UI styles. We’ll work to bring the best to our customers.
We are always interested in new ideas and difficult challenges, so if you have questions or suggestions around Visual Refiners and how to make a great search UX, don’t hesitate to contact us.
Yes, Visual Refiners now supports O365, SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint 2016. There are two different packages – one for SharePoint 2013/2016 and one for Office 365.
For the most part, this is self-evident based on the type of data in the refiner. For example, if you have site URLs, use the site tree layouts; if you have dates, use one of the calendars or date pickers; if your refiner is hierarchical, use one of the taxonomy tree layouts.
Choice of the compact vs inline formats and use of refiner groups depends on several factors, most notably the number of refiners you have in the data.
Choice of different charting controls and list formats depends on how many different values you have for a given refiner. Beyond this there is also a question of your site aesthetics and preferences.
Ultimately, the goal is usability, so we recommend trying a configuration with some end users before deploying to production. It is easy to change visualization formats with visual refiners, so you can try some variations very quickly.
Yes, the saved query by default includes the selected refiners, so the user doesn’t need to repeat the filtering process. Users can also save searches and exclude refinement filters.
Yes, we have added mobile support to our Smart Preview product as well. Previews now go full screen on small screen devices and have other mobile-friendly features. Customers used to out-of-the-box previews will enjoy the responsiveness and bandwidth reduction of Smart Previews, because we generate previews ahead of time and only transmit the most relevant page.
No, BA Insight does not supply results templates specifically optimized for mobile devices, nor do we supply a mobile-specific ranking profile. We recommend including both in a mobile search application. If your organization needs help with these, contact BA Insight professional services.