Social media is one of the most democraticising developments within information technology. It enables people to circumvent traditional hierarchies. Why create new ones?
I’ve got mixed feelings about the viability of the semantic web but this video is a great compilation of the challenges facing information discovery and possible options. It’s become way easier to create information than to manage it…
In a report by NetworkWorld: 25 leading-edge IT research projects, there is an interesting feature that could significantly advance the world of information architecture, specifically classification of content. (If you click the link and read the article, it is item 15. There are some other gems in there too.)
Researchers at Penn State University have developed software that not only automatically tags photos when they are uploaded, but also automatically updates the tags based on how people interact with the photos over time. In its current state, the researchers claim the system can grow from 40% to 60% accuracy as it learns from user behaviour.
Whilst the research is focused on images, the technology could have major benefits for traditional information sources – documents and web pages. One of the biggest failings of traditional taxonomies and classification systems has been their inability to cope with change. Language continues to evolve: old words are given new meanings, new words are applied to old meanings. Adaptive tagging could introduce a whole new method of relevance ranking to improve search results.
Filed in library under: Information Architecture
Interesting article – Zillionics – by Kevin Kelly. Well worth a read if you are interested in long tails, social networks and wondering where digital information technology is leading us to. Here’s a soundbite:
More is different.
When you reach the giga, peta, and exa orders of quantities, strange new powers emerge. You can do things at these scales that would have been impossible before… At the same time, the skills needed to manage zillionics are daunting…
Zillionics is a new realm, and our new home. The scale of so many moving parts require new tools, new mathematics, new mind shifts.
It’s a short and thought provoking article.
Perhaps one of the loudest unspoken messages from the SharePoint conference held recently in Seattle was the need for information architects and managers to work more closely with their user interface (UI) and technology-focused counterparts. Thanks to the Internet, we are unlikely to see a downturn in the market for digital information in the foreseeable future. But the methods used to classify, manage and access information are still dominated by techniques taken from the physical world of information – paper and its storage methods: micro (books) and macro (libraries).
Let’s pick on ‘The Fileplan’
A common scenario I see in organisations, especially government ones, is the use of a fileplan to store and access content. Here’s the definition of a fileplan, courtesy of ‘Developing a Fileplan for Local Government‘ (UK) (My comments in brackets):
¨The fileplan will be a hierarchical structure of classes starting with a number of broad functional categories. These categories will be sub-divided and perhaps divided again until folders are created at the lowest level. These folders, confusingly called files in paper record management systems (hence the term ‘fileplan’), are the containers in which either paper records or electronic documents are stored.¨
And why do we need fileplans
¨An important purpose of the fileplan is to link the documents and records to an appropriate retention schedule.¨
Really? Just how many different retention schedules does an organisation need to have? One per lowest-level folder? I doubt that. Let’s create a (very) simple fileplan: Geography – Business Unit – Activity
Taking 3 geographies, 3 business units and 3 activities. These are the folders you end up with:
So we have 27 different locations to cover 3 geographies with 3 departments and 3 activities. Now scale this up for your organisation. How many different folders do you end up with?
The ultimate killer with this scenario? There isn’t any content in the first 2 levels of the hierarchy. You’ve got to navigate through 3 levels before you can even start to find what you are looking for. This is because a librarian approach is used for storing and locating information:
Go upstairs, ‘Technology’ section is on the left, you’ll find ‘Computing’ about halfway along. Third shelf up is ‘Programming Languages’, books organised alphabetically by author…
In the physical world, we can’t do a ‘Beam me up, Scotty!‘ and magically arrive at the shelf containing the book containing the page(s) we want. But in the digital world, we can. If fans of the fileplan designed Google’s navigation, it might look something like this:
And they probably wouldn’t include the search box on the first two pages. Fortunately for everyone who uses the Internet to search for information, Google took the ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’ approach.
The fileplan approach causes problems for everyone. Authors have to find ‘the right’ location to put their stuff. If they are working on anything remotely ambiguous, it is unlikely there will be one clear option. That’s why everyone ends up defaulting to the ‘projects’ folder (‘miscellaneous’ is another popular destination). Search engines that use URL depth algorithms (such as PageRank) struggle to identify relevant content – is the folder ‘Finance’ more important than a document called ‘Finance’ that is two levels deeper in the hierarchy buried under Projects/Miscellaneous? If someone is searching for documents about France, are documents located in the France folder hierarchy more important than documents containing references to France that have been stored in the UK hierarchy? Authors don’t know where to put their stuff, and searchers can’t find it. What about those all important retention schedules? They might be different for different geographies (governments don’t seem to agree or standardise on anything much, globally) but then what? Do all of Finance docs have a different retention schedule to all of IT? Within Finance, do different teams have different retention schedules? (Quite possibly – certain financial documents need storing for specific periods of time). Current solution? Sub-divide and conquer, i.e. create yet another level of abstraction in the fileplan… I have seen solutions where users have to navigate through 6 levels before reaching a folder that contains any content.
So what’s the alternative?
Perhaps a better question would be ‘what’s an alternative?’ The desire to find one optimal solution is what trips up most information system designs. Here are some of my emerging thoughts. If you’ve got an opinion, please contribute in the comments because I certainly don’t have all the answers.
Step 1: Stop thinking physically and start thinking digitally
There are two fundamental problems with the fileplan. First, it originates from the constraints enforced by physical technologies. A paper document must exist somewhere and you don’t want to have to create 100 copies to cover all retrieval possibilities – it’s expensive and time-consuming. Instead, all roads lead to one location… and it’s upstairs, third cabinet on the right, second drawer down, filed by case title. This approach creates the second problem – because content is managed in one place, that one place – the fileplan – must cover all purposes, i.e. storage, updates, retention schedule, findability and access. Physical limits required you to think this way. But those limits are removed when you switch to digital methods. What we need are multiple file plans, each suited to a specific purpose.
Information specialists can help identify the different purposes and different ‘file plans’ required. Technologists need to help create solutions that make it as easy as possible (i.e. minimal effort required) for authors and searchers to work with information and ‘fileplans’. And user interface specialists need to remind everyone about what happens when you create mandatory metadata fields and put the search box in the wrong place on the page…
Digital storage of content should be logical to the creators, because authors ultimately decide where they save their documents. Trying to force them into a rigid navigation hierarchy designed by somebody else just means everything gets saved in ‘miscellaneous’. Don’t aim for a perfect solution. Instead, provide guidance about where ‘stuff’ should go. Areas for personal ‘stuff’, team ‘stuff’, community sites, collaborative work spaces, ‘best practices’ sites. Ideally, you still want to stick to one location. Not because of any resource constraints but rather to avoid unnecessary duplication that can cause confusion. If an item of content needs to appear ‘somewhere else’ then it
should be a link rather than a copy, unless a copy is required to fit a different scenario (e.g. publishing a copy of a case study up onto a public web site, but keeping the original held in a location that can only be edited by authors)
To improve relevance of search results, thesauri and controlled vocabularies can help bridge the language barriers between authors and readers. A new starter might be looking for the ’employee manual’. What they don’t know is what they are actually looking for is the ‘corporate handbook’ or ‘human remains guide’ that may contain the words ’employee’ and ‘manual’ but never together in the same sentence. The majority of search frustrations come from information seekers using a different language to the one used by the authors of the information they seek. Creating relationships between different terms can dramatically improve relevance of search results. Creating tailored results pages (a mix of organic search results and manufactured links) can overcome differences in terminology and improve future search behaviour.
And the elephant in the file system – retention schedules. First identify what retention schedules you require to comply with industry regulations and to manage legal risk. And do they apply to all content or only certain content? (I doubt many government organisations have kept junk paper mail for 30 years.) And at what point do they need to be applied? From the minute somebody opens a word processor tool and starts typing, or at the point when a document becomes finalised? This is the area that needs most coordination between information specialists and technologists. As we start to move to XML file formats, life could potentially become so much easier for everyone. For example, running scripts to automatically track documents for certain words that give a high probability that the document should be treated as a record and moved from a community discussion forum to the archive. Automatically inserting codes that enable rapid retrieval of content to comply with a legal request but that have no effect on relevance for regular searches.
On the Internet, Google introduced a tag ‘nofollow’ that could be applied to links to prevent the link improving a page’s relevance rank. (PageRank works by determining relevance based on the number of incoming links to a page. If you want to link to a page so that people can look at it but you don’t want the page to benefit from the link in search results, you can insert ‘nofollow’). Maybe Enterprise Search solutions need a similar method. Different indicators for metadata that helps describe content for searches versus metadata that organises content for retention schedules versus metadata that helps authors remember where they left their stuff. And again, XML formats ought to make it possible to automatically insert the appropriate values without requiring the author to figure out what’s needed. The ultimate goal would be to automatically insert sufficient information within individual content items so that requirements are met regardless of where the content is stored or moved to. I email an image to someone and its embedded metadata includes its fileplan(s).
There are lots of ways that technology could be used to improve information management and findability, to meet all the different scenarios demanded by different requirements. But to achieve them requires closer interaction between people making the policies regarding how information is managed, people creating the so-called ‘technology-agnostic’ (in reality it is ‘technology-vendor-agnostic’) file plans to satisfy those policies and the technology vendors creating solutions used to create, store and access the content being created that have to cope with the fileplans and the policies.
The information industry has to move on from the library view of there being only one fileplan. Lessons can be learned from the food industry. There was a time when there was only one type of spaghetti sauce. In the TED talk below, Malcolm Gladwell explains how the food industry discovered the benefits from offering many different types of spaghetti sauce (and why you can’t rely on focus groups to tell you what they want – another dilemma when designing information systems):
There is a great quote within the above talk:
¨When we pursue universal principles in food, we aren’t just making an error, we are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice¨
You could replace the word ‘food’ with ‘information’. It’s not just the fileplan that needs rethinking…
A follow up to uncontrolled vocabulary.
Many of the more advanced search engines try to improve relevance by extracting meaning out of the content of documents, i.e. without any input required from users. This is commonly known as auto-classification (or auto-categorisation). It then enables you to perform faceted search queries (also known as conceptual search). For example, if you search on ‘politics’, the results might include facets for different political parties (Democrats, Republicans), politicians (Bush, Clinton, McCain, Obama), government activities (budget, new policies) and so on. It’s an effective way of quickly narrowing down your search criteria and hence refining results.
The challenge is can you trust the data? How accurate is the content within your documents? For example, let’s look at the number 35.
That’s the average number of people wrongly declared dead every day in the US as a result of data input errors by social security staff. Doh! 🙂 (Source: MSNBC. Published in NewScientist magazine, 8 March 2008)
In case you are wondering, this is not going to be an expletive-filled post or a discussion about what happens if you suffer damage to the frontal lobe of your brain.
One of the big challenges for enterprise search solutions is deciphering meaning from words. There are five aspects to the challenge. (Possibly more, given I originally started this post with two!)
1. The same word can have multiple meanings
We only have so many words, and we have a habit of using the same words to mean very different things. For example:
- Beetle = insect or motor vehicle?
- Make-up = be nice to someone or apply paint to your face
- Sandwich = literal (food) or lateral (something squashed between something else)
- Resume = to continue or required for a job application?
- SME = subject matter expert or small to medium enterprise?
Double meanings can be partially solved by studying the words in context of words around them. If resume means to continue, it is usually preceded by the word ‘to’. To determine if the beetle in question has legs or wheels, the phrase will hopefully include a little more information – not too many people (intentionally) put fuel in the insect version or find the motor version in their shower.
A popular method used by search engines to decipher meaning from documents (and search queries) is Bayesian Inference. For the SharePoint fans in the audience, the answer is no. SharePoint does not use Bayesian Inference in any shape or form at the moment. It used to, back in the first version (SPS 2001) but currently doesn’t. Yes, other search engines do.
Abbreviations can be trickier because they are often assumed/applied in context of a human perspective. For example, is a search for ‘Health care SME’ looking for an internal expert on health care to ask them a question or looking for small businesses in the health care industry to include in a targeted sales campaign?
2. The same meaning is applied to different words
This one is easiest to explain with an example. A typical trans-atlantic flight offers you the choice of up to 4 ‘classes’ – Economy, Economy Plus, Business, First. But it seems no two airlines use these precise words any more. For example:
|Controlled Vocabulary||Actual: Virgin Atlantic||Actual: British Airways|
|Economy Plus||Premium Economy||World Traveller Plus|
|Business||Upper Class||Club World|
A common method to identify different words that share the same meaning is a thesaurus. In enterprise search solutions, a thesaurus is typically used to replace or expand a query phrase. For example, the user searches for ‘flying in economy plus’, the search engine checks the thesaurus and also searches for ‘premium economy’ and ‘world traveller plus’.
3. Different words have the same meaning in theory but are different in practice
Back to our airlines. Having travelled in the Economy Plus cabin of both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways recently, I can tell you from first-hand experience that the experience varies. On a Virgin Atlantic flight, Economy Plus is half-way between Economy and Business (Upper Class in their terminology). On a British Airways flight, Economy Plus is one step away from Economy and a world way from Business (Club World in their terminology). Added to the challenge, experience changes over time. It’s been a few years since I last travelled Economy Plus on British Airways and I would say that it is not as good as it used to be. But then I’ve had the luxury of travelling Business Class with them in between. The Virgin Atlantic flight was on a plane that had just had its Economy Plus cabin refurbished and was all shiny and new. And I have never travelled Business Class on Virgin Atlantic.
This is a tricky issue for a search engine to solve. It crosses into the world of knowledge and experience, a pair of moving and ambiguous goal posts at the best of times.
4. Different words are spelt near-identically
A cute feature available in most search engines is the ‘Did you mean’ function. If you spell something slightly incorrectly, for example: ‘movy’, the search engine will prompt you with ‘did you mean movie?’
The trickier challenge for search engines is when a user types in the wrong word (often accidentally) but the word typed exists in its own right (and hence doesn’t get spotted or picked up by spell-checkers):
- Stationary (not moving) vs Stationery (materials for writing)
- There (somewhere) vs Their (people)
- Here (somewhere) vs Hear (what your ears do)
- Popular (people like you) vs Poplar (a type of tree)
As in the first challenge, advanced algorithms can be used to try and decipher meaning by also looking at words used in association. ‘Can someone please move that stationery vehicle?’ probably isn’t referring to a cardboard cut-out. But this scenario is much harder to sport. (Spot the deliberate typo.) For example: ‘information about popular trees’ is a different query to ‘information about poplar trees’ but both look just fine to the search engine. Worse still, the content being indexed may itself contain a lot of typos. An author might have been using ‘stationery’ when they should have been using ‘stationary’ for years. (I’m supposed to be good at spelling and I had to check the dictionary to be sure.) In this scenario, Bayesian Inference can start to fail because there is now a range of words in documents containing ‘stationery’ that have nothing to do with paper or writing materials but occur often enough across a set of documents to suggest a relationship. Search queries correctly using ‘stationary’ won’t find highly relevant results containing mis-spelt ‘stationery’ unless the thesaurus is configured to spot the errors.
5. Different words are used by different people to mean the same thing
This is the ultimate gotcha for enterprise search engines, and the reason why most taxonomies fail to deliver on their promises. Search engines that rely on word-breaking to match search queries with index results can fall down completely when the search query uses words that don’t actually exist in the document that the searcher is looking for. For example, a search for ’employee manual’ could be seeking the ‘human resources handbook’ that doesn’t actually contain the words employee and manual together in the same sentence, let alone in any metadata. Because there is no relation, the relevance will be deemed low to the query.
The thesaurus and friends (such as Search Keywords/Best Bets) can again come to the rescue – for example, tying searches for ’employee’ with ‘human remains’. The challenge is who decides what goes in the thesaurus? Referring to a previous blog post – When taxonomy fails – the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ran a test of their taxonomy using a non-specialist audience. More than 80% of the terms used by the test audience were not even listed in the museum’s documentation. The experts who decided on the taxonomy were talking a completely different language to the target audience. When the experts are allowed to ‘tweak’ the search engine, don’t assume that search results will improve…
Summing Up (i.e. closing comments, not a mathematical outcome)
I’ve over-simplified how search engines work and apply controlled vocabularies through tools such as thesauri. But hopefully this post helps show why so many people become frustrated with the results returned from enterprise search solutions, even the advanced ones. Quite often, t
he words simply don’t match.
[Update: 20 March] Using the ‘Stationary vs Stationery’ example in the most recent Enterprise Search workshop, an attendee came up with a great little snippet of advice to remember the difference. Remember that envelopes begin with the letter ‘e‘ and they are stationery. And hilariously, I can now look at the Google ads served up alongside this post and spot the spelling mistakes 🙂