Search or Browse? Which is best?
Should you optimise your knowledge base for search or for browse? Answer to an online question.
I received the comment below on my blog post on “Knowledge documents vs project documents“.
“I found this a helpful blog. I am working on the implementation of a matter management system within a large law department. One of the things I’ve been considering is the appropriateness of organizing documents within matters using a folder structure versus metadata and tags.
“I have a hypothesis that it makes sense to use a folder structure to organize “project” or “matter” documents – because the folder structure operates as a story map, and helps people understand what is involved with the specific project/matter. Browsing for project documents seems intuitive. But it makes sense to use metadata to classify “knowledge” documents because users are likely going to want to find knowledge documents through “search” as opposed to browsing.
“I’m interested in hearing reactions to that hypothesis.”
Firstly I am pleased the blog post was helpful! Then I have two answers for you below.
This is the dilemma of optimising for search or for browse when it comes to maximising findability of knowledge and information. We assume “users are likely going to want to find knowledge documents through search” – but is that true?
- This study found 14% of users start with search
- This found less than 5%
- This found that 59% of web visitors frequently use the internal search engine to navigate on a website and 15% would rather use the search function than the hierarchical menu.
Some conclusions from these studies are as follows:
- Most people use the search feature after they’ve tried the navigation or the content links. Search is seen as the last resort.
- If people are looking for something very specific, like a product they know the name of, they’re be more inclined to search.
- There are two kinds of people in the world: Searchers and Browsers. Searchers can browse when required, and Browsers can search when required.
- Programmers and engineers use the search feature more often than ‘normal people’.
- A user browses a table of contents when he or she is looking around to see what’s there, usually moving with a mind open to discover new things.
- In contrast, a user searches content when he or she needs to locate a specific piece of information.
- People very often use only search functionality on their mobiles. Complex navigation seldom works well on mobile devices and people just don’t use it. (Except on news sites, where we still browse).
So the first part of the answer is this
You have to optimise for browsers.
From the results above, browsers are the majority. Also search has its limitation: a lack of discovery. A user relies on search to find specific information he or she already knows or suspects to exist. Rarely does a user search for something he or she doesn’t even know to search for. browsers see more and buy more – often things they did not know they wanted.
I like the idea of structuring your folders like a story map, or you could use the model of the knowledge supermarket (see my post on How a Knowledge Supermarket helps the knowledge customer to find what they need). Supermarkets are predicated on findability, and one of the reasons they put the bread and the wine at the back of the store is that it forces you to see more of the store, to browse, and ultimately to buy more.
Also, try to introduce a standard folder structure, so your lawyers can move from one matter to another and still find their files stored int eh same way.
However the second part of the answer is this
You have to optimise for searchers as well.
This means getting a good tagging system and a good metadata structure. Good metadata and a good folder structure are not mutually exclusive – you need both. Some people will browse and find more that they came for; some will search, and need to find exactly what they asked for.
Like so much in KM, this is not an “either-or”, this is a “both-and”.