There are no shortcuts to findability

The hype around improving the findability of online information can lead to shortsighted solutions.

There is a deceptively simple new buzzword — the best ones are! — to describe how well you can get your agency’s information into the hands of people who are looking for it. It’s also an extremely versatile buzzword — the best ones are! — because it’s used to hawk a wide variety of products and services.

Meet findability. It’s all the rage among search engine and other vendors in the information retrieval space. They presumably prefer its emphasis on the positive outcome — finding — versus the slightly laborious and unsatisfying sounding “searching” that has previously been used to describe their products.

Even as sober a bunch as the folks at the Smithsonian Institution have hopped on the bandwagon, citing their findability shortcomings as a rationale for the Web and new media strategy they launched last summer.

But does the fact that so many have latched onto findability mean that the term is destined to be just another flash in the pan? It’s hard to say whether the word will stick for the long haul, but the challenges and goals it describes are certainly here to stay. Unfortunately, the industry hype has created an environment in which less cautious officials can wind up throwing time and money at single-faceted findability fixes that might deliver only incremental benefits at best.

There is no doubt that as more of our government operations, commerce and lives move online, the findability of digital information becomes more important and consequently more challenging. This is as true for individuals as it is for government agencies.

Raise a hand if you feel a touch of anxiety when you think about trying to find that awesome digital photograph of you and your friends from that get-together back in 2002 — or was that 2003? What folder is that in on your computer? Or is it on the laptop or maybe the external hard drive?

Now apply this problem to the scale of an agency, multiply it by all the different types of digital records it has, and then again by a million or a billion for all those individual files and datasets. You get the picture, and it’s not getting any prettier as we create new digital records at a dizzying rate. It’s no surprise that we all spend more of our days looking for things online.

Industry feels our pain and has dutifully come up with solutions to make it better, but they usually address only limited aspects of the problem. For example, vendors selling full-text search tools have eagerly joined the findability marketing party, and as a result, many of their customers think they’ve bought themselves a silver bullet.

“You can install one of these search appliances in a week and become a hero, but what’s wrong with this picture?” asked Bob Boeri, a senior enterprise content management consultant at Guident Technologies. “The search engine found 10,000 things in one-tenth of a second, but I don’t want 10,000 things. I want the one thing I was looking for. I don’t want to search, I want to find.”

Search is certainly part of the findability equation, but it’s only one element of many, Boeri said.

There are lots of other technologies that can play a role depending on the type of information involved and the information-seeker’s skills, needs and objectives. The tools that could best help someone looking for a government form or report on the Web might be different from those that an agency employee working on a project with other subject-matter experts would use.

Picking the right tool is obviously important, but it has to come later.

“It’s important to lead with defining the goals and being sensitive to user needs and behaviors," said Peter Morville, president of Semantic Studios. "Then you can figure out what technologies you need to support that experience."

Morville, who is working on a project with the Library of Congress, is credited with coining the word “findability,” but his definition is not the narrow one that prevails in much of today’s marketing-speak.

In his view, findability bridges full-text search, information architecture — defined as how you organize and tag content — Web site design and usability, search engine optimization — defined as how people find your site from outside your firewall — and more.

It even includes trying to harmonize online and brick-and-mortar operations through consistent tools and vocabularies, so people have a consistent experience whether they interact with government resources on the Web, from a mobile phone or in person at a building. That’s what the Smithsonian and Library of Congress are trying to do.

That approach is not easy because it crosses multiple technologies and working groups. It also puts the findability burden on the information owners rather than on the users, who must have the skills or luck to ask the right questions.

 

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