Why can’t users find stuff on the intranet? An IBIS synthesis–Part 1

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There was an interesting discussion on the Intranet Professionals group on LinkedIn recently where Luc De Ruijter asked the question:

What are the main three reasons users cannot find the content they were looking for on intranet?

As you can imagine there were a lot of responses, and a lot more than three answers. As I read through them, I thought it might be a good exercise to use IBIS (the language behind issue mapping) to map the discussion and see what the collective wisdom of the group has to say. So in these posts, I will illustrate the utility of IBIS and Issue mapping for this work, and make some comments about the way the conversation progressed.

So what is IBIS and Issue/Dialogue Mapping?

Issue Mapping captures the rationale behind a conversation or dialogue—the emergent ideas and solutions that naturally arise from robust debate. This rationale is graphically represented using a simple, but powerful, visual structure called IBIS (Issue Based Information System). This allows all elements and rationale of a conversation, and subsequent decisions, to be captured in a manner that can be easily reflected upon.

The elements of the IBIS grammar are below. Questions give rise to ideas, or potential answers. Ideas have pros or cons arguing for or against those ideas.


Dialogue Mapping is essentially Issue Mapping a conversation live, where the mapper is also a facilitator. When it is done live it is powerful stuff. As participants discuss a problem, they watch the IBIS map unfold on the screen. This allows participants to build shared context, identify patterns in the dialogue and move from analysis to synthesis in complex situations. What makes this form of mappingcompelling is that everything is captured. No idea, pro or con is ignored. In a group scenario, this is an extremely efficient way of meeting what social psychologist Hugh Mackay says is the first of the ten human desires which drives us – this being the desire to be taken seriously. Once an idea is mapped, the idea and the person who put it forth are taken seriously. This process significantly reduces “wheel spinning” in meetings where groups get caught up in a frustrating tangled mess of going over the same old ground. It also allows the dialogue to move more effectively to decision points (commitments) around a shared understanding.

In this case though, this was a long discussion on a LinkedIn group so we do not get the benefit of being able to map live. So in this case I will create a map to represent the conversation as it progresses and make some comments here and there…

So let’s kick off with the first reply from Bob Meier.

Bob Meier • Don’t know if these are top 3, but they’re pretty common find-ability issues:
1. Lack of metadata. If there are 2000 documents called “agenda and minutes” then a search engine, fancy intranet, or integrated social tool won’t help.
2. Inconsistent vocabulary and acronyms. If you’ve branded the expense report system with some unintuitive name (e.g. a vendor name like Concur) then I’ll scan right past a link looking for “expense reports” or some variation.
3. Easier alternatives. If it’s easier for me to use phone/email/etc. to find what I want, then I won’t take the time to learn how to use the intranet tools. Do grade schools still teach library search skills? I don’t think many companies do…

In IBIS this was fairly straightforward. Bob listed his three answers with some supporting arguments. I reworded his supporting argument of point 2, but otherwise it pretty much reflects what was said…


Nigel Williams (LION) • I agree with Bob but I’d add to point two not speaking our user base’s language. How many companies offer a failure to find for example (i.e.if you fail to find something in a search you submit a brief form which pops up automatically stating what you were looking for and where you expected to find it? Lots of comms and intranet teams are great at telling people and assuming we help them to learn but don’t listen and learn from all levels of the business.
If I make that number 1 I’ll also add:
2) Adopting social media because everyone else is, not because our business or users need it. This then ostracises the technophobics and concerns some of our less confident regular users. They then form clans of anti-intranetters and revert to tried and tested methods pre-intranet (instant messaging, shared drives, email etc.)
3) Not making the search box available enough. I’m amazed how many users in user testing say they’ve never noticed search hidden in the top right of the banner – “ebay has their’s in the middle of the screen, so does Google. Where’s ours?” is a typical response. If you have a user group at your mercy ask them to search for an item on on Google, then eBay, then Amazon, then finally your intranet. Note whether they search in the first three and then use navigation (left hand side or top menu) when in your intranet.

Nigel’s starts out by supporting Bob’s answer and I therefore add them as pros in the map. Having done this though, I can already see some future conversational patterns. Bob’s two supporting arguments for “not using the vocabulary of users”, actually are two related issues. One is about user experience and the other is about user engagement/governance. Nevertheless, I have mapped it as he stated it at this point and we see what happens.


Luc de Ruijter • @Bob. I recognise your first 2 points. The third however might be a symptom or result, not a cause. Or is it information skills you are refering to?
How come metadata are not used? Clearly there is a rationale to put some effort in this?
@Nigel. Is the situation in which Comm. depts don’t really listen to users a reason for not finding stuff? Or would it be a lack of rapport with users before and while building intranets? Is the cause concepetual, rather than editorial for instance?
(I’m really looking for root causes, the symptoms we all know from daily experience).
Adding more media is something we’ve seen for years indeed. Media tend to create silo’s.
Is your third point about search or about usability/design?

In following sections I will not reproduce the entire map in the blog post – just relevant sections.

In this part of the conversation, Luc doesn’t add any new answers to the root question, but queries three that have been put forward thus far. Also note at this point I believe one of Luc’s answers is for a different question. Bob’s “easier alternatives” point was never around metadata. But Luc asks “how come metadata is not used?”. I have added it to the map here, changing the framing from a rhetorical question to an action. Having said that, if I was facilitating this conversation, I would have clarified that point before committing it to the map.


Luc also indicates that the issue around communications and intranet teams not listening might be due to a lack of rapport.


Finally, he adds an additional argument why social media may not be the utopia it is made out to be, by arguing that adding more media channels creates more information silos. He also argues against the entire notion on the grounds that this is a usability issue, rather than a search issue.


Nigel Williams (LION) • Hi Luc, I think regarding Comms not listening that it is two way. If people are expecting to find something with a certain title or keyword and comms aren’t recognising this (or not providing adequate navigation to find it) then the item is unlikely to be found.
Similarly my third point is again both, it is an issue of usability but if that stops users conducting searches then it would impact daily search patterns and usage.

I interpret this reply as Nigel arguing against Luc’s assertion around lack of rapport being the reason behind intranet and comms teams not listening and learning from all levels of the user base.


Nigel finishes by arguing that even if social media issues are usability issues, they might still impede search and the idea is therefore valid.


Bob Meier • I really like Nigel’s point about the importance of feedback loops on Intranets, and without those it’s hard to build a system that’s continually improving. I don’t have any data on it, but I suspect most companies don’t regularly review their search analytics even if they have them enabled. Browse-type searching is harder to measure/quantify, but I’d argue that periodic usability testing can be used in place of path analysis.
I also agree with Luc – my comment on users gravitating from the Intranet to easier alternatives could be a symptom rather than a cause. However, I think it’s a self-reinforcing symptom. When you eliminate other options for finding information, then the business is forced to improve the preferred system, and in some cases that can mean user training. Not seeing a search box is a great example of something that could be fixed with a 5-minute Intranet orientation.
If I were to replace my third reason, I’d point at ambiguous or mis-placed Intranet ownership . Luc mentions Communications departments, but in my experience many of those are staffed for distributing executive announcements rather than facilitating collective publishing and consumption. I’ve seen many companies where IT or HR own the Intranet, and I think the “right” department varies by company. Communications could be the right place depending on how their role is defined.

Bob makes quite a number of points in this answer, right across various elements of the unfolding discussion. Firstly, he makes a point about analytics and the fact that a lack of feedback loops makes it hard to build a system that continually improves.


In term of the discussion around easier alternatives, Bob offers some strategies to mitigate the issue. He notes that there are training implications when eliminating the easier alternatives.


Finally, Bob identifies issues around the ownership of the intranet as another answer to the original question of people not being able to find stuff on the intranet. He also lists a couple of common examples.


Karen Glynn • I think the third one listed by Bob is an effect not a cause.
Another cause could be data being structured in ways that employees don’t understand – that might be when it is structured by departments, so that users need to know who does what before they can find it, or when it is structured by processes that employees don’t know about or understand. Don’t forget intranet navigations trends are the opposite to the web – 80% of people will try and navigate first rather than searching the intranet.

In this answer, Karen’s starts by agreeing with the point Luc made about “easier alternatives” being a symptom rather than a cause, so there is no need to add it to the map as it is already there. However she provides a new answer to the original question: the structure of information (this by the way is called top-down information architecture – and it was bound to come out of this discussion eventually). She also makes a claim that 80% of people will navigate prior to search on the intranet. I wonder if you can tell what will happen next? Smile


Luc de Ruijter • @Nigel Are (customer) keywords the real cause for not finding stuff? In my opinion this limits the chalenge (of building effective intranet/websites) to building understandable navigation patters. But is navigation the complete story? Where do navigation paths lead users to?
@Bob Doesn’t an investiment in training in order to have colleagues use the search function sound a bit like attacking the symptom? Why is search not easy to locate in the first place? I’d argue you’re looking at a (functional) design flaw (cause) for which the (where is the search?) training is a mere remedy, but not a solution.
@Karen You mention data. How does data relate to what we conventionally call content, when we need to bring structure in it?
Where did you read the 80% intranet-users navigate before searching?

Okay, so this is the first time thus far where I do a little bit of map restructuring. In the discussion so far, we had two ideas offered around the common notion of vocabulary. In this reply, Luc states “Are (customer) keywords the real cause for not finding stuff?” I wasn’t sure which vocabulary issue he was referring to, so this prompted me to create a “meta idea” called “Vocabulary and labelling issues”, of which there are two examples cited thus far. This allowed me to capture the essence of Luc’s comment as a con against the core idea of issues around vocabulary and labelling.


Luc then calls into question Bob’s suggestion of training and eliminating the easier alternatives. Prior to Luc’s counter arguments, I had structured Bob’s argument like this:


To capture Luc’s argument effectively, I restructured the original argument and made a consolidated idea to “eliminate other options and provide training”. This allowed me to capture Luc’s counter argument as shown below.


Finally, Luc asked Karen for the source of her contention that 80% of users navigate intranets, rather than use the search engine first up.


In this final bit of banter for now, the next three conversations did not add too many nodes to the map, so I have grouped them below…

Karen Glynn • Luc, the info came from the Neilsen group.

Helen Bowers • @Karen Do you know if the Neilsen info is available for anyone to look at?

Karen Glynn • I don’t know to be honest – it was in one of the ‘paid for’ reports if I remember correctly.

Luc de Ruijter • @Karen. OK in that case, could you provide us with the title and page reference of the source? Than it can become usable as a footnote (in a policy for instance).Thanks
Reasons so far for not finding stuff:
1. Lack of metadata (lack of content structure).
2. Inconsistent vocabulary and acronyms (customer care words).
3. Adopting social media from a hype-driven motivation (lack of coherence)
4. Bad functional design (having to search for the search box)
5. Lack of measuring and feedback on (quality, performance of) the intranet
6. Silo’s. Site structures suiting senders instead of users

So for all that Banter, here is what I added to what has already been captured.


Where are we at?

At this point, let’s take a breath and summarise what has been discussed so far. Below is the summary map with core answers to the question so far. I have deliberately tucked away the detail into sub maps so you can see what is emerging. Please note I have not synthesised this map yet (well … not too much anyway). I’ll do that in the next post.


If you want to take a look at the entire map as it currently stands, take a look at the final image at the very bottom of this post. (click to enlarge). I have also exported the entire map so far for you to view things in more context. Please note that the map will change significantly as we continue to capture and synthesise the rationale, so as we continue to unpack the discussion, expect this map to change quite a bit..

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee




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