Why can’t users find stuff on the intranet? An IBIS synthesis–Part 4

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Hi and welcome to my final post on the linkedin discussion on why users cannot find what they are looking for on intranets. This time the emphasis is on synthesis… so let’s get the last few comments done shall we?

Michael Rosager • @ Simon. I agree.
Findability and search can never be better than the content available on the intranet.
Therefore, non-existing content should always be number 1
Some content may not be published with the terminology or language used by the users (especially on a multilingual intranet). The content may lack the appropriate meta tags. – Or maybe you need to adjust your search engine or information structure. And there can be several other causes…
But the first thing that must always be checked is whether they sought information / data is posted on the intranet or indexed by the search engine.

Rasmus Carlsen • in short:
1: Too much content (that nobody really owns)
2: Too many local editors (with less knowledge of online-stuff)
3: Too much “hard-drive-thinking” (the intranet is like a shared drive – just with a lot of colors = a place you keep things just to say that you have done your job)

Nick Morris • There are many valid points being made here and all are worth considering.
To add a slightly different one I think too often we arrange information in a way that is logical to us. In large companies this isn’t necessarily the same for every group of workers and so people create their own ‘one stop shop’ and chaos.
Tools and processes are great but somewhere I believe you need to analyse what information is needed\valued and by whom and create a flexible design to suit. That is really difficult and begins to touch on how organisations are structured and the roles and functions of employees.

Taino Cribb • Hi everyone
What a great discussion! I have to agree to any and all of the above comments. Enabling users to find info can definately be a complicated undertaking that involves many facets. To add a few more considerations to this discussion:
Preference to have higher expectations of intranet search and therefore “blame” it, whereas Google is King – I hear this too many times, when users enter a random (sometimes misspelled) keyword and don’t get the result they wish in the first 5 results, therefore the “search is crap, we should have Google”. I’ve seen users go through 5 pages of Google results, but not even scroll down the search results page on the intranet.
Known VS Learned topics – metadata and user-tagging is fantastic to organise content we and our users know about, but what about new concepts where everyone is learning for the first time? It is very difficult to be proactive and predict this content value, therefore we often have to do so afterwards, which may very well miss our ‘window of opportunity’ if the content is time-specific (ie only high value for a month or so).
Lack of co-ordination with business communications/ training etc (before the fact). Quite often business owners will manage their communications, but may not consider the search implications too. A major comms plan will only go so far if users cannot search the keywords contained in that message and get the info they need. Again, we miss our window if the high content value is valid for only a short time.
I very much believe in metadata, but it can be difficult to manage in SP2007. Its good to see the IM changes in SP2010 are much improved.

Of the next four comments most covered old ground (a sure sign the conversation is now fairly well saturated). Nick says he is making a “a slightly different” point, but I think issues of structure not suiting a particular audience has been covered previously. I thought Taino’s reply was interesting because she focused on the issue of not accounting for known vs. learned topics and the notion of a “window of opportunity” in relation to appropriate tagging. Perhaps this reply was inspired by what Nick was getting at? In any event, adding it was a line call between governance and information architecture and for now, I chose the latter (and I have a habit of changing my mind with this stuff :-).


I also liked Taino’s point about user expectations around the “google experience” and her examples. I also loved earlier Rasmus’s point about “hard-drive thinking” (I’m nicking that one for my own clients Rasmus Smile). Both of these issues are clearly people aspects, so I added them as examples around that particular theme.


Finally, I added Taino’s “lack of co-ordination” comments as another example of inadequate governance.


Anne-Marie Low • The one other thing I think missing from here (other than lack of metadata, and often the search tool itself) is too much content, particularly out of date information. I think this is key to ensuring good search results, making sure all the items are up to date and relevant.

Andrew Wright • Great discussion. My top 3 reasons why people can’t find content are:
* Lack of meta data and it’s use in enabling a range of navigation paths to content (for example, being able to locate content by popularity, ownership, audience, date, subject, etc.) See articles on faceted classification:
Contextual integration
* Too much out-of-date, irrelevant and redundant information
See slide 11 from the following presentation (based on research of over 80 intranets)
* Important information is buried too far down in the hierarchy
Bonus 2 reasons 🙂
* Web analytics and measures not being used to continuously improve how information is structured
* Over reliance on Search instead of Browsing – see the following article for a good discussion about this
Browse Versus Search: Stumbling into the Unknown

Both Anne and Andrew make good points and Andrew supplies some excellent links too, but all of these issues have been covered in the map so nothing more has been added from this part of the discussion.

Juan Alchourron • 1) that particular, very important content, is not yet on the intranet, because “the” director don’t understand what the intranet stands for.
2) we’re asuming the user will know WHERE that particular content will be placed on the intranet : section, folder and subfolder.
3) bad search engines or not fully configured or not enough SEO applied to the intranet

John Anslow • Nowt new from me
1. Search ineffective
2. Navigation unintuitive
3. Useability issues
Too often companies organise data/sites/navigation along operational lines rather than along more practical means, team A is part of team X therefore team A should be a sub section of team X etc. this works very well for head office where people tend to have a good grip of what team reports where but for average users can cause headaches.
The obvious and mostly overlooked method of sorting out web sites is Multi Variant Testing (MVT) and with the advent of some pretty powerful tools this is no longer the headache that it once was, why not let the users decide how they want to navigate, see data, what colour works best, what text encourages them to follow what links, in fact how it works altogether?
Divorcing design, usability, navigation and layout from owners is a tough step to take, especially convincing the owners but once taken the results speak for themselves.

Most of these points are already well discussed, but I realised I had never made a reference to John’s point about organisational structures versus task based structures for intranets. I had previously captured rationale around the fact that structures were inappropriate, so I added this as another example to that argument within information architecture…


Edwin van de Bospoort • I think one of the main reasons for not finding the content is not poor search engines or so, but simply because there’s too much irrelevant information disclosed in the first place.
It’s not difficult to start with a smaller intranet, just focussing on filling out users needs. Which usually are: how do I do… (service-orientated), who should I ask for… (corporate facebok), and only 3rd will be ‘news’.
So intranets should be task-focussed instead if information-focussed…
My 2cnts 😉

Steven Kent • Agree with Suzanne’s suggestion “Old content is not deleted and therefore too many results/documents returned” – there can be more than one reason why this happens, but it’s a quick way to user frustration.

Maish Nichani • It is interesting to see how many of us think metadata and structure are key to finding information on the intranet. I agree too. But come to think of it, staff aren’t experts in information management. It’s all very alien to them. Not too long ago, they had their desktops and folders and they could find their information when they wanted. All this while it was about “me and my content”. Now we have this intranet and shared folders and all of a sudden they’re supposed to be thinking about how “others” would like to find and use the information. They’ve never done this before. They’ve never created or organized information for “others”. Metadata and structure are just “techie” stuff that they have to do as part of their publishing, but they don’t know why they’re doing it or for what reason. They real problem, in my opinion, is lack of empathy.

Barry Bassnett • * in establishing a corporate taxonomy.1. Lack of relevance to the user; search produces too many documents.3. Not training people in the concept that all documents are not created by the individual for the same individual but as a document that is meant to be shared. e.g. does anybody right click PDFs to add metadata to its properties? Emails with a subject line stat describe what is in it.

Luc de Ruijter • @Maish. Good point about information management.
Q: Who’d be responsible to oversee the management of information?
Shouldn’t intranet managers/governors have that responsibility?
I can go along with (lack of) empathy as an underlying reason why content isn’t put away properly. This is a media management legacy reason: In media management content producers never had to have empathy with participating users, for there were only passive audiences.
If empathy is an issue. Then it proves to me that communication strategies are still slow to pick up on the changes in communication behaviour and shift in mediapower, in the digital age.
So if we step back from technological reasons for not finding stuff (search, meta, office automation systems etc.) another big reason looks around the corner of intranet management: those responsible for intranet policies and strategy.

Most of this discussion covers stuff already represented in the map, although I can see that in this part of the conversation there is a preoccupation with content and its relevance. Maish also makes a couple of good points. First up he makes the point that staff are not experts in information management and don’t tend to think about how someone else might wish to find the information later. He also concludes by stating the real problem is a lack of empathy. I liked this and felt that this was a nice supporting argument to the whole conjecture that “people issues” is a major theme in this discussion, so I added it as a pro.



Now we have an interesting bit in the conversation (for me anyway). Terry throws a curveball question. (Side note: Curveball questions are usually asked with genuine intent, but tend to have a negative effect on live meetings. Dialogue Mapping loves curveball questions as it is often able to deflect its negative impacts).

Terry Golding • Can I play devils advocate and ask WHY you feel meta data is so vital? Dont misunderstand me I am not saying that it is not important, but I cant help feeling that just saying meta data as a reason for not finding things is rather a simplification. Let me ask it another way, what is GOOD meta data, can you give examples please ?

Luc de Ruijter • @Terry. Good questions which can have many answers (see all comments above where you’ll find several answers already). Why do library books have labels on their covers? Those labels are in fact metadata (avant la lettre) which help library people ordering their collection, and clients to find titles. How do you create tag clouds which offer a more intuitive and user centered way to navigate a website/blog? By tagging all content with (structured) meta tags.Look around a bit and you’ll see that metadata are everywhere and that they serve you in browsing and retrieving content. That’s why metadata are vital these days.I think there are no strict right and good meta structures. Structures depend on organisational contexts. Some metastructures are very complex and formal (see comments about taxonomies above), others are quite simple.Metadata can enable users to browse information blocks. By comparisson navigation schemes can only offer rigid sender driven structures to navigate to pages.

Andrew Wright • @Terry. Meta data enables content to be found in a number of different ways – not just one as is typical of paper based content (and many intranets as well unfortunately).
For instance, if you advertise a house for sale you may have meta data about the house such as location, number of rooms and price. This then allows people to locate the house using this meta data (eg. search by number of bedrooms, price range, location). Compare this with how houses are advertised in newspapers (ie. by location only) and you can see the benefits of meta data.
For a good article about the benefits of meta data, read Card Sorting Doesn’t Cut the Custard:
To read a more detailed example about how meta data can be applied to intranets, read:
Contextual integration: how it can transform your intranet

Terry questions the notion of metadata. I framed it as a con against the previous metadata arguments. Both Luc and Andrew answer and I think the line that most succinctly captures the essence of than answer is Andrew’s “Meta data enables content to be found in a number of different ways”. So I reframe that slightly as a pro supporting the notion that lack of metadata is one of the reasons why users can;t find stuff on the intranet.


Next is yours truly…

Paul Culmsee • Hi all
Terry a devils advocate flippant answer to your devils advocate question comes from Corey Doctrow with his dated, but still hilarious essay on the seven insurmountable obstacles to meta-utopia 🙂 Have a read and let me know what you think.
Further to your question (and I *think* I sense the undertone behind your question)…I think that the discussion around metadata can get a little … rational and as such, rational metadata metaphors are used when they are perhaps not necessarily appropriate. Yes metadata is all around us – humans are natural sensemakers and we love to classify things. BUT usually the person doing the information architecture has a vested interest in making the information easy for you. That vested interest drives the energy to maintain the metadata.
In user land in most organisations, there is not that vested interest unless its on a persons job description and their success is measured on it. For the rest of us, the energy required to maintain metadata tends to dissipate over time. This is essentially entropy (something I wrote about in my SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome post)

Bob Meier • Paul, I think you (and that metacrap post) hit the nail on the head describing the conflict between rational, unambiguous IA vs. the personal motivations and backgrounds of the people tagging and consuming content. I suspect it’s near impossible to develop a system where anyone can consistently and uniquely tag every type of information.
For me, it’s easy to get paralyzed thinking about metadata or IA abstractly for an entire business or organization. It becomes much easier for me when I think about a very specific problem – like the library book example, medical reports, or finance documents.

Taino Cribb • @Terry, brilliant question – and one which is quite challenging to us that think ‘metadata is king’. Good on you @Paul for submitting that article – I wouldn’t dare start to argue that. Metadata certainly has its place, in the absence of content that is filed according to an agreed taxonomy, correctly titled, the most recent version (at any point in time), written for the audience/purpose, valued and ranked comparitively to all other content, old and new. In the absence of this technical writer’s utopia, the closest we can come to sorting the wheat from the chaff is classifcation. It’s not a perfect workaround by any means, though it is a workaround.
Have you considered that the inability to find useful information is a natural by-product of the times? Remember when there was a central pool to type and file everything? It was the utopia and it worked, though it had its perceived drawbacks. Fast forward, and now the role of knowledge worker is disseminated to the population – people with different backgrounds, language, education and bias’ all creating content.
It is no wonder there is content chaos – it is the price we pay for progress. The best we as information professionals can do is ride the wave and hold on the best we can!

Now my reply to Terry was essentially speaking about the previously spoken of issue around lack of motivation on the part of users to make their information easy to use. I added a pro to that existing idea to capture my point that users who are not measured on accurate metadata have little incentive to put in the extra effort. Taino then refers to pace of change more broadly with her “natural by-product of the times” comment. This made me realise my meta theme of “people aspects” was not encompassing enough. I retitled it “people and change aspects” and added two of Taino’s points as supporting arguments for it.


At this point I stopped as enough had been captured the the conversation had definitely reached saturation point. It was time to look at what we had…

For those interested, the final map had 139 nodes.

The second refactor

At this point is was time to sit back and look at the map with the view of seeing if my emergent themes were correct and to consolidate any conversational chaff. Almost immediately, the notion of “content” started to bubble to the surface of my thinking. I had noticed that a lot of conversation and re-iteration by various people related to the content being searched in the first place. I currently had some of that captured in Information Architecture and in light of the final map, I felt that this wasn’t correct. The evidence for this is that Information Architecture topics dominated the maps. There were 55 nodes for information architecture, compared to 34 for people and change and 31 for governance.

Accordingly, I took all of the captured rationale related to content and made it its own meta-theme as shown below…


Within the “Issues with the content being searched” map are the following nodes…


I also did another bit of fine tuning too here and there and overall, I was pretty happy with the map in its current form.

The root causes

If you have followed my synthesis of what the dialogue from the discussion told me, it boiled down to 5 key recurring themes.

  1. Poor Information Architecture
  2. Issues with the content itself
  3. People and change aspects
  4. Inadequate governance
  5. Lack of user-centred design

I took the completed maps, exported the content to word and then pared things back further. This allowed me to create the summary table below:

Poor Information Architecture Issues with content People and change aspects Inadequate governance Lack of user-centred design
Vocabulary and labelling issues

· Inconsistent vocabulary and acronyms

· Not using the vocabulary of users

· Documents have no naming convention

Poor navigation

Lack of metadata

· Tagging does not come naturally to employees

Poor structure of data

· Organisation structure focus instead of user task focussed

· The intranet’s lazy over-reliance on search

Old content not deleted

Too much information of little value

Duplicate or “near duplicate” content

Information does not exist or an unrecognisable form

People with different backgrounds, language, education and bias’ all creating content

Too much “hard drive” thinking

People not knowing what they want

Lack of motivation for contributors to make information easier to use

Google inspired inflated expectations on search functionality on intranet

Adopting social media from a hype driven motivation

Lack of governance/training around metadata and tagging

Not regularly reviewing search analytics

Poor and/or low cost search engine is deployed

Search engine is not set up properly or used to full potential

Lack of “before the fact” coordination with business communications and training

Comms and intranet don’t listen and learn from all levels of the business.

Ambiguous, under-resourced or misplaced Intranet ownership

The wrong content is being managed

There are easier alternatives available

Content is structured according to the view of the owners rather than the audience

Not accounting for two types of visitors… task-driven and browse-based

No social aspects to search

Not making the search box available enough

A failure to offer an entry level view

Not accounting for people who do not know what they are looking for versus those who do

Not soliciting feedback from a user on a failed search about what was being looked for

The final maps

The final map can be found here (for those who truly like to see full context I included an “un-chunked” map which would look terrific when printed on a large sized plotter). Below however, is a summary as best I can do in a blog post format (click to enlarge). For a decent view of proceedings, visit this site.

Poor Information Architecture


Issues with the content itself


People and change aspects


Inadequate governance


Lack of user-centred design


Thanks for reading.. as an epilogue I will post a summary with links to all maps and discussion.

Paul Culmsee


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2 Responses to Why can’t users find stuff on the intranet? An IBIS synthesis–Part 4

  1. Jeff Conklin says:

    Paul! You’ve done an amazing issue analysis of the LinkedIn discussion, and in the process synthesized the informal knowledge from a very productive on-line discussion into a single coherent (hyper)document … suitable for framing, if not publication! The knowledge management challenges of intranets is a really important issue, one that’s been neglected for a long time.

    Ever since I posted my video, people have been asking for a more detailed and realistic example of the benefits of transcribing a linear conversation into an IBIS map. Now I can just link to your blog series, thank you very much!

    Which brings me to my Big Question(s): How will the participants in the discussion regard your synthesis? Will they find that it adds value? Will they trust that you have fairly represented the deep structure of their conversation?

    It may well be that in this context the participants have no reason to suspect that you may have subtlely distorted their arguments for your own benefit. But if anyone didn’t trust your neutrality, I think it would undermine much of the value of the deep structure you crafted; it would be just another polemical trick disguised as an objective summary. Looking out at the urgent need for organizations (and ultimately the public) to have access to deep structure representations of complex and contentious issues, how can we assure that our issue maps are designed to be verifiable, accurate, and fair?

    Oh, and one other thought: Your blog series nicely presents the *process* of rendering the deep structure summary of the discussion, but it’s so long that, well, it’s needs its own deep structure summary! Or maybe a narrative summary would do. What do you think?


  2. Pingback: CleverWorkarounds » Why can’t people find stuff on the intranet?–Final summary

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