Tag: Search product selection

Researching Search with Intent Firmly in Control

I have hit on intent before and our latest member of the Gilbane blog team, Fred Dalrymple has joined the theme with his entry this week. Welcome Fred! You have given me an opening for an already planned topic, how to conduct research for enterprise search tools, those that go beyond the search box. Actually, this guidance is appropriate for the selection of any technology applications.

Getting intent solidly defined is important for so many reasons, many of them relating to solving a business problem and the expected outcomes. Knowing what these are will give you the framework for isolating likely candidates, efficiently. A second critical reason for having strong intent is to stave off project scope creep. As a former vendor, and now consultant, I see this play out repeatedly as product research ensues. Weak backbones in selection team members or flimsiness of their business case leaves openings for vendors to promote additional features, which often distracts from what is really needed.

So, armed with the right skeleton, a strong framework, a core scaffolding you are ready to approach your research systematically. Four paths are open to a study team; I recommend using all of them, in overlapping passes. Discovery about products, product performance in real-world scenarios, vendor business relationships with their clients, and the user community you will be joining are all targets that need to be exploited.

Discovering a user community on-line that might have expressed a potential problem with a vendor or product, should drive you back to do more research to discover potential limitations or why a user might be having a problem that they brought on through inappropriate implementation. Iteration in research for technology requires perseverance and patience. A comment on each path to research might be helpful:

  • Online research – This requires creativity and the most persistence to verify and validate what you find. I am amazed at how superficially many people read any content. We may be taught that good business writing requires a clear statement in the first paragraph of what follows with a solid summary at the end, but most content does not follow “good” business writing practices. You need to read between the lines, think about what is not being said and ask yourself why, follow every link on the sites of vendors under serious consideration. Look at vendor news notes and press releases to see how much activity is going on with product advances or new installations, and read descriptions of customer implementations to see how closely those deployments match your business need. Finally, search those customer names on the Internet in conjunction with the product name. This may retrieve public content that sheds more light on user experiences.
  • Professional groups – Professional organizations in which you participate are fertile ground for asking about what others in similar situations to yours are using. As you get closer to a final choice, go back to others you know personally or professionally to get answers to the direct question, “have you had any problems with this product or vendor?” and “what is the benefit of this product for you?”
  • Societies and academic institutions – These organizations publish content that may have a cost associated. When you consider thousands your organization spends on a selection process (in people time), contracting, licensing, implementation and deployment, it is wise to have a budget of several hundred dollars for reports that give detailed product evaluations. Get recommendations of librarians and peers as to publications’ authoritativeness.
  • User and analyst blogs and industry publications – The same guidance holds for industry publications as for societies and academic publishers but you will also want to pursue blogs of users and analysts. Users are a great source of discovering tidbits about products and vendors but continue beyond what you discover to see if the comments are isolated or follow a pattern.

This is a longer commentary than I intended but the core of my intent needed flesh, so there it is.

Before You Start a List of Vendors: Map Your Course

There is a pattern in how many small to mid-sized enterprises go about researching technology applications, one that does not serve them well. As I interact with colleagues, business affiliates and professional peers, I play into this behavior unwittingly. For example, how many times have you been on the asking or answering side of this question: “My organization is planning to procure a search system this year, what systems should we be looking at?” Too often, I make a quick judgment based on what little I know about the asker and toss out a few potential candidate vendor names.

This scenario plays out frequently and now I am uncomfortable because, as a consultant and search analyst, I know that there is a lot more I need to know before offering off-handed advice to that question. Here are some ideas for questions that you should be asking first so that, when someone like me wants more context, you have ready answers.

Your first step is to survey your internal landscape and clearly document the following:

  • What are the business outcomes you expect to derive from the search product, who will be using it, under what circumstances and for what purpose?
  • What is the scope of the content that will be indexed for retrieval? Create a content map that explicitly illustrates: What, Where, Who, When. This means capturing what the content is in terms of document types and formats, numbers and size, and topic, and where it is being created, stored and managed. You need to know who created it, owns it, and will have access to it. Finally, it helps to document when it was created and information about retention.
  • Who will be involved in product selection and evaluation, who needs to sign off at every stage of selection and procurement, who will be involved in installation and deployment, and who will maintain the system on an ongoing basis?
  • What is your IT infrastructure and who controls it? If a schematic is not in place that depicts at least the portion of the computing infrastructure that will be integral to your search support, it is time to make sure one is prepared. You cannot make an informed decision about appropriate and workable search solutions without this information.

You will also be wasting the time of vendors when you seek product and licensing information if you do not have all of these issues sorted out. Much of the packaging of search products is dependent on numbers of documents or size of the corpus to be indexed, how the software will be installed, and who and how many will be accessing it. Pricing information will be vague until you have concrete content “demographics” to share with prospective vendors. You can’t even establish a budget without answering the questions above, and you need a ballpark budget figure to help narrow your choices.

So, I am resolving to be more thoughtful in my responses when queried by friends and colleagues. Before answering I will be asking you for some meaningful data in advance of reeling off a list of products. It is time for you to do some preliminary research in-house before establishing the lineup of suitors. More on the next steps, next time up.

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