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Search Redesign

Only allowed to make front-end UX/UI changes, tasked with "fixing" search for 28,000 member portal

To comply with my non-disclosure agreement, I have omitted and obfuscated confidential information in this case study. The information in this case study is my own and does not necessarily reflect the views of YPO.

Background


My first project when I started with YPO in September 2016, was to assess why a significant number of users had complaints that Search was "not working" on YPO's primary member portal, the Exchange. Every interaction a member had with YPO either goes through the Exchange or connects to it, so perfomance or lack there of was a significant issue.


The team had made incorrect assumptions the failure was due to poor UX by my predecessors and this complaint had been a recurring theme for some time. After completing a cursory review and speaking with some members it was easy to see there was no doubt it needed work. However, sloppy UX was just a piece of the problem. What I uncovered I lumped into five categories.


Dated Engine and Enormous Tech Debt


  • The engine driving the experience needed to be updated and configured for what was being requested by the user. 

  • Multiple iterations of "lets-see-what-sticks" solutions created compartmentalized Information Architecture (IA) and layers upon layers of spaghetti code.


Out-of-the-Box Templates


  • Mapping designs to content were from out-of-the-box templates, not user-informed designs resulting in poor pattern recognition. Users continually needed to relearn search-return patterns for displayed results in each category.

  • Due to the rigid template layouts, search results appeared in improper hierarchies. 


Content Without a Clear Purpose


  • Creation of content for very niche scenarios, compounding IA problems.

  • Lack of thoughtful, purpose-driven content.

  • A misalignment of content to the most commonly used search terms.


Little to No Prior User Research or Proper Planning


  • UX research consisted of assumptions.

  • HIPPO influenced.

  • Prioritization of work was a patch-the-leak method instead of being more data-driven.


Silo-izaiton of Search


  • Search mapping reflected YPO employee internal workflows and organization charts and dictated biases from member committee chairs rather than user behavior (each dept was headed/advised by a member committeee chair and chairs changed hands each year by election). 

  • The lack of a long-term vision drove poor IA, creating isolated and disassociated pockets of irelevant information.

  • Territorialism compounded the issue by departments catering to the goals of singular member chairs of a department. 


Research and Validation

I conducted user research with 27 in-person member interviews at YPO's annual conference with another 62 responses via email. This information was then compared with raw analytical data developing a picture of users' search behavior which discovered YPO's members and their Spouse/Partners came to "the Exchange" for five primary reasons:

  1. Find and connect with other users.

  2. Find, track, and register for events.

  3. Research other chapters and their recent activities.

  4. Find network (interest-based "clubs") information.

  5. Documents and Articles


These would become the basis of five fundamental categories of a new targeted search feature which are:

  1. All - Default setting that is equivalent to a general search and returns will be shown by relevance regardless of category

  2. People – List of members, spouses, and family; their information and demograhics of record

  3. Events – Information regarding the over 800 unique YPO hosted events held each year

  4. Communities – Reseaach showed that uses interacted with Chapters and Networks in similar patterns so they became sub-categories of Communities


    1. ChaptersInformatoin, display chapter pride and promote healthy competition

    2. Networks – Communicate newtwork ongoings or research other networks for involvement

  5. Resources – YPO writes and curates 1000's of pieces of useful reading material and resouces making them available to the members.  Included also is an extensive video library that will now be available via search for the first time.


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The Solution

A comprehensive solution for the first problem, tech debt, wouldn't happen because of limited resources, dollars, and headcount, and explains the mandate of UX only changes. Also, without being able to tackle the real culprit, the backend code, it felt like we had hit a brick wall until I, a couple of dev leads, and the product owner asked this question of the project.

Instead of the front-end forcing the back-end to struggle to serve up what we know it can't, why not ask it to return what we know it can?

The engine, not entirely broken, still made meaningful connections, but displaying them so they made sense to a human was which made it clunky and slow, much like how a brain injury can affect speech. Due to the injury, ideas form, but the mouth can't turn the thoughts into words. However, when presented with a list of words to pick from, the patient can keep a conversation going with a more limited vocabulary. The solution? Limit the input so the backend can select from predefined common searches, displaying the results quickly and organized.



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That organization is what came next, and that involved fixing the templates that tied the hands of both developers and designers alike. As mentioned, we discovered that users primarily focused searching on one of four topics. We also observed that the users would often perform a keyword search only to click on a similar result but not the intended topic (for example: search for an event but open the result of an event that person attended). The new Search is designed in such a way that it gives the user the utmost freedom of discovery. The Search starting screen would allow the user to perform a general search resulting in all records in all topics that matched their query. Or they could target one of the four pillars, Directory, Events, Chapters, or Networks, to search, only returning results from that topic. 


Mixing the results could be visually confusing. That was a fundamental flaw in the previous schema. The user could not tell at a glance if a result record was a directory or an event. Therefore, the pattern recognition for each topic had to be carefully crafted to keep the result set scannable yet identifiable. This was accomplished by designing each record topic to be individually recognizable but similar enough so that the user knows they are search results when seen together. I liken it to baseball uniforms. Each team has a unique uniform, so they will know who to throw the ball to. However, if seen outside a field, it's easily recognizable that they are wearing a baseball uniform, and just as easy to know which team each belongs to. So if a member searched for an event and performed a general search returning records from all four topics, the system must provide them a method to identify which of the results is the topic they searched for to drill in confidently.


However, even though the design for each topic must be unique, the content design for each category must be uniform. For example, a Directory, search the first and last name is the essential information for that search topic. So each result has the first and last name in the exact location, font, size, and color, allowing the user to find and process that information quickly. It's the same for the remaining three topics as well. The primary pieces of information are identical to help establish pattern recognition; therefore, we mapped the content for each topic to design elements. To help accomplish this, we enlisted the help of the Audit and Education department and held a two-day taxonomy workshop, where the most common search topics were identified, organized, and mapped.


These same departments were also the primary keepers of site content or a majority of it. Therefore, this workshop also reviewed, wrote, and suggested content management or creation solutions. Some of them being implemented immediately, while others were placed on a roadmap to be addressed when appropriate. Now, at least, we had a content framework into which to evolve.


The remaining issues centered mostly around culture and policy. The courage it took to bring some of the concerns to light was acknowledged, and that change was needed. However, just like content from the workshop, some were implemented right away, while some were to be considered later. The rest can be viewed as a victory simply because they were acknowledged. 


Conclusion


The multifaceted challenges of this project brought a transformative journey to enhance the member's experience by addressing valid UX concerns, which were expected by the team, and delving into underlying technical and content issues that needed to be addressed. Our solution of a general search and individual searching the four core pillars - Directory, Events, Chapters, and Networks - aligned with user needs, optimizing the search experience. We refined backend output capabilities by strategically directing user input, enabling quick and coherent results. The experience was further enhanced through revamped templates and uniform content design, improving pattern recognition for greater user efficiency. Collaboration with relevant departments to streamline content was critical for success and catalyzed a cultural shift towards user-centricity. This case study underscores an approach to complex holistic problem-solving that resulted in an improved Exchange that resonated with users and set a precedent for future collaborative endeavors.