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Search Redesign

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


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. 

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.

Back end changes requred for MVP

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