Improving the Search Results Page

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The User Conference is just a few weeks away, and we’re working hard on a number of improvements to the Support Center’s search results interface and mechanics. We’re aiming for improvements that will:

  • address some of your most commonly-voiced desires and frustrations,

  • be relatively quick to implement, and

  • improve usability while retaining a degree of familiarity.
That last point is always a double-edged sword. We all want things to improve as soon as possible, but changing too much, too quickly can be problematic as well. Although feedback on the recent home page revisions has been positive overall, I’ve heard from several people who said they preferred the home page the way it was before. When we make a change, we’re doing our best to make things more intuitive and useful. We may not always succeed, and we want you to tell us when we haven’t! We’re approaching all of our changes with an air of experimentation; any change may be rolled back if it turns out to be more problematic than helpful. If we’re doing our homework, however, most of the changes we roll out should be things you’ll perceive as improvements.

That said, here are some of the search results-related improvements you might be seeing in the next few weeks:

  • Improved filtering. We’re improving the organization and arrangement of the filters that appear above the search results, to make them easier to read and use.

  • Clarified content types. We’re augmenting the existing icons with short text descriptions, to help you know where each result is coming from (forums, technical articles, web-based help, etc.).

  • Sorting options. You should soon be able to choose whether you want the search results sorted by date or by relevancy, right there on the search results page. Tip: You can do this right now, but it requires a few (too many) clicks: Below the search textbox, click the “Open my search options” link, click the “display” tab, and change the setting in the “order results by” section.

  • Date range constraints. When this change is implemented, your default search results will only include content created in the past three years. You’ll have the ability to adjust the date range. Tip: The current “display” tab mentioned in the previous bullet also gives you some control over the date range of your searches. We’re working on a new interface that will give you quite a bit more control.
Feel free to comment. I’ll post some screenshots and more details as work progresses. Keep in mind that these (along with the RSS feeds mentioned in previous posts) are just the improvements we’re aiming to implement by the User Conference. I will definitely be soliciting further feedback from you as we plan additional Support Center improvements for the future.

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You Told Us What You Want, What You Really Really Want

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Welcome back. I’ve been up in San Francisco the past few days for my wife’s graduation ceremony.. she got her Master’s degree, making her officially smarter than her husband (previously, it was only unofficial). The weather and scenery were excellent, but after an 8-hour drive, it’s good to be back in Redlands.

In this week’s post, we’re reviewing results from the recent survey, Where Would You Like To See the Support Center Improved? (the survey is now closed). Once again, thanks to all who took the survey and/or promoted it on your blogs. The feedback you’ve provided is going to influence the focus and prioritization of our efforts to improve the Support Center web site.

For those who may not have taken the survey, a little background: This survey targeted three Support Center areas:

  • the Home Page,

  • the Search Results page,

  • and Technical Articles.
Within each of those areas, several ideas for potential improvements were presented. Survey-takers indicated the helpfulness of each idea: “not helpful”, “somewhat helpful”, or “very helpful”. The survey also allowed survey-takers a place to offer their own ideas or comments. The survey also collected some info about the survey-taker’s profesion and forum usage.

Scoring the Results

To score the results, I applied a point value to each answer:

  • -1 point for “not helpful”

  • +1 point for “somewhat helpful”

  • +2 points for “very helpful”
Here are the total scores for each idea in the survey. The text descriptions are the same as what the survey-taker saw.

  • Search Results: Improved Interface (185 points)
    More intuitive filtering and sorting options.

  • Search Results: More Relevant Results (180 points)
    Consider content popularity and feedback when ranking search results.

  • Search Results: Clarify the Content Type (161 points)
    Clearly show the type of each result (forum thread, Web Help entry, technical article, etc.)

  • Tech Articles: User Comments Section (155 points)
    Add your own helpful comments to an article, wiki-style, to make the article more helpful to other people.

  • Home Page: Better “Latest Additions” section (150 points)
    Improved presentation of latest content. Addition of “Most Popular” and “Support Recommended” sections.

  • Tech Articles: User-Specified Tagging (136 points)
    Add tags (keywords) to an article, to make it easier for yourself and others to find the article when searching.

  • Home Page: Customizable Content (129 points)
    Personalize the home page to show just the information you’re interested in.

  • Home Page: More RSS Feeds (117 points)
    For Latest Additions, Announcements, and other frequently-updated content.

  • Tech Articles: Usefulness Meter (97 points)
    See at a glance how useful other people have reported an article to be.

  • Home Page: Usage Tips (69 points)
    On each visit, see a different tip for getting the most out of the Support Center web site. Option to turn this feature off.

Leader: Search Results

So it seems that what you really really want is a Search tool that’s intuitive to use, effective in function, and returns the results you’re looking for in a clear and scannable way. We knew from past surveys and usage data that the vast majority of you use the Search (versus browsing) to find answers, and now we know that you want improving the Search to be a top priority as we plan future Support Center improvements. All right, we’ll make it a top priority, and we’ll work on improving the interface on the Search Results page first. Watch this blog for further info; we might even have a few improvements ready by the User Conference.

There are two other comments about the Search that I want to mention:

  • About 10% of the surveys included comments suggesting/asking/demanding that the Support Center Search work more like this one. With all seriousness: We. Are. Looking. Into. This. I’m not saying anything will or won’t happen; I’m just saying that we’re looking into it. Please be patient while we investigate; I’ll have more info to share in future posts.

  • On a closely-related note, there were also a number of survey comments from people who have figured out an alternative to using the Support Center Search. (Hint: it involves using the syntax “” to search the Support Center using advanced functionality of a certain popular search engine.) Your success with GIS is our overarching goal, so hey, if you find an alternative that works better for you than our Search does, please use it! All we ask is that you still give us feedback on the improvements we’ll be making to the Support Center search; who knows, perhaps one day you’ll find that our Search works just as well as (or better than) the alternatives.

Runner-Up: Tech Article Comments Section

The next-highest scoring idea was to allow user comments on Tech Articles, incorporating a bit of wiki-style functionality into what are currently read-only documents. Done well, this would result in articles enhanced with special conditions, caveats, alternative workarounds, cross-references, and other useful information. Of course, this could also be done poorly, resulting in misinformation, confusion, or worse. We’re looking at how other wiki-style online resources do this, and it’s clearly important that the body of contributors (all of us, the User Community) be largely self-governing. Your judicious use of the “Alert Moderator” button in ArcScripts and the User Forums suggests that self-governance won’t be a problem, but it warrants some careful thought. I’ll explore this topic with you further in a future post.

The other runner-up ideas won’t be ignored or forgotten; some of them will wait in the wings, and some we might try to do in parallel with the other improvements we’re working on. But for the moment, we’re going to focus on the Search Results (because you really really want improvement there), and RSS Feeds. Why RSS Feeds? Because they’re relatively straightforward to implement, and it makes good sense to have them: if we (as a Community) are going to be making improvements to various Support Center content, RSS feeds can help everyone become aware of that improved content.

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An Assortment of Odds and Ends

Next week’s post will be focused on presenting the results from the Where Would You Like To See the Support Center Improved survey, which closes the evening of May 16. This week, however, my post is an unfocused assortment of odds and ends:

  • Survey Status. The aforementioned survey has now received over 100 responses. I’ll probably say it again next week when we review the results, but thanks to everyone who took the time to take the survey, and/or to mention it on their blog.

  • RSS Buffet. Last week’s post asked for input on what RSS feeds would be most helpful, and a good number of you responded with helpful comments. I’m in discussion with our web developers about possibly setting up individual feeds for each of the following site elements:

    • Home Page Announcements

    • Home Page Latest Additions elements:

      • Patches and Service Packs

      • ArcScripts

      • Samples and Utilities

      • Data Models

      • White Papers

      • Product Documentation
    Two other RSS-related items that I’ve mentioned in previous weeks are still within the realm of possibility: a “daily digest” feed of new and updated Technical Articles, and an option to subscribe to Support Notifications as an RSS feed. Some or all of these new RSS offerings should be coming your way in the next month or two, and you’ll have something by the User Conference in mid-June.

  • Speaking of the UC… This year there will be a Support Center table near the Tech Support Island. A bit of trivia: In previous years the Tech Support Island was known as the Doctor’s Office, but we had to change the name because people kept showing up looking for first aid! (Don’t worry, we helped them find the right place.) The Support Center table will be staffed by yours truly on Wednesday and Thursday, and on Tuesday it will be staffed by Beth G.; she’s our Program Manager for ESRI Support Services’ User Advocacy Group (UAG). If you have a chance, stop by and ask Beth about the UAG program and how it’s working to help identify and promote key issues and bugs with our Development Teams.
    If you miss Beth and end up talking to me instead, you can still ask about the UAG. I’ll mumble vague uncertainties before attempting to turn the conversation to something I know more about, like disc golf, or ESRI’s online support resources (including the Support Center). News update: Beth just called and told me that she’d be back at the Support Center table on Thursday — so even if you can’t make it to our table until Thursday, you’ll still have the chance to meet and talk with us both.

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What’s On the RSS Buffet?

At the end of last week’s post, I hinted that we’re working on adding more RSS feeds (what’s an RSS feed?) to the Support Center web site before the ESRI International User Conference in June. The first question is, of course, “To which site elements should we add them?” Here’s what we’re thinking:

  • Announcements. The home page Announcements list is an obvious candidate.

  • Latest Additions. We’re thinking of adding two feeds here: one for the “From Downloads” tab, and one for the “From the Knowledge Base” tab (I’ll mention the User Forums in a moment). Question: Is that a good level of granularity, or would you prefer to see separate feeds on each subsection (“Patches and Service Packs”, “ArcScripts”, “Samples and Utilities”, and so on)?

  • Support Notifications. We’re also thinking of setting up an RSS feed option for our Support Notifications. This feed would deliver the same content, on the same schedule; the only difference would be the delivery mechanism (RSS versus email).
Regarding RSS feeds and the User Forums, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that it looks like it would be quite difficult to add feeds to our existing User Forums; our existing forum technology was hand-crafted by expert blacksmiths back in the late 1600′s, and it’s tricky to attach the RSS feeds to the cast iron gears. The good news is that we’re planning to update our forum technology, and built-in RSS is one of our basic requirements. If you’ve participated in our Beta Program recently, you’ve seen one of the candidate technologies we’re considering — that may or may not be the forum technology that ends up replacing our current trebuchets.

Finally, the lack of comments on my last couple posts has my boss worried that I’m being paid to write something that nobody reads… so shout out: To which Support Center site elements should we add RSS feeds? If we did, how would that be helpful to you?

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Where To Improve: Some Early Results

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Thanks to everyone who has already taken the time to fill out the recent survey: Where Would You Like To See the Support Center Improved, and to those who have mentioned the survey on their blogs. There have been about 45 responses so far; we’ll be leaving the survey up for a few more weeks (through May 16) to give less-frequent visitors a chance to voice their opinions.

A Few Early Results

More detailed results will be posted to this blog after the survey concludes. Here’s what the results so far are telling us:

  • There’s a lot of GIS Professionals taking the survey. Also, we’ve recently determined that water is rather wet… Somewhat more surprisingly, a fair number of developers have taken the survey, suggesting that at least some developers are perusing the Support Center and not just the EDN web site. Speaking very briefly of the EDN site, we’ve been paying attention to your comments and feedback about that site as well… it’s a bit off-topic for this blog, but I’ll likely have more to say about the EDN site in future posts.

  • Extra, Extra, Read all about it: So far, almost everyone wants to see the “Latest Additions” section improved, with RSS feeds being a close second, followed by customizability. Let me see if I understand: You want the latest ESRI Support news and content, you want it ASAP, and you want to see it where you want to see it. Did I get that right?

  • Search Results Improvements: All of the above. Each of the potential “Search Results” improvements listed in the survey has received high marks so far, indicating that this area impacts a lot of people. It sounds like any improvement in this area is likely to be well-received.
  • Technical Articles: Make mine a wiki. The current leader in this set of potential improvements is the notion of having a User Comments section that would allow you to append your own helpful tips and explanations onto existing articles in the ESRI Knowledge Base.

  • What about the Forums? The survey concludes with a couple questions on forum participation and usage:

    • So far, it looks like about 50% of respondents participate (that is, post a question or answer someone else’s question) in the forums at least several times each month, and 50% participate less frequently than that. That’s pretty good participation, people!

    • Responses to the final survey question indicate that many of you trust the forums more than our technical articles. Ouch. Perhaps allowing User Comments on articles would help?
As mentioned above, the survey will remain open for a few weeks more. Even so, we’ve begun planning further improvements to the Support Center, some of which should be ready in time for the ESRI International User Conference in June. It’s not yet clear exactly which improvements will be ready by then, but you can safely bet on some new things to feed your aggregator.

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Rollout Aftermath: More than Crickets

Well, it’s been over a week, and so far the recent changes to the Support Center home page have been generally well-received. Here’s what folks have been saying:

  • Issues in Firefox. Some FireFox users have reported problems with the “Open my search options” link; others have reported page layout issues. We didn’t see these issues when we tested the new home page in Firefox (I actually assisted with the testing), so these reports came as a bit of a surprise. The problems commonly occur when the home page is displayed using older (cached) CSS files, and possibly older cookies.
    In most cases, these problems can be solved by clearing the browser’s caches. The way to do this varies depending on the version of Firefox you’re using. See the 3rd and 4th bullets on this mozillaZine page for some instructions; first try clearing the cache (4th bullet), then if problems persist, try clearing the cookies (3rd bullet).

  • Murmurs of Approval. In regard to what we actually changed, the feedback from the blogosphere has been modestly positive. On his scrappad! blog, Jithen Singh mentioned that the search options seemed quite a bit easier to get to. James Fee commented on his blog that the new home page “is a little easier to manage than the previous setup.” Thanks for the positive comments, guys – they are appreciated.

  • But what about…? On the other hand, James, Jithen and others have also been quick to point out that there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Agreed! This was just the first of several Support Center improvement projects. We chose to start as we did for a number of reasons, including:

    • We felt these changes would benefit everyone, regardless of how you find information on the site or how often you visit.

    • We wanted to catch your attention, to let you know that significant changes are underway.

    • This home page improvement project was limited in scope, which allowed for faster development and rollout. We’ll likely limit the scope of future improvement projects for the same reason.
    We’re taking a hard look at what other improvements we might be able to roll out prior to the ESRI User Conference (June 18-22). We’re also looking past that event, to potential improvement projects for later this year. There’s a big list of possible improvements, and it includes many of the things you’ve mentioned in your feedback and on your blogs. Which leads us to…

New Survey: Where Would You Like To See the Support Center Improved?

As much as possible, we want to focus our improvement efforts on the areas of the Support Center that the user community wants to see improved. There’s a new survey going up on the Support Center home page for just this purpose. The survey will be announced on the home page early next week, but you can access it right now, right here. Take the survey and let us know what you’d like to see us work on! I’ll summarize the results in a future post.

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Wondering about the changes to the Support Center web site?

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As mentioned in previous posts on this blog, the Support Center home page is being updated to improve usability while retaining familiarity. The first round of improvements is out, and you can expect more improvements in the future.

If this is your first time visiting this blog, please read the Welcome post to learn more about what this blog is (and isn’t). Subscribe via RSS and you’ll not only stay informed about upcoming changes, but you’ll also learn tips and tricks for using the Support Center more effectively, and be able to participate in special community feedback opportunities.

A new survey will appear on the Support Center home page in the next few days, where you’ll be able to tell us what you think of the updated home page and banner. In the meantime, take the new home page for a test drive. And, if you haven’t already, you may want to read some of my earlier posts to learn about the changes and why they were made.

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A Few Scattered Pieces

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This week I’ve got a few scattered pieces of news to share:

  • Out of the Desert… I made it back safely from a week of slot canyoneering in Utah, despite sandstorms, snowfall, and one of my friends twisting his ankle. I can now honestly recommend visiting Little Wild Horse Canyon, but be ready to get your feet wet.

  • … and Into the Classroom. SharePoint Bootcamp is happening at ESRI this week, and I’m attending because we want to use SharePoint to help automate and expedite some of ESRI Support’s internal processes and workflows. The end result we’re aiming for is a better overall support experience for you.

  • Home Page Changes Really Are “Coming Soon!” It looks like the changes mentioned in last week’s post are slated for rollout sometime this month, possibly very soon. These particular changes are designed to improve the usability of the Support Center without alienating those of you who use the Support Center on a regular basis. Once the changes are rolled out, there will be a survey asking for feedback on the changes and suggestions for further improvements.

  • And Speaking of Surveys… Thanks to those who’ve taken the time to complete the survey found at the bottom of last week’s post: What Do You Think of the Support Center News Blog So Far? I’ve added a link to that survey in the sidebar to the left, and will leave the survey open for another week or so. Based on the results so far, it looks like most of you find this blog useful, with posts that are of good length but perhaps not quite as frequent as one might hope.
I’ll see about posting more frequently. Maybe some shorter posts on how to do/find things on the Support Center. Anyone have any questions they’d like answered (related to using the Support Center web site)?

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Coming Soon – Home Page Changes

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Hello from Utah, where I’ve been enjoying some spectacular scenery… just ask Google Images.

Home Page Changes

At the end of a post earlier this month, I hinted that there may be some changes to the home page coming soon. These changes will be geared towards improving usability while retaining familiarity — in other words, if you’re a new visitor, the home page should be more intuitive, and if you’re a frequent visitor, the changes shouldn’t leave you feeling lost, especially after previewing the changes here.

Note: Most of the Support Center pages and content will be unaffected by the upcoming changes.There are only two changes that will affect every page:

  • The Search bar will be available on every page that includes the Support Center banner.

  • The left sidebar will no longer appear on any page.
Some items that used to appear in the left sidebar will only appear on the home page (like Featured Areas, for example). Other items from the sidebar, such as the Site Map, will be moved into the banner or into the footer links that appear at the bottom of every page in the site. No sidebar means more space for content in the main area of the page.

Rather than attempt to list all the changes (many of which are subtle, like slight improvements to color contrast), here’s a draft screenshot of what the revised home page will probably look like. I didn’t clear my browser’s cache before I took the screenshot, so some of the links show the “visited” color (brown). Also, some of the text has been intentionally blurred out to avoid confusion, since our development server’s content database holds a mix of older info and meaningless test entries.

Draft Screenshot of the Revised Support Center Home Page

Click to view full-size image.

Now, it’s like they say: You can’t please all the people all the time. We’re going to continue to improve both the home page and the rest of the site over time, based in part on your feedback. And on that note…

The First Survey

Here it is: the first opportunity for you, the readers of this blog, to let me know what you think. In the future, I’ll be seeking your feedback on the changes previewed here, and asking for your suggestions for future improvements… but this first survey is about the Support Center News blog itself. So please take a few minutes and let us know:

What Do You Think of the Support Center News Blog So Far?

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