The power of Contextual Search: effortless knowledge discovery

Don’t you just hate it when you know exactly what you want, but repeatedly fail to find it. The UK Radio 4 showshow, More or Less had an interesting podcast last week describing the frustrated attempt of Evan Davies, an anchor on the flagship Today program to find UK Government statistics on a government website.

A frustrated Mr. Davies repeatedly searched and trawled through hundreds of false leads on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) website – in a quest to to find the latest figure for UK weekly household spending. Frustrated, but not defeated, he resorted to a Google Search to find what he wanted.

Later, the podcast interviewed a spokesperson from ONS explained why the search was so bad: “the ONS website is optimised for retrieving the most recent search results and not the most recent relevant result!”

This got me thinking why we habitually rely on the major search engine(s) to find content — and more fundamentally why more natural discovery mechanisms, such as Contextual Search are not mature or widespread. If the search engine knew that Evan Davies (a financial journalist) might be writing a blog article on UK Household Spending (because maybe average spending increased 20% from the previous data), why not push this to him? This is an example of using context to search for information or knowledge.

So what is Contextual Search?

Contextual Search uses facts (or assumptions) about you and/or your environment to help you to find information and knowledge; effectively, by knowing you well, knowledge will be pushed to you. For example:

  • When your phone knows current locationyour interests and the fact you have a gap in your schedule. Maybe there is a cheap 1hr session in the golf driving range around the corner from where you currently are
  • When it is cold and rainy in your current location and you are hungry (since you are searching for restaurant – or your blood sugar is low!) – maybe some comfort food will be a winner. Smart comfort food vendors nearby would issue a time-bound special offer or mapping tools would prioritise the comfort-food place in restaurant search results
  • When you need to complete your tax return today, you are behind schedule – your phone will block all non-urgent calls, hold the delivery of emails and helpfully summarises your bank account details required to complete your return

Fairly exotic use cases you will say – let’s take it back to reality. You a looking up a product to find some information to prepare for a client meeting, wouldn’t it be great to immediately get a summary of the most important issues facing the product, the best ideas being raised, the key dates around product launch without typing in a search command or navigate a hierarchy.

Taking this example further, context can play a valuable role more generally, for example:

  • The time of day: if it is close to a client meeting, your product information tool should show the products being discussed with the client at the top of your screen. If there are any issues you should be aware of, they will be highlighted
  • Your mood: if you are writing aggressive emails, perhaps some good news would be welcomed?
  • your location: when out of the office, maybe confidential product data should not be sent to your iPhone? Maybe a salesman’s data should be restricted when he is physically close to competitors’ head office!

So how are we using this thinking for

We are building context into our product from day one. When a user looks at a Product, with a single click, all relevant data (such as decisions made, issues, changes requested, events, ideas, problems and solutions) will be presented in an order that is relevant to the user

We are also experimenting with some interesting mobile use cases…such as our location restriction example