According to figures published by the GSA in 2007, FBO.gov was sending out 500,000 emails every day to users who asked to be notified about opportunities matching their specified search critieria. That’s half a million messages a day that look like this:
All right, show of hands: who among you is getting search agent email updates from FedBizOpps? Anyone?
And keep your hands up if you find them useful? Uh, anyone?
Not to continue beating you over the head with it (even as I ready my club once again), but when it comes to search results presentation, little things matter a lot. For applications backed by massive data stores, users need every bit of help we can give them to select and sift through big results listings to find what they’re looking for. Even something as seemingly inconsequential as the design of a sorting function can make a big difference for usability.
It’s probably not going out on a limb when I say that most users of FedBizOpps spend a large portion of their browsing time on the search results page. By default, the results listings are shown in reverse chronological order which would seem to have some value for regular users of the site interested in seeing what’s been recently added or updated. The user can re-sort the list according to three other attributes corresponding to columns in the table — Agency/Office/Location, Type, and Set-aside — and is able to sort in ascending or descending order. All of what I’ve described might not prompt a major outcry, but as I’ll explain, the fact that the feature’s developers phoned it in really hurts the usability of the search results page.
In the previous installment, we already looked at how FedBizOpps might be improved by displaying long lists of search results using continuous scrolling. This post takes a closer look at one improvement that might be made to the structure of the results themeselves.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a general contractor with a proven track record building professional-grade data center facilities, and you’re looking for federal opportunities that would match your skills and experience opportunities involving data centers and construction. So you enter those terms into the search field, and the system responds with the following results.
FedBizOpps proudly and prominently displays the number of active opportunities listed on its homepage above the search form.
At the time of this writing, there are 26,411 listings that were posted within the past 90 days. (Broadening the search to include opps from the past 365 days, which is the highest value allowed by the search form, it shows that there are 40,127 results. Anyone able to shed some light on exactly what constitutes “active” in the comments?)
Let’s suppose I attempt a search on a broad keyword like “construction”. I get search results numbering well into the thousands. In this case, FBO does what a lot of sites do: it lets me page browse through the results page by page while giving me some control over the number of items per page and parameters used to sort the results.
To kick things off, I’d like to call out some of the problems I and others have noted while using FedBizOpps. I’ll do this over the coming weeks in a series of posts, each of which will take on one of the problems.
Searching for new opportunities is probably the most common use case for visitors of the site. Performing a basic search would likely include:
- Request a search based on criteria entered into the search form.
- Scan the list of results looking for relevant items.
- Review the detail page for the first interesting result.
- Return to the search results listing.
- Wash, rinse, and repeat from step #2.
Unfortunately, the application has been implemented in a way that complicates this most common of use cases.