Context Matters (Redux) - Contextual Search


Context Matters (Redux)

I wrote a blog post titled “Context Matters” in September 2015, prior to spinning AVAIL out of ArchVision, where I tried to describe the underpinnings of our approach to the problems AVAIL sought to solve. How we “think” about content at the time we’re looking for it changes depending on the situation, hence context matters. Here we are 5 years later and AVAIL has now been in the market for over 3 years and serving some of the best design teams on the planet. We recently released AVAIL 4.0 with some major updates across the board which prompted me to revisit that original post and reflect on what we’ve learned and refined where we are headed.

Context does indeed matter now more than ever. We’re all generating an incredible amount of data that makes the traditional means of “File System” storage/retrieval strategies obsolete. Coupled with the growing popularity of Cloud-hosted storage solutions and value-added services like Autodesk BIM 360 and you can only imagine the complexity we’ve weaved in the AEC industry. Those trying to just “get the job done” are now challenged with trying to build a mental map of this complexity. It’s not working. Most of us are becoming more inefficient because we can’t find the information we need. It’s hard enough if it is information you produced yourself, but exacerbated when it is information produced by our colleagues or 3rd parties. We spend half our time searching, browsing, and screaming our way through the deluge of information we’ve built our services teams to produce so efficiently. This intellectual property is often squandered and its full potential unrealized when it’s not being reused.

The conversations that prompted the “context matters” idea I described 5 years ago in my original post were a recognition that people in the AEC industry often resorted to going back to old projects to find content rather than using standardized libraries. This is occurring every day across the industry even though hundreds of hours within a firm (and tens/hundreds of thousands across the industry) have been invested in standardizing and organizing central repositories of that very information.

Progressive (Contextual) Search

At AVAIL we’re breaking these problems down to their essence and building solutions to help tackle this “deep and wide” information retrieval problem. We are just getting started and have a clear path to keep us busy over the coming months and years.

We’re now rolling out our new AVAIL 4.0 Desktop application with several major enhancements. The #1 feature request since we released AVAIL in 2017 has been the ability to search across all Channels in AVAIL at once. Sounds relatively simple and we could have easily done just that. A simple search across everything would work okay if you were managing a relatively small body of content like your Revit family library or other isolated bodies of content; but we have customers with hundreds of Channels containing hundreds of thousands of file references, across a wide variety of different types of content. A “Cross Channel Search”, as we refer to it, would produce very noisy search results when applied across a large body of content. So we took some time and began rethinking what it would mean to return hundreds, even tens of thousands, of results following a search. Returning the results is the easy part, making that many results useful is the real challenge.

We began developing what we now refer to as “Progressive Search”. This is where context melds with search. When AVAIL returns hundreds or thousands of search results across your file inventory we also bring back the Channel context in which those files were organized. We then display that channel context as filters allowing you to narrow your search with the click of a button. A double-click takes you deeper into the context of that Channel, search implemented, revealing yet another layer of filterable Tags. You should never be more than 2 or 3 button clicks away from narrowing your search results to isolate a small enough subset of files to find what you’re looking for.

Projects vs Libraries

What we’ve learned is that successfully searching large bodies of content comes down to Pre and Post sorts to effectively narrow the volume of results. As we see our customers wanting to index and search an ever-growing body of content we’ve begun breaking the problem down into logical groupings. Most AEC firm networks can be bifurcated into an area where reusable assets are stored (libraries) and another where project-related information is stored (projects). AVAIL was originally tasked with helping manage what we describe as “relatively static” libraries of content such as your Revit standards library or a collection of reusable visualization assets. It’s not that they never change, they just don’t change often compared to other information being stored on your network. And the file counts generally number in the thousands or low tens of thousands of files.

Now check the number of files in your last completed Project. Go ahead, right-click on the folder on the Project side of your network for the last project you completed and click on Properties. I know you have one because every firm has the same setup. Wait a few minutes while Windows does an inventory and look at the number of files and the number of folders. It’s not unusual to see tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of files in several thousand folders. And that’s just for one project!

We’ve been working on tackling that data as well. The volume of Project data is what has been driving us to really think about Progressive Search and how to best help you make your way through the millions of files that you need to navigate. We’re working on a new organizational metaphor we call Workspaces that are being designed to help organize the Project-related side of your network.

So the first sort is an easy one, forming your Contextual Direction. Are you looking for files related to a Project or in one of your reusable asset Libraries? Should you search your Workspaces or your Channels? That simple decision can dramatically reduce the noise related to your search results. And when a project is completed, it should be archived. Now your pre-sort becomes “active project”, “past project” or “library”… Workspace, Archive or Channel?

An initial indicator of Contextual Direction combined with Progressive Search provides a powerful means of searching for (and finding) the files you’re looking for across an enormous body of content. You won’t see Workspaces or Archive in the initial AVAIL 4.0 release but we’ve been laying the groundwork for searching larger and larger bodies of content. As you begin using it to search your existing Channels we hope you’ll find that Progressive Search is an intuitive and logical way to navigate what can be very noisy search results to find just what you’re looking for. We invite you to experience AVAIL 4.0 for yourself.

Randall Stevens

Founder & CEO

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