Notice: This is a discussion thread for comments about the article, Poking Around The Lab, first published in Issue 247 of Desktop Magazine.
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The first image that leaps into my mind when I hear the term “laboratory” is of grey-haired men in white coats and safety glasses, peering into test tubes of bubbling purple fluid. The Lab team at Sensis, however, perform their experiments not in a test tube, but on the web. Wearing a white coat is optional.

The team was formed as an avenue for primary decision-makers at Sensis to explore ideas related to their online properties that are experimental or risky. The team are given parameters, but essentially have a wide scope to rethink Sensis’s more traditional web sites, such as the heavily trafficked whitepages.com.au or yellowpages.com.au. The intention is to gather solid data about some of these ideas, and fold the more promising ones into the traditional site.

“In some ways we’re allowed to be a little bit fast and loose, in order to prove an idea,” explains technical lead, Mark Mansour. “We just need to prove an idea, so we push the envelope, see it how it reacts, then take the best parts of it and roll them into the main product. It’s only by exploring boundaries do we realize where we want to go with the business.”

The most recent site to be launched by the team is Yellow Lab (yellowlab.com.au). An alternative interface for interacting with the Yellow Pages data, the website tackles one of the more frequent criticisms of the main Yellow Pages site—the lack of a decent search experience.

“It’s funny, you know. Users think the Yellow Pages online experience is a search, and treat it like a search—when really it’s not.” muses Dan Naumann, interaction designer for the Yellow Lab project. “It’s a directory.”

Mansour concurs: “Our business model has been around for over 100 years. In the book version of Yellow Pages, you visit a category, and view listings within that category. But when the Internet came around, it did away with the concept of categories.”

“A lot of people still understand that directory model, though, and they find it valuable,” Mansour adds. “We’re trying to answer the question of how to keep that directory model while introducing the different parts of search. Is there a way to cross-breed the two, to create something stronger, and better?”

The difference in the quality of results delivered by Yellow Lab compared to the original Yellow Pages site is immediately obvious. For the handful of search results that I threw at the two sites, the results from Yellow Lab were noticeably more relevant—due largely to the fact that businesses appearing in multiple categories are aggregated into a single listing. By removing repeat listings for a search term, the user is presented with less clutter. “Yellow Lab is very much a search model, rather than a directory model,” comments Naumann. “We search across multiple categories at once, so hopefully this change should enable a user to perform their task better.”

An improved set of search results is not the only improvement offered up by the Yellow Lab site, though. The site gets a tick in all of the “Web 2.0” boxes—users can tag business listings; they can recommend businesses by voting for them (this data is then piped back into the relevance algorithm that drives the results); every one of the business listings is marked up as a microformat, so that any tools able to read these formats can make use of this data; and the Ajax-powered mapping data provided by WhereIs is far superior to that currently present at the original Yellow Pages site.

The site also happens to be the first at Sensis powered by Ruby on Rails, and the team proudly follow an Agile process that ensures effective communication between design and development teams, as well as the ability to respond extremely quickly to decisions about the site.

User testing also forms an integral part of the design process—a practice that is supported by a large, recently upgraded, usability lab. The team utilise a recruitment agency to source their test subjects, specifying that participants possess specific behavioural traits. Naumann notes, “The age of the person doesn’t matter—it’s how they use the instruments, how they search for businesses, and what other social media sites they’re using, not their demographics.”

The visual identity of Yellow Lab is also markedly different from that of its more conservative older sibling—the most obvious indicator of this being the playful cartoon character that greets visitors on the front page.

“It’s definitely a bit of a brand stretch,” admits Yuko Osawa, the graphic designer who worked on the site. “We played with a lot of different versions, and the illustration is probably less of a stretch than some of the other options, but one that we were comfortable to go forward with into the public eye.”

So are we likely to see a cheeky cartoon character from Yellow Lab appearing on the main Yellow Pages site any time soon?

Naumann laughs, “Probably not. Like most things, once we know something works in Lab, very rarely will we put it straight into Yellow Pages—it will generally need some work done to it to make it better fit that environment. We need to test it for a while with real users, before we know exactly what’s working, what’s not, and what needs tweaking.”

Osawa adds, “We had access to a research project that contained a lot of findings about how people currently perceive Yellow Pages, where we might like to take the brand, and how can we move forward to that. It’s not something that you can just flick a switch [on] one day and change, though—it’s very much an evolution.”

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