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Visualization Tools for Portal Organization

Structural organization techniques like taxonomies, facets, and metadata can aid information retrieval, but even with well-designed search queries that target particular subsets of content, a user can still be overwhelmed with the number of items returned by conventional search engines. Visualization tools effectively reduce information overload by mapping content to visual representations that aggregate content while highlighting significant relationships. For example, visualization tools can rapidly show a high-level structure, such as a site map, while allowing users to easily navigate to a particular area for more detail. In addition, these schemes depict content areas that users may not know exist and shows a broad context for content.

A number of different techniques are used to visualize content repositories such as portals. One technique, called focus+context, highlights one area (the focus) while showing the relationship of that area to other areas (the context). InXight's VizServer uses focus+context to allow users to navigate hyperlinked documents. A study at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which spun off InXight to commercialize the visualization tools, found that users could browse 62% faster with a focus+context tool than with a traditional two-dimensional tree layout such as Microsoft Explorer [Pirolli et al.].

Relational navigation is a visualization technique that depicts database relationships rather than hyperlinks and is useful for browsing database-driven sites. ThinkMap from Plumb Design software is just one example of this type of tool.

Portals frequently integrate content from hyperlink sources, databases, file systems, and other repositories. In those cases, visualization constructs based on business processes and structures tend to work best. The case study on Center Partners describes one such application.

CASE STUDY: Visualization and Logical Restructuring Improve Customer Care Services at Center Partners

The outsourced customer care industry is demanding on all parties involved. Customer care center providers have to understand the details of their clients' business policies, products, and services and convey that understanding to callers with widely varying needs. Client companies entrust customer care centers to attract new customers, build customer loyalty, provide technical support, and provide other critical points of contact with their customers. Maintaining quality standards is essential. The agents who operate the centers are under the sometimes conflicting demands of maintaining quality service while minimizing the average call time. Training agents and providing them with rapid information retrieval tools is essential to the success of these operations. One customer care center, Center Partners (http://www.centerpartners.com), used enterprise portal and visualization-based information retrieval software to improve quality measures while reducing call time to the point of generating an additional $500,000 per year in revenue.

The Problem: Poorly Organized Distributed Content

Center Partners operates seven offices with 2,500 customer care agents throughout the United States to serve Fortune 500 clients. This customer care firm generates annual revenue of $100 million and serves customers in industries ranging from insurance and financial services to pharmaceuticals and high tech. This service provider, like many in this area, measures operational success by the time required to handle customer calls and the level of service quality provided. Reducing the average call-handling time increases the efficiency of the center; quality measures are required by contractual agreements with customers. Both objective measures are served by improving agents' access to information.

The breadth and depth alone of the information customer care agents must tap in the course of their work demands a structured content management mechanism. Unfortunately, Center Partners does not control its information sources; the clients do. It is not unusual for the firm to depend on corporate extranets designed for multiple purposes that lack the features needed for fast-paced call center operations. David Geiger, Chief Information Officer of Center Partners, reported one client changed 2,800 extranet pages in a single month. “The dynamic nature of the content made it nearly impossible for a busy agent to be up-to-date on the latest information. Moreover, the site, as is common with most Web sites, was difficult to navigate and did not offer any useful search capabilities” [TheBrain Technologies 2002]. Even well-designed customer sites are more likely suited for online shopping than the kind of troubleshooting tasks faced by agents.

Since Center Partners could not redesign its customers' sites, the company instead deployed a middle-tier content organization application in its portal that allowed them to organize content in a manner that better fits the way the agents work. Figure 1.6 shows how a middle tier hides the underlying complexity of the application.

01fig06.gifFigure 1.6. A middle tier can provide a logical organization that reflects users' understanding of a domain without requiring changes to the underlying implementation.

The Solution: Visualization and Logical Restructuring

Center Partners chose BrainEKP from TheBrain Technologies Corporation (http://www.thebrain.com), an enterprise knowledge portal tool with strong visualization and search features, to provide a middle layer for the new navigation scheme without redesigning customer content. BrainEKP completely resides on Center Partners servers; it is external to customer sites and requires no changes on the customers' part. Domain experts at Center Partners first organized content into topics that support particular tasks, such as describing a refund policy or troubleshooting a service problem. Each topic (called a thought in TheBrain's terminology) provides links to content distributed across the Web, intranets, file systems, and databases.

Unlike typical search engines, selecting a topic in BrainEKP immediately displays related topics as well as content specific to the topic of interest. For example, navigating to the Repair topic displays the Tier 1 Repair Website while depicting links to vendor-specific repair information, as shown in Figure 1.7. BrainEKP also provides full-featured search using an embedded version of Convera RetrievalWare. To further improve the effectiveness of BrainEKP, Center Partners allows agents to customize their information sources and add their own notes and links.

01fig07.jpgFigure 1.7. BrainEKP depicts the logical relationship between topics while displaying detailed content on the topic of focus.

The return on investment was clear for Center Partners. Quality increased enough to generate an expected additional $500,000 in revenue over the course of a year and dropped the average call-handling time by 43 seconds.

Best Practices

Center Partners realized these gains by recognizing a number of best practices, including the following:

  • Use visualization to reduce the time required to retrieve information.

  • Customize the logical organization of content through a middle tier rather than implementing a single organizational scheme that serves all usage models.

  • Allow users to customize the portal to meet their particular needs and style.

Content used with permission of Harlan Hugh, chief technology officer and co-founder of TheBrain; David Gerger, CIO Call Center Partners, Chris Kneeland, chief learning officer, Call Center Partners, TheBrain Technologies Corporation.

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