« Shiny Spots on the Map | Main | San Francisco Bay Bridge Cut-Over this weekend »

Search Frustration? Maybe you are doing it wrong

I just read this blog post about being frustrated by search because it does not solve a user's problem. John Battelle writes:

But the next step is the harder one. I am not “smart” about how to buy a classic car. I don’t know enough to buy one with confidence. I don’t know what to ask about. I don’t know if it’s good or bad that an engine, electrical system, or transmission is original or rebuilt. I don’t know how one model does versus another in resale value, or insurance cost or…well, you get the picture. There’s a lot to consider, and I don’t know how to value everything. The world of classic cars is complex, like most major decisions. In short, there’s no easy way to decide in this case

In this case his problem is he is not "smart". But can a simple search make you smarter? Or move you any closer to your goal? I'm reminded of the old joke where a man rubbing a lamp finds a genie and commands "Make me a Martini". The next panel would show the man to be composed of gin, vermouth and an olive. A single simple request is just too ambiguous to respond to. And to be honest, anyone who has searched for any length of time has learned that you MUST put in enough information to have the search engine help you.

My point here is that to solve any complex problem, and looking up something on Wikipedia is not a complex problem, the problem must be explored and defined sufficiently before it can be solved. As a consultant I find this to be what I spend much of my time on. The client request may be simple: "We want to do X". But to get to a solution of that problem involves understanding the current situation (in John's car example - what level of expertise does the user already possess), understanding the end result (what does doing "X" do for you), understanding the tolerances around the solution (would "W' or "Y" be good enough?), and understanding what effort the client wants to expend on achieving that result (In John's classic car example, is he actually going to read all this stuff and track down the right kind of hose clamps? or is he just having fun imagining how nice it would be to own a classic car). The typical search box on a search engine does not allow this sort of input which is essential to giving an appropriate response. And knowing your search history, which may help to some extent, is still never going to understand your intent.

I don't know why using a search engine should lead to frustration any more than one would be frustrated by the responses from the magic 8 ball. Becoming a professional tennis player requires more than a trip to the library, Becoming a classic car expert requires more than a couple visits to Bing or Google. Imagining that it would be otherwise is apparently a recipe for frustration.

That said, perhaps the way search engines can help is by training people to search better. Give them search strategies which work. But I doubt that will help much. Like owning a classic car, most of the fun is in figuring it out yourself.

There is another issue embedded in the same post, that of making decisions, valuations and tradeoffs. It is probably a discussion for another time, but it all hinges on the quality of the information. In a world where information quality is uneven and can be gamed, I think this may be another windmill being tilted at.

  • "People come to us in weakness"
  • I know I know
  • Mmmmmm... Peet's Coffee and search logs
  • Gapminder Visualization from Google
  • Visualization
  • Well if it is not Google in bed with the terrorists, then it is those damn artists in bed with the CIA
  • Taking the PMP Exam - Part 4 - Customer Satisfaction

  • About

    The previous article is Shiny Spots on the Map.

    The next article is San Francisco Bay Bridge Cut-Over this weekend.

    Current articles are in the main index page and you can find a complete list of articles in the archives.

    Creative Commons License
    This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
    Powered by
    Movable Type 3.34