Sunday, March 1, 2009

When Search is Not

Been thinking about an idea for a while about how search (for knowledge large and small), the huge, fantastic journey enabled by encyclopedias and changed forever by the world wide web, is changing still. I am sure I am not unique in this, but I honestly haven't looked much into what others might be saying. But posting a few thoughts here might spur some research later.

Maybe I have an unusual or even incomplete sort of definition of search, but I think capital "S" Search for "Where is Coraline showing?" or "What's the average weight of the adult male Asian elephant?" or "What books have been written about the declining use of steam engines?" is different from wanting to know my bank balance or ordering a taxi. Some of my thought over the past six months has gone into ideas about connecting people directly to information or physical products. That is, getting them what they want without needing to them needing to know how to access and use an intermediary to get to their desire. I see signs of this change happening. I think mobile apps like ShopSavvy are in the neighborhood. And it turns out the Google has been embedding some of this sort of thing into their Search portal. The NY Times' David Pogue describes it as SECRETS OF THE SEARCH BOX in which "Certain kinds of information, however, get special treatment." (Cue trippy music and Leonard Nimoy)

Yes, in both these cases, there is still an intermediary, but both show at least one interesting new characteristic. ShopSavvy operates on your personal mobile device, using something that has become fairly ubiquitous, the camera function. So, it's not fully a special addition. It is more a new use of something many people are already familiar with. Then you add in the personalization touches such as wish lists and the new use turns nearly into something indispensable. The Google example shows a shift, to me, in the perception of the idea of search. "If I can ask big questions using this, can I also ask the not-so-big or not-so-general questions?" Questions that don't need to be retrieved from among billions of facts and aggregated into a list to sift through.

I have played with some design sketches involving mobile devices that take a request along those two lines of repurposing the familiar and and delivers the person very directly to a result. No need to know what application to open, no need to know which mode, to remember passwords, to type in financial info, etc. And the interactions are kicked off with easy, unconstrained, sort-of-but-not-really-search type specifications of desire, such as "order my coffee". And I think mobile is very much driving this. Mobile interaction is becoming its own thing and people do and will want to have very different experiences being mobile than they do anchored to a laptop or desktop. These experiences will need to be at once lighter and more powerful, which in part means the role and presence of intermediating technology must decrease.

Big "S" Search will always be used and important. Specialized applications that must be accessed/installed and learned will be around for quite a bit longer. But in between these two is emerging a new area of access and interaction that will be easier, more powerful, and much richer for people. Not sure what to call it yet or exactly how it will manifest, but it will be very, very cool to be part of.

Make 2009 the Year of Good Design.

-pnl