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We’re All Different. Why Aren’t Our Search Options?
Our online activity is about to be spread over more and more devices. This opens up some interesting implications for UI design. More and more, we’ll be launching queries from more places that will have different environmental challenges. For example:
- What does search look like in a busy train station in Frankfurt, Germany?
- What does search look like when it comes from someone driving a car on a freeway in LA?
- What does search look like when it comes from a person walking down a street in mid-town Manhattan?
- What does search look like when it’s launched from a person slouched on a couch with their iPad, half paying attention to the TV in the corner?
I venture to say none of these searches look much like the search we launch when we’re sitting at a desk in front of a computer. And even then, the search we launch from a desktop at home could look significantly different than the search we launch at work.
Many people, one search interface
But let’s dive even deeper. Right now, the search my daughter launches from our home computer looks different than the search I launch. And the search my wife launches is different from both of those. Yet, we all launch those searches through the same interface and see the same presentation of results. Why?
Take men and women. You can segment the human population a number of ways, but probably the most divergent slice is according to gender. Our brains are literally built differently. Much as we try to be politically correct, men and women are fundamentally different, and that’s a good thing. So why are we using the same search engine?
I know from doing years of usability work that men and women interact with online information in unique ways. We navigate a page differently. We look at things in different sequences. We react differently to images. I was one of the few that said, when rumors surfaced about Ask.com becoming a search engine for women, that it was a great idea. Why should both sexes, so fundamentally different in so many wonderful ways, be forced into the same compromised search experience?
A journal written in search terms
Search is intensely personal. It’s a reflection of who we are and what we want to do in our lives. I was blown away by the intimate nature of search when Google first introduced search history. I wanted to experiment with it, so I enabled it and then promptly forgot that I was signed in. Google obediently tracked my every search for almost two months until something tweaked my memory and I realized I was creating a personal journal, written in search. I looked at my search history and realized, “Wow, somebody reading this would know more about the past two months of my life than even my wife does!” There, query by query, was a detailed record of my thoughts, my goals, my passing fancies and my day-to-day activities. Yes, you had to do some filling in between the lines, but far less than I would have thought.
So, if search is this tightly woven into our lives, why isn’t it more personal? Why do we struggle with interfaces that don’t “get” us? Part of it is explained by the fact that search is still young. All the search players fully acknowledge this. Part of it is explained by the need to reduce capabilities to the lowest common denominator to ensure functionality and compatibility. And part of it is simply that we don’t ask for more from search. We are satisfied. I see all of these things coming to a rather abrupt end. We’re on the cusp of a tremendous change.
Take the iPad for example. What does search look like when it’s launched from a much more tactile device than a computer—one that’s driven by touch? Will we be more apt to sort, filter and tweak our results when we can do so with a few strokes of our fingertips? I suspect so. Or what about the mobile form factor? We already know that input and output are significant bottlenecks in the mobile search experience, yet we’re trying to squeeze functionality through what is essentially the same old interface, in miniature.
Increasingly, the web lives behind more and more screens: entertainment screens, communication screens, navigation screens and information screens. Our online touch points are becoming contextually sensitive, embedded in unique and demanding environments. Our online experiences have to evolve to match.
This is what I call personalization
And even if search adapts to specific screens in the specific contexts, we’re still not all the way there. Then we have to personalize search, so my daughter has a different search experience on the iPhone than I do. My wife should see her search results on our wired home entertainment device in a different way than I do. And search can’t take the easy way out, asking us to customize our search experiences. Search has to be smart enough to “get” us and do the personalization transparently in the background.
Google has long said that search should be like the computer on Star Trek, where you can ask any question and get a relevant answer. I think it goes even beyond that. Search should not only know the right answers but should help you do the things you need to do, quickly, easily and painlessly. Search, at its most powerful, should be the friend who knows everything and the assistant who can do everything, with minimal guidance from you.
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