Search is the Web's fun and wicked problem

"Search Patterns" author Peter Morville looks at the next wave of search and reveals the one innovation that led to a watershed moment

Peter MorvilleSearch is the Web’s most powerful and frustrating tool. It’s the conduit to unfathomable amounts of information, yet it requires a fair degree of user education to reach its full potential. It’s odd that something so important is so hard to harness.

And it’s not going to get easier anytime soon. We may think of search as static and mature because we’ve used those ubiquitous boxes for years. But it’s a tool in flux. Developments in mobile, augmented reality, and social graphs — to name a few — signal big changes ahead.

Peter Morville, co-author of “Search Patterns” and a long-time observer of the search domain, looks at the next wave of search in the following Q&A. He shows how “weird ideas” will shape search’s future, and he also reveals the one recent innovation that unlocked a watershed moment for search (it’s not what you’d expect).

Mac Slocum: You’ve called search the “worst usability problem on the Web.” Why is that? What makes it so bad?

Peter Morville: Search is a strange attractor that draws repeat visitors despite poor performance. In the 1990s, Jared Spool proved that when people were banned from using the search interfaces of major e-commerce sites, their success rates improved. But when given the chance, these same folks would choose to use search again and again. This hearkens back to research at IBM in the 1980s showing that users never read manuals. It’s called the “paradox of the active user” and we experience it every time we drive off for a new destination without consulting a map. Instead of taking time to understand the territory and chart an optimal course, we prefer the illusion of speed and simplicity. So we search.

And thanks to Google, Web search works pretty well for basic lookup. But, cross over to categories like e-commerce, enterprise, desktop, mobile, social, and realtime search, and performance falls off a cliff. That’s because search is a really hard problem that relies on language as a bridge. A few keywords can’t provide sufficient insight into the searcher’s intent. They just can’t. So, search isn’t as simple as the box. Search is a complex, adaptive system and an iterative, interactive experience. For designers, it’s a wicked problem, and that’s why it’s so much fun.

MS: Where will future search innovations come from?

PM: In “Search Patterns,” I write about averted vision or “the art of seeing distant objects by looking to their periphery.” This astronomical analogy serves as a powerful reminder that forecasting isn’t simply a matter of extrapolation.

The future of search isn’t Google + 1. To get real-time search, we had to invent Twitter. And to achieve real-world search, an inevitable extension of augmented reality, we’ll need to leapfrog from iPhones to iGlasses, and infuse our surroundings with sensors and spime. So, to anticipate changes in what we search and how we search, we should keep an eye out for emerging technologies and weird ideas that aren’t labeled or categorized as search. In other words, we must look away to see.

MS: Can you point to any examples that satisfy your conclusion that search works best as a conversation?

PM: Here’s a typical scenario. I go to Amazon and ask for a camera.

“What sort of camera would you like?” replies Amazon. “Film, digital, or video?”

I reply that I’m looking for a digital camera.

“Did you have a particular brand in mind? How many megapixels? What can you afford?”

Of course, we don’t converse in natural language. Instead, Amazon suggests related searches and displays a dynamic, personalized map to my search results in the form of faceted navigation. But, the experience is similar to a conversation. It’s iterative and interactive and offers rich opportunities for learning. At its best, search doesn’t simply serve up answers. It helps us formulate the right questions.

MS: On the mobile search side, have you seen any device that takes full advantage of sensors, accelerometers, GPS, speech recognition, etc.?

PM: Mobile search is in its infancy, and it’s already so damn interesting. The opportunity is huge and qualitatively different than anything we’ve seen before. Augmented reality applications on today’s iPhone and Android devices offer the barest glimpse of where we’re going. It’s pretty cool that I can stand on a street corner in Savannah and search for restaurants or hunt for ghosts through the looking glass of my iPhone’s camera. But we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s waiting to be found at the crossroads of sensors, search, and the Internet of Things.

MS: What do you make of the argument that social search — Facebook, Twitter, “recommendations,” etc. — poses a threat to Google?

Peter Morville: I don’t view Facebook and Twitter as terrible threats to Google, although they’re clearly forcing changes such as the inclusion of social filters and realtime results within the Web search experience.

I think “social search” is a fascinating topic. As research at Microsoft has shown, we often search together. And, social network platforms are making it easier to invoke search as a shout. We can ask our followers on Twitter instead of querying via Google. If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend this presentation by Brynn Evans and Will Evans about designing for sociality in enterprise search. There’s lots to learn. That said, traditional search remains a tremendously efficient way to find, learn, and act. And, it will keep getting bigger and better. I don’t recommend selling short on Google.

MS: Is there a disconnect between search designers and search engineers?

PM: Typically, designers are close to the users. We understand needs and behavior. Engineers are close to technology. They understand what’s possible. We can learn a lot from each other. In fact, I’d argue that search is an unusually interdisciplinary challenge that requires collaboration across the established silos of design, engineering, and marketing. It’s precisely because of these silos that search is often so bad. We need to work together. It’s not easy. It’s even wicked hard. But there’s simply no other way to make search better.

MS: What can users do to improve search?

PM: The real responsibility rests with parents and teachers. I’m convinced that information literacy is among the most important subjects we can teach our kids. They must learn where to search and how to evaluate what they find. Wikipedia, for instance, can catalyze great conversations with our children about authority and trust. In a world where we can increasingly select our sources and choose our news, these analytical skills are mission critical. And, better searchers will make search better. Their behavior will offer valuable feedback that will in turn improve the interfaces and algorithms of tomorrow’s tools for search and discovery.

MS: What’s the difference between search patterns and search engine optimization? Is it about making search work for users as opposed to direct revenue?

PM: SEO is a valuable but narrow lens through which to view search. While it’s important to optimize for Google, Web search isn’t the only way we find. Users also rely on a site’s information architecture and its unique search and navigation systems to find what they need.

Plus, search isn’t only about findability. We created a searcher’s edition of the user experience honeycomb to argue that search must also be useful, usable, desirable, accessible, credible, and valuable. It’s that last point that speaks to revenue. To create value, we must strike the right balance between the needs of users and business, so that our design advances the mission and improves both top and bottom lines.

MS: How does “Search Patterns” connect to your earlier work on “Ambient Findability” and “Information Architecture“?

Peter Morville: The polar bear book explains information architecture from top to bottom. It’s a very practical text. In contrast, the lemur book is an undisciplined exploration of ambient findability, a future at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet, in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at any time. It’s conceptual and provocative. I like to think of the butterfly book as the love child of the polar bear and the lemur. It offers practical advice for designers while simultaneously provoking readers to think differently about search.

Of course, every child must be unique, and “Search Patterns” is no exception. Jeff [Callender] and I collaborated intensively to create a new kind of book that brings search and discovery to life with colorful and surprising illustrations. And, we’ve made them all available online at, so that you can use them in your efforts to make search better.

MS: What’s been the best search/UI development of the last 3-5 years? What really opened things up?

PM: Autocomplete is an old pattern from the desktop that’s found new life in Web and mobile search. Once relegated to the musty modules of “help” in desktop software, autocomplete is now part of our everyday experience. It’s a great answer to the question: why wait for results? It saves time and typos by serving up suggested searches or destinations while we’re still entering our query. And, it’s a simple design pattern with powerful potential. For instance, Yahoo complements basic autocomplete with an offer to explore related concepts. By analyzing query-query reformulation data and post-query browse behavior, Yahoo is able to suggest similar queries that don’t even contain the original keywords. We can find what we didn’t know to seek.

So, what really opened things up? I’d argue it was Google Maps. All of a sudden, designers realized what could be done with programming frameworks like Ajax, and autocomplete was simply one of many interaction design patterns that flourished on the Web soon after that watershed moment.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

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