Everything smart is dumb again

Once upon a time, Google made the dumb interface look like the smartest thing to ever hit the Internet. By removing the blizzard of navigation that characterized Excite and Yahoo — and by actually delivering reliable search results — Google removed huge hurdles for millions of users. Still, Google-style search is far from the end of the road; it has always had limitations and drawbacks, and it seems like these things are cropping up a lot in conversations and in the media recently.

Just yesterday, my team and I heard something interesting during some research into a really complex system for analyzing corporate finances. When we asked what had been discovered in previous user research efforts, we were told:

Whatever we build has to be stone simple. It can't be like Google, where you type in how you think about it, and I type in what I think about it, and we both get different sets of results.

Constructing good Google search strings can seem like a black art, but individual users develop personal techniques and styles that help them get more reliable results. Still, the fact that others must craft their own path toward reliability creates a lack of confidence that others will get a similar view onto any given topic.

Search results: Skimming the surface

The act of sifting through results has also created some unique behaviors. Users need to parse them in order to find what they need, and there are a variety of parsing expectations, behaviors and processes that are changing the way that people absorb information. Some see it as somewhat ... Orwellian. The current Atlantic Monthly has an interesting cover story about the effects of search on our reading behaviors and mental capacities. The author attributes the Google-enabled ease of Internet search with a shift in the way that his own brain works:

My mind isn't going — so far as I can tell — but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore.

Andrew Sullivan at The Times echoes the above author's sentiments in a blog review of the article:

The experience of reading only one good book for a while, and allowing its themes to resonate in the mind, is what we risk losing. When I was younger I would carry a single book around with me for days, letting its ideas splash around in my head, not forming an instant judgment (for or against) but allowing the book to sit for a while, as the rest of the world had its say — the countryside or pavement, the crowd or train carriage, the armchair or lunch counter. Sometimes, human beings need time to think things through, to allow themselves to entertain a thought before committing to it.

These reading-related pains remind me of writers' critiques of word processors, and the growing popularity of interface-free tools like WriteRoom. There are certain behaviors that require some radical reconsideration of current UI norms. Few would propose that we go back to a pre-search world, but the question seems to be: How to appropriately apply UI and technical smarts to retrieval technologies to foster the confidence and comfort that comes from predictability and structure?