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Peter Morville’s Keynote at Enterprise Search Summit

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This morning’s Enterprise Search Summit keynote was by Peter Morville, who has written a number of best-selling books about information architecture. I’ve known Peter for a while and had the pleasure of serving as a reviewer for his latest book, Search Patterns, but had never seen him present this material live. As you can see from his slides, Peter’s presentation style is incredibly visual–almost all of his slides are screenshots or illustrations explaining his concepts. It makes for a great presentation, but a difficult text summary!

The focus of his talk, naturally, was patterns. Specifically, he advocated that we take the behavior patterns of information seekers that library and information scientists have been studying for years, and use them to inform design patterns for search user interfaces.

One point he raised that deserves a deeper dive: number of media (mobile, kiosk, TV) environments push people to browse, partly because of limitations of the medium but also taking advantage of the novelty and relative lack of user habits. Unfortunately, browsing doesn’t always scale in those environments, so search is usually available as a contingency.

Interestingly, while Peter promotes rich interfaces in many of his patterns, he noted that great results ranking plus speedy response (he uses Google “classic” as his example) does allow users to rapidly reformulate their queries while staying in the flow of the information seeking experience. He returned to Google later in his talk, noting that the new interface goes beyond ranking to support a richer user interaction.

And, like me and Marti Hearst (yesterday’s keynote), Peter advocates faceted navigation (I won’t quibble on whether to call it navigation or search) as his favorite search design pattern. He uses the NCSU library as an example not only of a great implementation but also of an organization that continues to experiment with incremental design changes. He also showed faceted search examples from other domains, including Amazon and Buzzilions.

Other patterns he discusses included question answering (his example being Wolfram Alpha) and decision making (his example being Hunch). He didn’t go deep on these, but rather invited the audience to consider a broad palette of strategies for supporting information seeking. Indeed, when I asked him about question answering, he conceded that he was a skeptic and preferred a conversational (i.e., HCIR) approach akin to a librarian’s reference interview.

His closing note was about bridging the gap between physical and digital information, where he offered a potpourri of examples (from Redbox to a tweeting plant). I work in local search, so in my case he’s preaching to the converted. But I think he’s right that everything is only recently coming together–specifically, the ubiquity of digital data on the internet and of mobile devices in the physical world that can both consume and produce that data. Many of us take these developments for granted, but it’s important that we adapt our approach to search to address what is a very recent phenomenon.

Fun stuff! I didn’t get to attend the rest of the summit, but I encourage you to check out the tweet stream at #ESS10.

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