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Search at the Speed of Thought

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A guiding principle in information technology has been to enable people to perform tasks at the “speed of thought”. The goal is not just to make people more efficient in our use of technology, but to remove the delays and distractions that make us focus on the technology rather than the tasks themselves.

For example, the principle motivation for the faceted search work I did at Endeca was to eliminate hurdles that discourage people from exploring information spaces. Most sites already offered user the ability to perform this exploration through advanced or parametric search interfaces–indeed, I recall some critics of faceted search objecting that it was nothing new. But there’s a reason that most of today’s consumer-facing sites place faceted search front and center while still relegating advanced search interfaces to an obscure page for power users. Faceted search offers users the fluidity and instant feedback that makes exploration natural for users. Once you’re used to it, it’s hard to live without it, whether your looking for real estate (compare Zillow.com to housing search on craigslist), library books (compare the Triangle Research Libraries Network to the Library of Congress), or art (compare to art.com to artnet).

Why is faceted search such a significant improvement over advanced or parametric search interfaces? Because it supports exploration at the speed of thought. If it takes you several seconds–rather than a single click–to refine a query, and if you have to repeatedly back off from pages with no results (aka dead ends), your motivation to explore a document collection fades quickly. But when that experience is fluid, you explore without even thinking about it. That is the promise (admittedly not always fulfilled) of faceted search.

Microsoft Live Labs director Gary Flake offered a similar message in his SIGIR 2010 keynote. He argued that we needed to replace our current discrete interactions with search engines into a mode of continuous, fluid interaction where the whole of data is greater than sum or parts. While he offered Microsoft’s Pivot client as an example of this vision, he could also have invoked the title of a book that Bill Gates wrote in 1999: Business @ the Speed of Thought. Indeed, anyone who has ever worked on data analysis understands that you ask fewer questions when you know you’ll have to wait for answers. Speed changes the way you interact with information.

And at Google, speed has been an obsession since day one. It makes the top 3 on the “Ten things we know to be true” list:

3. Fast is better than slow.

We know your time is valuable, so when you’re seeking an answer on the web you want it right away – and we aim to please. We may be the only people in the world who can say our goal is to have people leave our website as quickly as possible. By shaving excess bits and bytes from our pages and increasing the efficiency of our serving environment, we’ve broken our own speed records many times over, so that the average response time on a search result is a fraction of a second. We keep speed in mind with each new product we release, whether it’s a mobile application or Google Chrome, a browser designed to be fast enough for the modern web. And we continue to work on making it all go even faster.

People have made much of Google VP Marissa Mayer’s estimate that Google Instant will save 350 million hours of users’ time per year by shaving two to five seconds per search. That’s an impressive number, but I personally think it understates the impact of this interface change. Rather, I’m inclined to focus on a phrase I’ve seen repeatedly associated with Google Instant: “search at the speed of thought”.

What does that mean in practice? I see two major wins from Google Instant:

1) Typing speed and spelling accuracy don’t get in the way. For example, by the time you’ve typed [m n], you see results for M. Night Shyamalan, a name whose length and spelling might frustrate even his fans. A search for [marc z] offers results for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Admittedly, the pre-Instant type-ahead suggestions already got us most of the way there, but the feedback of actual results offers not just guidace but certainty.

2) Users spend less–and hopefully no time–in a limbo where they don’t know if the system has understood the information-seeking intent they have expressed as a query. For example, if I’m interested in learning more about the Bob Dylan song “Forever Young“, I might enter [forever young] as a search query–indeed, the suggestion shows up as soon as I’ve typed in “fore”. But a glance at the first few instant results for [forever young] makes it clear that there are lots of songs by this title (including those by Rod Stewart and Alphaville–as well as the recent Jay Z song “Young Forever” that reworks the latter). Realizing that my query is ambiguous, I type the single letter “d” and instantly see results for the Dylan song. Yes, I could have backed out from an unsuccessful query and then tried again, but instant feedback means far less frustration.

Google Instant also makes it a little easier for users to explore the space of queries related to their information need, but exploration through instant suggestions is very limited compared to using related searches or the wonder wheel–let alone what we might be able to do with faceted web search. I’d love to see this sort of exploration become more fluid, but I recognize the imperative to maintain the simplicity of the search box. Good for us HCIR folks to know that there’s still lots of work to do on search interface innovation!

But, in short, speed matters. Instant communication has transformed the way we interact with one another–both personally and professionally. Instant search is more subtle, but I think it will transform the way we interact with information on the web. I am very proud of my colleagues’ collective effort to make it possible.


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