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Steal These Ideas!

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Talk is cheap, as the saying goes. That’s a good thing, since I am always overflowing with ideas that I have neither the time (I love my day job!) nor the money to advance. What I do have is a blog that I hope inspires readers to turn some of these ideas into reality.

My ideas are somewhat predictable, in that they all address user-centric information-seeking problems. Working for over a decade in this space has focused my intellectual curiosity somewhat — and of course I work on a number of these problems at LinkedIn. But there are many information-seeking problems that are outside of my present or foreseeable scope.

Here are two ideas that I’m hoping someone will execute on so I don’t have to:

1. Shopping: Help Me Figure Out What I Want

We’ve come a long way to improve the shopping experience, at least for utilitarian shoppers like yours truly. If I know exactly what I want, I usually find it by using Google as a gateway to Amazon, taking a bit more time if I’m feeling price-sensitive. I’d happily install a browser extension that could automatically detect product search queries and take them to my preferred shopping sites, bypassing the search results page, but that’s a minor detail of convenience (though probably not such a minor detail for the search engine companies). In any case, known-item search for online shopping is hardly inspiring as an open problem.

Exploratory search is another story entirely. For all the work that’s been done on faceted search, it is used almost exclusively to help people narrow search results. Progressive narrowing is great if you have a pre-established information need, but it is not the best interface if you’re hoping to evolve your information need through exploration. Instead of just “help me find what I’m looking for”, I’d also like to see more “help me figure out what I want”. I’d like to see an innovator applying faceted search to broaden queries, not just to narrow them, as well as going beyond collaborative filtering and “related items” to create a compelling browsing experience based on semantic and social navigation.

2. Organizing the World’s Information: Beyond Wikipedia and Navigational Queries

If shopping online often reduces to using Google to find product pages on Amazon, then informational queries similarly reduce to using Google to find Wikipedia entries. Nothing against Wikipedia — I think it is one of the most extraordinary achievements of our generation — but I think of the web as a library and Wikipedia as its encyclopedia section. Google’s mission statement notwithstanding, web search engines do a poor job of organizing the rest of the world’s information, instead choosing to optimize for known-item search.

There are countless opportunities for improvement here. Imagine if there were an interface for books, scholarly articles, patents, music, or videos that supported browsing and exploration of their content and meta-data. We’ve seen the beginnings of such an approach for individual libraries (e.g., the Triangle Research Libraries Network), but there is so much more to do in this space. Perhaps it’s a space that is hard to monetize, but even then I’d expect philanthropists to take an interest in making the world’s knowledge and creative artifacts more accessible.

If you are pursuing either of these areas, I’d love to hear about it. I’m sure readers here would too. I’m also curious to learn more about innovation in the travel and personals spaces, as those are both areas that could benefit from supporting exploratory search. And if you have work in progress, please present it at the HCIR workshop!

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