Microsoft Research recently revealed a new interface, called SearchBar, for tracking Advanced Searches. It’s pretty cool. The video is a must see for anyone interested in next-generation search. And the PDF is solid detail well worth the read. [You might also want to see their other Search UI innovations.]
The new SearchBar addresses a lot of the needs I’ve been talking about for Advanced Searches, although with some slight variations and a few key missing ingredients, which I’ll be talking about soon. (Hint: it’s not quite a User Driven Search solution.)
What’s great about SearchBar is how thoroughly Microsoft has investigated the value of managing Advanced Searches explicitly. Although the simplicity of the Google-style keyword search has empowered a generation of people to find what they need online, it essentially breaks down for Searches that pass a certain threshold of complexity. Searches that take us to multiple search providers and last more than a few minutes, even days or weeks, are essentially managed in whatever ad-hoc way we can find: we keep it in our heads, open in new tabs, cut & paste into Word, bookmark, print to PDF, whatever works.
One of the hard questions we’ve been facing at SwitchBook is how can we simplify that complexity enough so Mom & Grandma will be able to use our software. This is particularly challenging in light of data from Jacob Neilson showing that for a shockingly high percentage of people, just getting to Google is hard. Read that again. In a recent study, 24% of “above average” Internet users failed to reach Google despite a stated desire to do so.
That seems crazy to those of us who earn our living online in some fashion, but this is the crazy truth of the mainstream Internet user. These are the folks who turn a blogosphere buzz into a $200 million acquisition or billion dollar IPO. Folks need it simple. No, even simpler than that. Nope. Think again. EVEN SIMPLER. 24% couldn’t get to Google. Amazing.
So, we can build a solution for Complex Searches. We can provide software with a great interface that does all sorts of amazing things. But how, oh how, do we remove the complexity so that the average Grandma can use it?
Well, that’s the $640 million question. I like the work Microsoft has done so far. Much better than anything from Google in this area. Even better, they published the results of their user testing. It is excellent validation that smarter tools improve search efficiency for Complex Search. Read the paper when you get a chance.
It is truly groundbreaking research, even if the technology is straightforward. I look forward to it translating to groundbreaking consumer education. After all, it was only a few years ago that Internet email and Microsoft Word seemed impossibly complex for Mom & Grandma. Today, we’ve both simplified the tools and educated users enough for both of those applications to pass into mainstream use. As far as I’m concerned, every dollar Microsoft spends educating the public about the value of Advanced Search tools, the easier it will be for people to understand the SwitchBook value proposition.
[Update 5/3/2009 : changed “Complex Search” to “Advanced Search”. Changed “user-centric Search” to “User Driven Search.”]