Towards User Driven Search

It is time to give users more control over Search.

At VRM2008 in Munich and at IIW in Mountain View, I started a conversation about User-Driven Search, the premise: what would it mean for users to truly drive their searches?

User-driven is a new term that came out of the VRM community riffing on the meaning of user-centric development and user-centric identity. User-centric is a nice term, but it could be construed as limiting. For example, user –centric definitely implies that that the user is at the center of attention and the focus of the architecture, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the user is in charge of the experience. That’s a key distinction.

tuna saladNot just tuna salad

Adriana explains this difference between user-centric and user-driven as metaphorically the difference between buying ready-made tuna salad or picking and choosing your own ingredients and making the tuna salad yourself. When I first talked with Doc about user-driven instead of user-centric, Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show immediately sprang to mind: from birth, Truman is the protagonist in a huge reality show revolving around him… only he doesn’t know it. The climax of the show is Truman discovering the rest of the world and confronting his father/producer. Clearly the Truman Show is Truman-centric… but it is most definitely not Truman-driven.

It’s about impetus and authority

For me, user-driven means that the user provides the impetus and is the controlling authority throughout the transaction. Sure, sometimes there is negotiation or collaboration with others… the user isn’t omnipotent, after all. However, the user is in charge of creating his or her own experience. This fits with user-constructed or customized solutions, like the tuna salad recipe. However, it has implications far beyond the limits user-created or user-customizable architectures.

ordering from menuIs the user initiating the experience? Is the user’s moral authority the primary control throughout the system? Is the system transparent to users, enabling them to make their own informed decisions about what will be presented to them and how it is presented? Is it the user who is shaping the input, intermediary results, and final outcome? If so, then it is user-driven. If not, it isn’t.

When it comes to the tuna salad metaphor, this is the equivalent of the tuna salad being made when I ask for it and on my terms. Not before. And although I could choose to make the salad myself–that is definitely user-driven–it could also be made by someone else to my specifications… extra mayo and black pepper, no onions, thank you.

Search as user-driven

GoogleGoogle’s keyword query-response approach to Search is, of course, user-driven to some extent. Nothing happens until the user enters a query, users are free to enter any query, and the system responds with results tailored for exactly what the user queried. The user does shape the experience to a limited degree. And yet, it still provides only a slim façade of user control. There is no way to modulate the algorithm, no way to let Google know which results are good or bad, and no way to refine the search other than keyword guessing games. And, perhaps most importantly, there is no way to manage the search beyond the immediate query. For that, the user is dependent on other techniques: bookmarking, cut & paste, opening multiple windows or tabs, even printing to paper or PDF to keep track of good finds. Evolution in Search History management is starting in the right direction, but the ideas here have been rather uninspiring so far.

User-driven systems create value inherently

Gold in BoxThe limits on the user-driven aspects of Google are particularly ironic given that it is precisely the element of user control that creates Google’s greatest asset: focused attention. Google’s money making asset is the collection of user-specified queries, queries that explicitly state words related to the user’s interest and implicitly denote user intent. It is precisely because the individual enters a specific keyword that Google is able to sell targeted ads… at great profit and benefit to advertisers and searchers alike.

The query entered in the Search box gives Google a implicit statement of intent. That intention is the gold Google resells to advertisers. If Google didn’t let users drive that intention, if they looked more like a content site or “Internet portal”, they’d have a lot less intention to monetize.

If we can extend that control, if we can make search even more user-driven, if we can enable richer, more explicit, more user-driven expressions of Search intent, I believe we can create even more value for everyone involved: search companies, advertisers, searchers, even non-paying websites showing up in “organic” results.

What does it mean to have User Driven Search?

At SwitchBook, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what User Driven Search might mean. I like starting the conversation with a simple example: what would it mean if I could take my search history from one search provider to another? This “dataportability” example is just an initial notion of how Search might become more user driven.

So, what do you think of when you hear (or read) “User Driven Search”?

I’ll be leading a session on this topic at the VRM Workshop next week. I hope you can join us.

This material is based, in part, upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0740861. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recomendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

[Update 5/3/2009: “user-driven Search” to “User Driven Search”

This entry was posted in ProjectVRM, User Driven Search, Vendor Relationship Management and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Towards User Driven Search

  1. AliciaWu says:

    Interesting topic…. Another aspect of search is how can we make it contextual to a user’s profile and attributes? For example, if I know that Francisco and Tara, my colleagues who are working on a similar project have done extensive search about a topic, why couldn’t we provide a mechanism for me to leverage the work that they have done? More importantly, I could also benefit from their knowledge and the question would be “How could I leverage the search history from my network that I trust? I’ll be attending the VRM Workshop this week and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  2. Joe says:


    I like that. One challenge of the PageRank approach is the reliance on authors of HTML documents to determine page quality. It is as if HTML coders (or content authors), who create the hyperlinks that drive “link juice” have been ordained into some arcane brotherhood in which they, and only they, have been granted the privilege of selecting which pages are more relevant than others.

    To be fair, the brilliance of PageRank is that it uses meta-data that already exists in the data-set. Hyperlinks are not just native to the web, they are that which defines the web itself. And yet, it fails to capture any wisdom that may be available in the behavioral patterns of other users. As such, it isn’t a particularly user-driven approach (unless you are looking purely at authors as users, in which case, the bottom-up, every link counts approach /is/ user-driven).

    As I mentioned when we talked today, I would respectfully challenge the notion that profiling or attributes are going to prove an effective context for refining search. Demographics and psychographics were statistical methods developed by marketers in the mass industrial, mass media, mass consumer era in order to make sense of the overwhelming numbers of customers and audience members accessible through the product and media distribution channels. They were shorthand techniques to try to get a sense of who your customers really were, because the very infrastructure of the era largely prevented direct contact.

    In fact, I would argue that for any given product, I’m most likely not like my fellows in my demographic segment. Or perhaps more accurately, it is precisely the ways I’m not like my demographic segment that make me interesting to marketers–because the traditional techniques will reach me just fine for those areas I do fit into the standard buckets. Fortunately, with the net and the age of one-to-one marketing, direct distribution, and even individual behavioral tracking online, companies can now participate and engage with individuals on a one-to-one basis. So, the indicators now for selecting which individuals you want to invest in further (specifically, invest product development and communications dollars for) can move beyond the statistical shorthand of demographic profiling to actual observed behavior on a finely grained basis.

    One approach to that is to use Search behavior to drive search results. That is, the fact that Francisco and Tara are “working on a similar project” is far more valuable than the fact that they are colleagues or share particular profile data. So, let’s drive search results based on what people are actually doing, rather than what labels or categories we can apply.

    It is an intriguing question if this is a notion that is inherently a part of user-driven search or if its just one of the many ways one can construct a user-driven recommendation engine.

    I’ll have to ponder that a bit and comment again in a future blog post.

  3. alecmuffett says:

    Um… Joe, how can you create something that’s inherent?

    Anyway – “User Driven” is a term that came out of *Adriana* to contrast against the former buzzphrase “User Centric” – the latter leaving too much room for Room-101-stylee “We know what’s good for the user and beatings will continue until their morale improves”.

    The victim of torture is very “centric” if you think about it.

    The Truman show is adequate for explaining what User-Driven is *not* – correct; but when you are talking about what User Driven specifically *is* you aren’t exactly talking “customisation” but instead “involvement” in getting what they want, often where that involvement equates to “getting what they want and simultaneously creating value.”

    Google search is user-driven like a Big-Mac is a-la carte; users search, but web-page authors add value.

    For user-driven, think Twitter, BitTorrent… without the users it would not merely have no market, it would have no content either.

  4. Joe says:

    Re: inherent, it is the value-creation of user-driven systems that is inherent. To the extent that systems refuse to be user-driven, they are leaving value on the table.

    As for user-driven search, that’s actual the term we used in our provisional patent filing in 2006. I liked Adriana’s distinctions around it, which her post credits to Bob Frankston. However, the user-as-chef remains, IMO, a fairly limited metaphor for user-driven systems. I think we might be in agreement on that, as I don’t believe “customization” is the end-all-be-all of user-driven, where it is at the core of Adriana’s usage. So, we may still disagree about what user-driven means, but I think we are in agreement that I’m talking about something substantially different than Adriana.

    I agree that Google is partially user-driven, but it is the ways in which it is not user-driven that are the interesting things to talk about. Which was the point of the post.

    I’m not sure why Twitter is user driven. I certainly can’t easily take my Twitters with me. It’s a silo pure and simple. one in which they have demonstrated a willingness to shut down API features at will.

    BitTorrent is definitely user-driven That’s a good example of a standard protocol enabling users to create immediate value. And we don’t even have to write our own client to use it.

  5. ragegirrl says:

    “I liked Adriana’s distinctions around it, which her post credits to Bob Frankston. However, the user-as-chef remains, IMO, a fairly limited metaphor for user-driven systems. I think we might be in agreement on that, as I don’t believe “customization” is the end-all-be-all of user-driven, where it is at the core of Adriana’s usage.”

    Actually, wrong on both counts. I came up with the term user-driven as an outcome of our argument where you as a vocal proponent of “coder is king” claim that you’ll have none of the user creater or driven crap. 🙂 Disturbed by this approach, I then talked to Bob about this, making a case for user-driven as a separate and different way of looking at design than user-centric. He suggested a handy metaphor to elaborate on that difference – the tuna salad that was served at the IIW buffet in Mountain View. Not perfect, but it did the trick. The conclusion I took away from that meeting was that user-centricity was not going to take care of what I know is happening on the web as driven by users. Eventually, I blogged it but have been working with this principle ever since, especially when desigining the Mine!.

    Secondly, I am not a fan of ‘customisation’, to put it mildly, and using that word in connection with my notion of user-driven is simply wrong. It is a much bigger concept that goes to the heart of the networked enviroment, the nature of identity and online interactions. I have been using the example of BitTorrent as a user-driven technology/tool for some time and it has more to do with the fact that it is a design native to the networked environment and collapses some other distrinctions and complexities built in applications that are not designed for the network – but that’s another conversations. Suffice to say that Alec is correct in saying that my idea of user-driven, at least in my mind, has far wider implications than what you suggest.

    Anyway, most of this is already in the original blog post and some other ones so not sure where you got that user-driven is about customisation and other bits that don’t fit what I wrote elsewhere.

    “The tools – blogs, wikis, feeds and feed readers, BitTorrent, Flickr, Dopplr, Twitter etc – are revolutionary not just because of their functionality, bits of code or their interface, but their design for usefulness, their modularity and constant evolution. There is an element of open-endedness in their design, either accidental or deliberate, recognising that the designers cannot foresee all the uses to which people will put the tools to. The simplicity is the key, the complexity coming from usage rather than the design. In other words, they are user-driven.

    A simple test of user-driven design is in the answer to a question – Can the user add value to it? Without users would pointless, BitTorrent empty and Flickr dead, Twitter silent.”

    Actually, having only now got around to looking at Zitrain book, the term he uses for this is generative technology – it’s pretty much what I had in mind with user-driven.

    “..the principle of “generativity” in technology: the capacity of some technology to allow its users to make new things out of it, things the designer never anticipated..”

    Hope this clarifies things a bit.

  6. Joe says:


    Thanks for the clarification. If you mean user-generativity when you say user-driven, I think we have agreement. That’s a fine characteristic to aim for and one that is definitely not part of what I had initially meant by “user-centric,” nor what I now mean by “user-driven.”

    However, my recollection of our argument was a bit different. First, I never said the coder is king. I believe you assumed that because I was working on what the coder can do to understand user needs. Second, I believe the conversation became an argument when you claimed that none of the work we had done in the last two days was “user-centric”. That was simply wrong. The techniques we had used came directly out of Constantine & Lockwood’s Software for Use: A Practical Guide to the Essential Models and Methods of Usage-Centered Design

    Obviously it didn’t fit your definition, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t user-centric. And since the subtleties we are discussing aren’t picking apart usage-centered verses user-centric, then perhaps we can start by accepting that use-case based development is a core methodology behind creating user-centric systems.

    I explained how customization is clearly at the core of the tuna-salad argument: that is precisely the “value” you suggest the user brings to the salad. And I agree with you, it isn’t a very useful way to think about what “user-driven” means. In fact, I would suggest the better metaphor for user-generative (or what you mean by “user-driven”) is the potlatch, potluck, or even burning man, where every individual is contributing something to the experience. Twitter certainly fits that mold, as do your other examples. My point wasn’t that your big picture vision was limited to customization, rather than the archetypal example you gave placed customization as the core value proposition. Perhaps you could update it by letting the user as chef bring their own ingredients and turn the salad into a tuna melt on rye.

    If we are in agreement that what you really mean is user-generative, perhaps we can get somewhere.

    What I mean by user-driven is that the user is driving the experience: their impulse and their moral authority directly shaping the experience. Not just adding value to the system, but actually driving the system. I think that’s a pretty straightforward definition and that’s why I began the conversation on my blog with a clear definition of what I mean, so people aren’t confused by the difference with your usage.

    Hopefully that clears up a rather confusing period of trying to figure out what each other meant.

  7. ragegirrl says:

    “Obviously it didn’t fit your definition, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t user-centric. And since the subtleties we are discussing aren’t picking apart usage-centered verses user-centric, then perhaps we can start by accepting that use-case based development is a core methodology behind creating user-centric systems.”

    Indeed! and that is why I felt the need to come up with the term user-driven. Bingo! 🙂

    And yes, driving the system via adding value to it, is the same thing. Adding value to the system by exercising your autonomy as an individual and adding value to your own data, interactions, transactions, relationships, etc, your entire experience online. That is what it means, from the start.

    This is the stuff I have covered on my blogs ever since I have started blogging…

  8. Pingback: What I think is wrong with #VRM – HT @nzn @glynmoody @windley @dsearls @adriana872 – dropsafe

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