Had Good Search Lately?

March 27th, 2008 22 Comments

I’m a neat person, but I’ve always had a cluttered desk. Growing up, my mother would frequently remind me to make it neat and tidy.

Not much has changed, except now my desk has less room for paper clutter as much of it is taken up by dual monitors and various gadgets. My clutter has taken on digital forms as a disorganized file system and a giant, flat inbox.

As a knowledge worker, I’ve spent years amassing information in digital form. I don’t like to delete anything even remotely useful, lest I find a need for it in the future. Cheap disk space has encouraged this proclivity, so now, I have gigabytes of files and email.

Years ago, I used to keep my inbox and file system organized. Creating folders for projects and incessantly filing emails and files. This created a sense of accomplishment, like Paul’s empty inbox theory, but inevitably, the goal of neatness overwhelmed the usefulness of filing. I found myself wasting time deciding on where to file an email, just to reach that empty inbox goal.

So, several years ago, I abandoned filing and went with a flat inbox, which is now around 25,000 emails. I still file documents, but only in the biggest buckets I can manage. Now, my biggest challenge is search.

The only reason to file objects is to expedite recovering them when needed. Search used to be so rudimentary that finding emails or documents took forever, if it worked at all. Fast forward to the present, and Google has raised the search ante for all things digital.

For me, search should replace organization. My ability to find something is only as good as my memory of where I put it. Search needs to augment my memory.

As information proliferates, knowledge workers waste more time trying to find it. If you’re paid to analyze information, but you spend more time collecting information, you’ve got a problem.

The problem for search is that it’s as attractive as a bag of hammers. Very few application designers think about search first, trust me, and this is primarily because users don’t see search as a requirement. So, search gets bolted at the end of the design process.

Google designs some of its products with search in mind, e.g. GMail’s threading makes it so much easier to find related mail without even using a search box. This is an example of building search into the product as a core requirement. Interestingly, Paul Buchheit, the first developer on GMail, is one of the founders of early adopter darling FriendFeed, which launched without any search at all. They added it recenlty, leading me to wonder about the design process.

You’d think Google would have the whole “search as a core requirement” piece down by now, but why then did it take so long to get search in Google Reader?

I’ve come to think that after you have a product idea that your focus should be: 1) on making the UI simple, fast and optimally functional and 2) on fast search and recovery of objects. All the other stuff should work within those design paradigms.

The single search box has become the paradigm for all search, thanks to Google, even if it’s not always the best way to find objects within a product. Take GMail for example. If I remember correctly, GMail didn’t initially have a search box, but it’s always has the threading feature. I wonder if they bolted on the search box later. Users have come to expect a single search box

Good search is awesome. I use the search in Reader all the time to find old content, and FriendFeed’s search is equally useful. I use Google Desktop to search my mail and files on Windows and Apple’s Spotlight for this on Mac. All of these are effective instances of the good old search box.

By the way, I know building products is hard. I do that for a living.

So, after a rambling post, what do you think about search as a design principle?


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22 Responses to “Had Good Search Lately?”

  1. Tim Says:

    Dude
    You need Google desktop and its search engine – just turn off the rest of the crap. Takes a little while to index but Ctrl-Ctrl gets me a search box for all my mail and other files – I’d be lost without it.
    Just did a quick search for ‘Jake’ and got me a whole host of ‘email dirt’ I can use on you ;0)

  2. Tim Says:

    Dude
    You need Google desktop and its search engine – just turn off the rest of the crap. Takes a little while to index but Ctrl-Ctrl gets me a search box for all my mail and other files – I’d be lost without it.
    Just did a quick search for ‘Jake’ and got me a whole host of ‘email dirt’ I can use on you ;0)

  3. Marian Says:

    Al Gore is saving the planet from overheating caused by greedy corporations. What is your excuse for a messy desk?

  4. Marian Says:

    Al Gore is saving the planet from overheating caused by greedy corporations. What is your excuse for a messy desk?

  5. Jake Says:

    @Tim: Yup, Ctrl-Ctrl “dexter” yields a nice amount of email on you too. I don’t like it on Mac though, prefer Spotlight. Oddly (or not), I tried the Windowz version of desktop search and hated it vs. Google Desktop.

  6. Jake Says:

    @Tim: Yup, Ctrl-Ctrl “dexter” yields a nice amount of email on you too. I don’t like it on Mac though, prefer Spotlight. Oddly (or not), I tried the Windowz version of desktop search and hated it vs. Google Desktop.

  7. Jake Says:

    @Marian: Apparently Al is storing all the waste from those corporations on his own desk, while he figures out what to do with it. His triple LCD monitors are outstanding though. I guess these are the perks of an ex-VP, Nobel Laureate.

    Sadly, I have nothing in the way of excuses other than my desire for chaotic order.

  8. Jake Says:

    @Marian: Apparently Al is storing all the waste from those corporations on his own desk, while he figures out what to do with it. His triple LCD monitors are outstanding though. I guess these are the perks of an ex-VP, Nobel Laureate.

    Sadly, I have nothing in the way of excuses other than my desire for chaotic order.

  9. Gretchen Says:

    “Search needs to augment my memory”

    Great definition.

  10. Gretchen Says:

    “Search needs to augment my memory”

    Great definition.

  11. Jake Says:

    @Gretchen: Thanks. I neglected to mention that an equally important requirement for search is discovery. So, refined:

    Search needs to augment my memory and help me discover new information.

  12. Jake Says:

    @Gretchen: Thanks. I neglected to mention that an equally important requirement for search is discovery. So, refined:

    Search needs to augment my memory and help me discover new information.

  13. Sarah Says:

    In “Everything is Miscellaneous” Weinberger talks about searching rather than sorting. Things can be sorted in so many ways that it’s much more efficient to avoid choosing just one way of doing it.

    Maybe we are still used to sorting because that’s the way it has to work with physical items. As people become more used to digitization and infinite copies of things, search will become more and more critical and less likely to be an ‘afterthought’ in design.

  14. Sarah Says:

    In “Everything is Miscellaneous” Weinberger talks about searching rather than sorting. Things can be sorted in so many ways that it’s much more efficient to avoid choosing just one way of doing it.

    Maybe we are still used to sorting because that’s the way it has to work with physical items. As people become more used to digitization and infinite copies of things, search will become more and more critical and less likely to be an ‘afterthought’ in design.

  15. Jake Says:

    @Sarah: Interesting. We tried to offer more filters as part of the Mix UI to avoid having to have heavy search, but it seems like there’s always another filter that makes sense.

    To your point, good search allows for more flexible sorting through its algorithm.

  16. Jake Says:

    @Sarah: Interesting. We tried to offer more filters as part of the Mix UI to avoid having to have heavy search, but it seems like there’s always another filter that makes sense.

    To your point, good search allows for more flexible sorting through its algorithm.

  17. ChrisRowell Says:

    So on the email thing, my question is this.

    How do you search for the email you glanced at and decided to address later? I assume you have tons of unread messages in your inbox, and I assume that you do not recall how many of these “I’ll do it later” messages you have or even what they were about.

    I still do the old filing method so that my inbox is just the: gotta do something about this.

  18. ChrisRowell Says:

    So on the email thing, my question is this.

    How do you search for the email you glanced at and decided to address later? I assume you have tons of unread messages in your inbox, and I assume that you do not recall how many of these “I’ll do it later” messages you have or even what they were about.

    I still do the old filing method so that my inbox is just the: gotta do something about this.

  19. Chris Says:

    I’m like you. I use spotlight to find what I need on my Mac and google is my home page.

    Unlike you I am a naturally messy person and often find myself in my shed wishing I could google that #2 philips bit……

  20. Chris Says:

    I’m like you. I use spotlight to find what I need on my Mac and google is my home page.

    Unlike you I am a naturally messy person and often find myself in my shed wishing I could google that #2 philips bit……

  21. Jake Says:

    @ChrisRowell: Actually, my version of the 0 inbox is reading and taking action on all the mail that’s new. I do that as it comes in (if I have time) or periodically (if I’m busy). I can tell at a glance if something is relevant or not. Irrelevant email never gets opened.

    When I have a bunch of unread stuff that will require work, I change TBird’s view to show only unread to minimize the chaos.

    @Chris: Funny. I love Spotlight, but I never go to Google’s home. I use the search box in Firefox to skip that step. IE7 and Safari have one as well.

    If you search a lot, this will save you time.

    It can’t be long until there’s a physical way to index your belongings to find them later, like calling your cell phone when it’s buried in the house somewhere. Tools are a great sample application.

  22. Jake Says:

    @ChrisRowell: Actually, my version of the 0 inbox is reading and taking action on all the mail that’s new. I do that as it comes in (if I have time) or periodically (if I’m busy). I can tell at a glance if something is relevant or not. Irrelevant email never gets opened.

    When I have a bunch of unread stuff that will require work, I change TBird’s view to show only unread to minimize the chaos.

    @Chris: Funny. I love Spotlight, but I never go to Google’s home. I use the search box in Firefox to skip that step. IE7 and Safari have one as well.

    If you search a lot, this will save you time.

    It can’t be long until there’s a physical way to index your belongings to find them later, like calling your cell phone when it’s buried in the house somewhere. Tools are a great sample application.

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