Future Search Requires Human Intervention

The business of organizing information is a tricky one in that it’s a moving target. It’s hard to tell what will be the next hot topic or consumer need, and the contribution of digital information is not necessarily bound by the structure and rules of those needing that information. Second, the mechanisms by which we wish to access and use information are constantly changing. The world in 2050 won’t be PowerPoint presentations, heat maps and csv exports, just as 1950’s world wasn’t all emails, tweets, and search engines. Lastly, with the emergence and growth of social media and networking, information contribution has dramatically increased. Without providing the statistics, it’s well known that more people are online, and more people are hitting a “Submit”, “Post”, “Send”, or “Tweet” button than ever before. As a result, there are more pieces of information, more individual topics, more ways to categorize information, more uses for information, more ways to see information, and more unknowns about that information than ever before.

That being said, it’s important to not be unnerved by this. Collectively, we are smart enough to guide search technology in the right direction, or at least put it in the right place so that its path is optimized for future generations. And collectively, we are smart enough to ensure that the ways we use information will publicly provide guidance to the development of a optimal suite of available tools for effective visualization and communication. That being said, by focusing on the relative near-term, emerging trends can be detected, understood, and leveraged for advancement in the business of organizing information. Gaining an edge on future trends brings tremendous value and exactly that – edge. Among other methods, the detection of such trends requires quantitative analysis mixed with psychology, history, and good ol’ intuition.

In terms of finding information (and more importantly, relevant information), most people think simple search. Or maybe more specifically, they think Boolean search with some available advanced search options. It’s Google, Bing, Wolfram|Alpha, or some other engine – typing in some logical query, occasionally setting some supporting filters, scrolling through the first ten results, and settling on what looks best by some meta data. This certainly works today, and these search engines may be sufficiently wrapping their arms around the influx of new and changing information. But soon technology reaches a limit. The responsibility must shift back to the human. As the informational requirements become more complex and the underlying data become more specialized, relevancy must become more human-driven. We can’t rely completely on technology to provide us with answers.

This notion is two-fold:

  1. Future queries needs more human input. This means “advanced search” needs to become part of “normal search”. Spending 3 seconds to check a box could save 3 minutes in scanning results. You can obviously set defaults for your regular search, but I’d be interested to see stats on the use of type of search vs time spent scanning results. The distance between the two will only grow with the ever-accelerating growth of internet content.
  2. Future content needs more human organization. About.com, Wikipedia.org, and howstuffworks.com are great examples of this. They are sites that show up in search results that organize information. Wired Magazine had a good article last month on About.com as an “answer factory” (in fact, their motto is “Guidance. Not Guesswork” – I love that). These sites organize thought and mimic the human mind looking for an answer to a question, not a query. Websites and blogs need to organize information about information, and as a result we can increase transferable knowledge and decrease search time.

It’s obvious but important to note that people collectively drive relevancy through thought. Trend topics in Twitter, News Feed on Facebook, Google Hot Trends, etc. are driven by fingers on a keyboard, which are driven by synapses in the brain, which are driven by actions and observations, which are driven by circumstance – and maybe even fate. Technology should not drift too far away or we’ll lose access to the very knowledge we create.