Monday, May 28, 2007

The search generation

A couple weeks ago Marissa Mayer unveiled Google's new universal search on the Googleblog. But... universal search? Last time I checked, we were still only indexing the internet (and some books that we put on the internet), not the universe. And lately I've actually been wishing that we did index more of the universe.

I'm sure kids my brother's age must be even worse about this than we are, but lately I've really been feeling like Nick and I are part of a generation of people who've had sufficient exposure to internet technologies (such as search) that they've become part of our daily way of thinking. The simple example is that each time my (parent-aged) co-worker asks me a question (including totally random stuff that I know absolutely nothing about), my first instinct is not to say "I don't know," but rather to go straight to Google and search on a few keywords. It seems like the most natural thing to me; while she's always a little taken aback and says "Funny, I never would have thought to use search," or "How do you even know which keywords to search for?"

Lately I've found this "search instinct" popping up more and more, in ways that seem to indicate that search has become less a tool that I use, and more of a way of thinking or interacting with the world. Like when I'm at a restaurant with a 14-page menu and I know just what I want to eat, but I don't know whether it's something they serve. Instead of trying to find it under the appropriate menu category (would chicken fried steak be under 'Entrées', 'Surf & Turf', or 'Homestyle Dinners'?), I just want to be able to search for [fried steak], and know in an instant whether they have it or not. Why can't I search for [avocado] and find all dishes whose name or description contains avocado? Why can't I search for [label:vegetarian] and get a submenu showing only vegetarian entrées, instead of having to page through the full menu looking for the little vegetable icon next to each dish?

Today we stood in front of the spice shelves at the grocery store looking for ground white pepper for a good 10 minutes. Do they really think they're making it easy for you by organizing the spices alphabetically within brand (McCormick A-Z, Penzey's A-Z, etc.) for the name-brands on the top shelves, and then by spice style (savory vs. sweet vs. leafy) on the bottom shelves? And of course the gourmet and bulk spices have their own section entirely... My fingers were itching to query for [white pepper] and be done with it.

Y'know those handheld devices that're all the rage in HCI experiments these days, where you walk around the museum and it tells you about whatever exhibit you're standing in front of? The completely personalized, interactive guided tour? The grocery stores should work on a similar technology, a little hand-held (they could mount them on shopping carts) where you enter search queries and it guides you to the precise location of the item you're looking for. Or tells you whether they're out of it at the moment. This would've been really nice to have when they re-organized the whole layout of our grocery store last month, so that we had no idea where anything was anymore. Or when we had to get two stockers, a cashier, a sommelier, and a manager involved in order to find out whether they carried minute tapioca pearls.

Now that's what I'd call universal search.

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