As I often say to my audiences, “There is a big difference between searching and finding.” It’s along the same lines as the difference between shopping and buying, or fishing and catching. I’m not suggesting that one is “better” than the other, just that they are VERY different and often confused with each other. Apply this distinction to the Web, and I suspect that if we were to evaluate our current practices and time use, we’d see that we spend a LOT of time searching and not very much time finding.
My focus (some might say, "myopia") on metadata is because I believe it is one of the keystone elements that can make for better finding of “the right stuff” (people, places, content, services, locations, events, etc.) more possible. However, other critical elements are the interface and human interaction layers and models for finding.
Today we are almost completely dependent on or limited to the use of both textual models and variations on lists or search results to find what we want. While this is helpful in many situations and is not something I expect will disappear, I am anxious to see additional ways for finding the right stuff (which is not always what we think we want). One way to achieve this goal would be through the use of visual methods and multidimensional techniques.
Don’t you find that often the most valuable things are those you discover serendipitously? Or how about those situations where you say, “Of course!” but they were not what you had directly been looking for? Current keyword searching is not unlike trying to find a word in a dictionary that you can’t spell in the first place. It’s extremely limited, because you have to know which term to use in a search, there are no semantic “smarts” to the searching, and of course, it is all purely text based.
So I’m always looking for and experimenting with alternative or additional ways to do more finding. The good news is that these alternative means seem to be growing, yet they typically don’t get too much attention and awareness of them seems very low. I suspect this is because we are creatures of habit. We are too busy doing things the “old way”, so it is difficult to be aware of better alternatives and to go through the challenge of changing (even though these “old ways” are relatively new habits that we’ve only been doing for a few years at most!). It’s that old “UNLearning” issue, yet again!
This conundrum seems a bit like the situation, “I could really use some time management training, but I just don’t have the time.” If you suspect that you are spending a lot more time searching than you are finding, consider how much time you will save by acquiring some new finding skills and tools. With this in mind, you may want to check out some of the following ideas. This list of ideas is not meant to be comprehensive; rather, it will serve to show you the range of alternative methods, interfaces, and tools that are available. Hopefully it will also help you find other alternatives.
Rafe Needleman has a very useful Web site that will help to keep you apprised of the growing field of “webware” or Web-based solutions and technology. I highly recommend that you check out his site regularly and even consider subscribing to it. Recently, Rafe had a post called “Five Weird Ways to Search” that covers a good range of options. I’ve used most of these options, including Grokker and Kartoo, for several years now. I don’t think any of them are “it” or “the next big thing”. However, they are great explorations, and each has something to offer.
Based solely on my experiences, the two from this article that I recommend you try are Quintura and Grokker. I’ve used Quintura less, but it is a good example of tag clouds*, something that I find very useful and believe you will see much more of in the near future.
Since our human behaviors are usually the biggest barriers to change, I would STRONGLY encourage you to try these out for at least a few weeks. Do some experiential learning (which seems all too rare these days) of your own. I think you’ll find, at the very least, that it will give you some good glimpses into the future of finding and help to change some of your thinking and approaches to it. Try out a few of these and send me details of your experiences and of any other find/search tools that you discover so we can all benefit.
*You can see a limited version of tag clouds, the collection of different-sized words in the upper left column of Off Course – On Target.
And now for something completely different!
While you are feeling experimental, try out some of these slightly “farther out” examples of finding the “right stuff”:
Rafe Needleman’s post Art meets News on Universe shows you examples (such as Universe and the Digg Swarm) of the use of visualization in searching and finding. This technique adds a social dimension to visualization by providing a viewpoint on content from a collection of others. Look past the specific content used in the example (which is silly indeed) and instead see the experience of the interface when video and floating visual choices are used. Then be sure to check out Time Trumpet.
And, in my continuing quest to wean us from a text only existence, try out the recent introduction of Nostalgia for photos. It is a wonderful desktop application for Yahoo’s Flickr. And if you like what you see with these, be sure to check out some of the other cools apps from Thirteen23.
Don’t be overwhelmed by all these new choices. Just give them a quick look and try out two or three to satisfy your curiosity in the search for better finding!