Author: Peter Morville & Jeffery Callender
Publisher: O'Reilly, 2010
Aimed at: Builders of search applications
Pros: A thought-provoking book
Reviewed by: Sue Gee
This book is written for an elite - those who aspire to designing the user interfaces of the search engines of the future.
As users we all rely on search to find the information we need on the Internet and from databases but as website designer and developers most of us are more likely to be looking to incorporate an existing search facility such as Google than starting from scratch and building a new one. However, if you are one of those few you'll find a great deal of food for thought in this slim volume - and it is makes for entertaining reading.
The opening chapter, Pattern Recognition, points out that "Search is not a solved problem" and that as well as being "a source of entrepreneurial insight, competitive advantage and impossible wealth" it is also "a source of endless frustration". The chapter proceeds to help understand the various elements of a search interface and its goals. The authors conclude that "search at its best is a conversation", an interactive process. Several search engines are introduced and categorised by analogy with a colour palette and the chapter concludes by suggesting that vision is required to build innovative and improved search facilities for the future.
In the Anatomy of Search five elements of existing search facilities - users, interface, engine content and creators - are subject to examination. Amazon is held up as an example of a service that has integrated a portal that uses objects of search as destinations.
Patterns of user behavior are explored in Chapter 3. As with the rest of the book there are lots of colourful examples to illustrate the authors' arguments including ones from mobile devices.The idea of search across channels is explored with Apple's many interfaces used as an example. This chapter also explores principles of design with well-chosen examples.
We arrive at Design Patterns at Chapter 4 and this, as befits the "main course", occupies 50 page, almost a third of the book. It covers ten useful patterns: auto-complete; best first; federated search; faceted navigation; advanced search; personalisation; pagination; structured results; actionable results; and unified discovery, a "pattern of patterns" that brings different modes of search together.
Chapter 5, Engines of Discovery, starts with an explanation of Serendipity, a word that appears in orange. Throughout the book words and terms that might be unfamiliar but that are key to the authors' argument are highlighted in this way - for example apophenia (Chapter 1) demographics (chapter 2) and pearl growers (chapter 3). In this case the central theme of the chapter is serendipity, defined as an "accidental yet pleasurable discovery" and then clarified in context by a quotation from a "dictionary evangelist, Erin McKean "Serendipity is when you find things that you weren't looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult".
The authors then discuss the "tension in search between relevance and interestingness" and go on to present some example of search engines both well known and niche, concluding that now that the "easy answers" to the problem of search have been invented serendipity and following "the paths less travelled" are the key to future, and as yet uninvented, search.
This conclusion prepares us for the final chapter, Tangible Futures which again opens with an "orange" term - "animism ... the belief that soul or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals,trees ...other natural objects and phenomena." We are then reminded that "myths" are "traditional stories that explain the origin of the universe ...". This chapter uses a series of fictional examples to explore some seemingly far fetched ideas about how search and discovery might feel and behave in the future. These are stories that readers are not expected to believe in every detail - and the debrief section presented for each one ensures that you discover what the authors intend you to learn from them. Instead they can be regarded as a vehicle for thinking outside the box and letting imagination play a part in designing future search. I enjoyed the four scenarios included this exercise and I'm not going to spoil the denouement of this book by describing them here.