Posts Tagged ‘Search’

Preparing Our Future – The Need for Critical Thinking

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

thinkThere has been much discussion in the UK recently about the importance of getting the right approach to the role of technology in schools.  Many have used this as the opportunity to reinforce the need for greater emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with further focus being given to the need to create a new generation of “kids who code”.  Whilst this on its own is an incredibly important initiative, it is vitally important to continue to remind ourselves that it is still just a subset of the overall duty of care we have as technologists to ensure that every single aspect of society is empowered by technology.  Yes that means having great software, and as such brilliant computer scientists, but more importantly it means ensuring that every single member of society knows how to make the best use of technology whatever their societal role – this is our modern equivalent of a “PC on every desk”.

In order to achieve this it means that we need to get beyond teaching the “tools” and start teaching the “skills” that will make all the difference for the workforce of the future. In particular it requires that our children and every other member of our society are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings to us. It is no longer  just a case of “feeding” them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool.

Within our brave new digital world, one of the most important skills we must learn is “critical thinking” a concept that rather incredibly, dates back to Socrates over 2000 years ago, but after being “recently” updated in the 20th century for a modern society by many great scholars it provides an powerful framework for our internet age.

findEvery single day, we are bombarded by millions of signals of data, information and content, and every single day the quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially.  These days we are still looking for the needle, it’s just that now it’s in a billion haystacks.

Critical thinking is about “reflective” rather than “routine” thought, it’s the process of “active, persistent and careful consideration” of the credibility and conclusions of supposed knowledge or information.

Most of us use critical thinking every day and for most of the time, we are barely aware of it.  Every time we read a newspaper article, watch a documentary or look something up on Wikipedia we are aware of a whole range of biases, influences and emotions that may interfere with the validity, accuracy and overall conclusion of the content and, if we’re doing our job properly, we take all of that into account as we parse the information, reflect on it drawing in a range of other context and ultimately use it to draw conclusions and make decisions.

Fortunately for us, we’ve had years of practice and experimentation to get this right but in this new digital age, where children and young people have so much access to an incredible world of information but have yet to develop the skills to know how to deal with it.

From an early age, we need to ensure that children using the internet are able draw upon critical thinking skills to:

Search efficiently and effectively – depending not solely on the search engine’s view of relevancy but able to navigate and adjust the query to ensure the most appropriate results.

Distinguish kinds of sources and analyse a source’s validity and reliability – from basic differentiation of primary vs secondary sources through to deconstructing domain names and URL’s to learn more context about the source.

Make a habit of cross checking facts, even from reliable sources – we know from experience that even “authorities” can mislead and experts make mistakes so wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

Conscientiously and properly attribute the words and ideas of others – the internet has made plagiarism a lot easier, but thankfully, easier to spot. Students need to know the basic rules about when and how to quote others’ words and how to properly attribute the ideas that are not their own.

Stay safe on the internet – these are some of the most important skills of all, from not giving out personal information through to taking care about the kind of conversations they enter into on-line, staying safe is absolutely paramount. 

Interact with others online honestly, respectfully, fairly and clearly – the anonymity, immediacy and lack of proximity presented by the internet can lead to anti-social behaviour, sometimes with devastating consequences. Learning how to speak honestly, fairly, and with respect, clarity and brevity along with understanding why this is important in a society, especially a democracy, is crucial.

(Note: More detail on each of these areas, as well as lesson ideas for different ages of students can be found in the “Critical Thinking” white paper we published in 2010)

So, as we prepare to wind down this educational year and pause over the summer to think about the role of ICT in the new school year in September, please, let’s make sure we keep a firm focus on ensuring that as well as being brilliant at coding, our future citizens (and workforce) are equipped with all the necessary skills to make the very best of all that technology will have to offer them.

The You Centric Web (Personalisation 2.0)

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

clip_image001We live in a world that is increasingly connected, with services that offer a degree of “personalisation” based on assumptions of our needs created on an extrapolation of our previous actions.  As our digital footprints become larger and more connected, we are offered the potential to move to a new level of services that place us, rather than the services we consume firmly at the centre, a web that is ultimately formed around the individual rather than the other way around.

Today, personalisation is an incredibly blunt tool. The services we use, the content we consume, the adverts we see are all provided based on the basis of some prediction as to what we might be trying to achieve based on our past behaviours.  However, it is not just that this prediction is currently extremely basic, it also does not yet fully take into account the rich, broad context that accompanies us wherever we are, whatever we are doing, a context that holds the key to creating services and experiences that offer us not just a precise reflection of the services we need but also positions us to make discoveries of incredible new content, products and truly human experiences.

As individuals, our actions are guided by a complex range of signals which we intuitively use both explicitly and implicitly.  These signals form the basis for the services and content we choose to consume and influence the decisions and discoveries we make in everything we do.  The You Centric Web is a place that is not just aware of this context, but brings it together and makes sense of it, delivering an overall experience that is truly reflective of us as unique individuals.

This context exists across four key dimensions that are real time, living states that change and shift as we go about our everyday lives.  The four dimensions that influence our behaviour are:

Emotional – my emotional state.  My current emotional level will influence the decisions I make and the services I’m looking for. For example the music I select when I’m happy may be different from that which I select when I’m less so.

Social – who is with me physically and my virtual social connections.  Watching a sports game or a movie with friends is a different experience to watching it alone or connected to others remotely for a shared viewing experience.  Equally, the context of what my friends do is also a powerful signal that provides a trusted source of influence that may be incorporated to help me make my decision.

Environmental – where I am, the device I’m using, the time of day, the temperature, my location, my direction of travel, the current weather and so on.  Each of these factors plays a role in influencing both my decision and equally inferring the intent of my actions.  Searching for “sushi” on my mobile device at lunchtime while walking down a street in the centre of town will likely be for a different purpose than if I were to search for it sat at home in the evening on my main home computer.

External – This represents a broad range of external factors that offer further contextual signals that may influence my actions and decisions.  For example, a significant societal issue (like the recession) or a nationwide campaign on childhood poverty (or global warming etc) may make me consider different choices about the activity, actions and content I pursue.

These four domains are joined together and under-pinned by a rich pool of historical evidence about previous actions which can serve to highlight a likely (but not certain) outcome for any given decision or choice.

The connection of these different dimensions of context has been impossible in the past as not only did we lack the ability to accurately capture and interpret our current state in real time, we also lacked the ability to join them all together and analyse them as a collective.  In a world of socially connected experiences, big data, cloud computing and natural user interfaces this really starts to change.

Using natural interface technologies like Kinect, we are finally able to start to capture and use much richer information about the emotional, social and (some of) the environmental factors that will influence my activities. As they continue to evolve, devices like Kinect will help understand our emotional state, the environment we’re sitting in and who is with us. Early examples of this have already been shown, but we know it is still early days and the technology still has much further to go before this is pervasive and usable across a variety of services.

clip_image002In addition to the technological developments described above, the increasing capability to connect and analyse vast, disparate data sources starts to provide the opportunity to take a broader “systemic” view and a deeper level of insight that can be used to infer further elements of the context surrounding an individual.  In this area, the brave new world of “Big Data” and the cloud becomes an immensely powerful capability that offers the potential to provide incredible new context and insight that can be used to shape experiences even further. My favourite example of this was some recent research done in the US that analysed cellphone usage data from 50,000 individuals and was able to accurately predict the _future_ location of any given individual with 93% confidence. (And there I was thinking I was in control. )

By joining up and effectively understanding this broad, rich context, it becomes clear to see how basic today’s world of personalised services is and just how far we’ve yet to go.  Being told that  “people who have bought product A also bought product b” is no longer going to feel useful or even relevant.

However, beyond the further technological innovation that will be required to make this a reality, there are also several advances in how we as a modern society think about, use and trust the services that will be required if we are to get to a point where we can really maximise the potential of this world that is moulded around the individual.  In particular, there is a growing trend of a fear of “over personalisation”, a world full of filters and “popular content” which is devoid of discovery and one in which the power (and importance of) serendipity becomes increasingly hard to come by.

The common mistake being made that drives this fear is to think that personalisation by default excludes discovery, or that perfect personalisation means ultimate precision.  This is a world where I am precluded from finding new things which I am unaware of or from uncovering new items which may not be considered relevant to my interests.  In many ways, the You Centric Web must represent the slightly random, uncontrolled nature of our human world, injecting random and unrelated content in order to broaden and extend the overall experience and introduce new direction and insight.  In some ways, this is no different to the role a good news editor plays in ensuring that the audience receives a broad range of content that is of interest to the majority along with an essential range of content that is intended to interrupt and disrupt your established areas of interest – a process that not only broadens the mind, but equally expands the potential for new discovery and conclusions (and the adjacent possible).

clip_image003In a world drowning in data and information, personalisation provides the only way for an individual to not just find, but most importantly, to trust the information and services being provided.  Trust is key here, not only does the consumer need to trust the services, they increasingly need to be able to trust the service provider, to know that their data and information about themselves is respected, kept private unless the consumer has indicated otherwise.

We need to recognise that our society continues along a long established journey about privacy that is not new in the information age, it has in fact been an issue for discussion and debate for hundreds of years.  The information age accelerates the pace of change, but the basic principles remain the same for the individual.  I need control, I need transparency and increasingly, I need a tangible value proposition (i.e. what do I get in return).

These principles, offer us a way forward.  By putting the individual in control of their data, being transparent about how the data is being used and crucially being really explicit about the value that will be provided we can turn around some of the “trust issues” that we read about so frequently today. 

The You Centric Web offers an inversion of today’s web, placing the user at the centre and in full control of the overall experience. It promotes discovery, celebrates serendipity and offers a personalised path through the oceans of data, content and experiences that the modern digital society has to offer. The technology required to deliver the You Centric Web is beginning to appear now, but we have further to travel before it can reach its full potential.    As a society, we will have to shift our expectations of how the digital world can augment the physical world and service and content providers will need to plan for and deliver on the potential of this connected, intensely personalised world as well as work hard to win the trust of consumers by placing them at the centre and protecting and respecting their rights.   The You Centric Web is an inevitable part of our technological evolution; it is now down to all of us to ensure we are able to take up the promise of everything it has to offer.

Voice Recognition: NUI’s Unsung Hero

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

I recently got asked to provide an opinion on “voice recognition”, in particular around our philosophy towards it and how we’ve implemented it across the stack.  If you can stomach it, you can see how it turned out (let’s put it this way, it opens with a comparison to the Hoff’s “Knight Rider”) and it kind of goes downhill from there but regardless, in doing the research, I learnt some really interesting things along the way that I thought I’d share here.

soundwave2First off, let’s start by asking how many of you know how speech recognition works these days?  Well I thought I did, but it turns out I didn’t.  Unlike the early approach, where you used to have to “train” the computer to understand you by spending hours and hours reading to your computer (which always kind of defeated the object to me), today, speech recognition works pretty much the same way they teach kids to speak/read, using phonemes, digraphs and trigraphs. The computer simply tries to recognise the shapes and patterns of the words being spoken, then using some clever logic and obviously an algorithm or two, performs some contextual analysis (makes a guess) on what is the most probable sentence or command you might be saying.

In the early days of speech recognition, the heavy lifting required was all about the listening and conversion from analogue to digital, today it’s in the algorithmic analysis on what it is most likely that you are saying.  This subtle shift has opened up probably the most significant advance in voice recognition in the last twenty years, the concept of voice recognition as a “cloud” service.

A year or so ago, I opened a CIO event for Steve Ballmer, given I was on stage first, I got a front row seat at the event and watched Ballmer up close and personal as he proceeded to tell me, and the amassed CIO’s from our 200 largest customers, that the Kinect was in fact a “cloud device”.  At the time I remember thinking, “bloody hell Steve, even for you that’s a bit of a stretch isn’t it?”.  I filed it away under “Things CEO’s say when there’s no real news” and forgot about it, until now that is when I finally realised what he meant.

Basically, because with a connected device (like Kinect), the analysis of your movements and the processing for voice recognition can now also be done in the cloud. We now have the option (with the consumer’s appropriate permission) to use those events to provide a service that continuously learns and improves.  This ultimately means that the voice recognition service you use today is actually different (and minutely inferior) to the same service that you’ll use tomorrow.   This is incredibly powerful and also shows you that the “final mile” of getting voice recognition right lies more now with the algorithm that figures out what you’re mostly likely to be saying than it does with the actual recognition of the sounds.  MSR have a number of projects underway around this (my current favourite being the MSR’s Sentence Completion Challenge), not to mention our own development around how this might apply within search.

Those of you that have been following these ramblings in the past will know I’m slightly sceptical of voice recognition, thinking that it is technology’s consistent wayward child, full of potential, yet unruly, unpredictable and relentlessly under-achieved.  I’m not saying my view has changed overnight on this, but am certainly more inclined to think it will happen, based on this single, crucial point.

Kinect too provides its own clue that we’re a lot closer than we previously thought to making voice recognition a reality, not just in the fact that it uses voice recognition as a primary mode of (natural) interaction but more in how it tries to deal with the other end of the voice recognition problem – just how do you hear _anything_ when you are sat on top of the loudest source of noise in the room (the TV) when someone 10 feet away is trying to talk to you in the middle of a movie (or the final level on Sonic Generations, sat next to a screaming 6 year old who’s entire opinion of your success as a father rests on your ability to defeat the final “boss” ).  If you have a few minutes and are interested, this is a wonderful article that talks specifically about that challenge and how we employ the use of an array of 4 microphones to try and solve the problem.  There’s still more work to be done here, but it’s a great start in what is actually an incredibly complex problem  – think about it, if I can’t even hear my wife in the middle of a game of Halo or an episode of Star Trek (original series of course) how the hell is Kinect going to hear? (Oh, I’ve just been informed by her that apparently that particular issue is actually not a technical problem… #awkward).

So these two subtle technological differences in our approach are going to make all the difference in voice recognition becoming a reality as part of a much more natural way of interacting with technology.  Once that happens, we move into the really interesting part of the problem – our expectations of what we can do with it.

expectOur kids are a great way of understanding just how much of Pandora’s box getting into voice recognition (and other more natural forms of interaction) will be and I suspect that ultimately, our greatest challenge will be living up to the expectation of what is possible across all the forms of technical interaction we have, NUI parity across devices if you like.  My son’s expectation (quite reasonably) is that if he can talk to his xBox, then he should be able to talk to any other device and furthermore, if he can ask it to play movies and navigate to games why can’t it do other things?  I was sitting doing my research with him the night before my interview on all of this, and we were playing together at getting the voice recognition to work.  He asked the xBox play his movie, he told Sonic which level to play on Kinect FreeRiders then he paused, looked at me and then back at the TV, cracked a cheeky smile and said, “Xbox, do my homework…”.

Back to the Forbidden Planet – Exploring in the Digital World

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Back in our youth, when we had more time, less experience and big dreams, I suspect many of us will have spent plenty of time exploring.  No, not the pith helmet “Dr Livingstone I presume” kind of exploring or the gap year partying that passes for the “travel broadening the mind” kind of exploring that goes on these days.  No, I mean time well spent exploring music, literature or some other similar love.

FPFor me it was comics (yes, I know, just how much more of the geek stereotype can I fulfil? Just the sandals and Star Trek insignia tattoo now, and I am complete).  I started reading them when I was 7, and they changed my life.  I fell in love with a particular title (2000AD) which, still running today, represents the absolute peak of British writing and comic artistry in this genre but 2000AD alone wasn’t enough, I wanted more.  Remember, these were the days before graphic novels, VHS/DVD, the internet and more than 3 channels on the telly and there were few places in the country you could go to explore this world further.  In fact, there was just one oasis, aptly titled “The Forbidden Planet” a comic shop in London, some 150 miles from my home town.

The Forbidden Planet became a mecca to me, I would make an annual pilgrimage down to London (or semi annual if my pocket money could stand it) just to spend hours in that store on Denmark Street, exploring the incredible new world that I had discovered.  I still remember the place (it’s in a new location and much flasher now), I remember the layout, the euphoria of so much content in one place, I remember the smell of the floorboards and old paper and the excited apprehension that comes from being the country hick in the city.

The hours I spent in there lead me to all sorts of extraordinary places, new comics, books (even proper grown up ones that normal people read), all things I would never have found if I hadn’t had the opportunity for a tactile, tangible experience of what was effectively curated content.  I’ll go out on a limb and make a guess that all of you will have had a similar experience (or maybe still do), it won’t necessarily have been comics, but I’ll bet you spent a lot of time in book stores, record shops, music shops, motorbike dealers whatever, doing exactly the same thing – exploring.

So apart from a little misty eyed nostalgia on my part, what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that providing the exploratory part of discovery in a digital world is _bloody hard_.  I’m not arguing the semantics here about the value of holding the album cover of your favourite artists new release poring over every detail vs looking at a Jpeg of the same, as I believe we will adapt to getting that experience digitally (and in many ways it can be richer), no this is about coming to a place filled with similar (but not the same) kind of content where you are free to explore your interests. 

As the curators of content, we can do so much, we can provide the path to explore new worlds (both accurately and, as we get smarter, randomly yet with relevance) but we have to work hard to provide the “environmental” experience which becomes so important to us as individuals.  The key actually comes back to the same old thing – “content is king” but in reality what this means (when it comes to exploration) is establishing a broad set of meta-data about individual elements and more importantly, being able to surface this meta-data as well as the specific item as part of the curated content (or search result).  This alone won’t replace those dusty bookstores of our youth, but it will in some way help to form the bridge between the digital and analogue worlds.

In many ways, this is part of the sentiment behind Stefan’s recent allegations that traditional search is failing,  this can easily be passed off as jingoistic hyperbole (as Danny Sullivan tried to postulate on Twitter) but in reality it’s a really important reminder that the web and more broadly the internet is no longer powered by links alone. This is about providing a digital service that is reflective of the analogue equivalent, serving each and every query with a broad result that includes a rich spectrum of responses and associated content, moving us waaaaaaay beyond those 10 blue links once and for all.

Inside Google’s Big Tent

Friday, May 20th, 2011

I spent a day this week inside Google’s “Big Tent” – essentially a high profile event on privacy, hosted by Google, Privacy International and Index on Censorship, with an audience of the very cream of the British digital elite (and me).

I learnt a lot of things of which I’ll share the detail in the moment, but first I thought you should know the headlines:

  1. Eric Schmidt likes Chrome – he says it’s safe and fast.
  2. The Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt, UK Minister for Culture, Media and Sport (and responsible for this country’s legislation around internet use) says the government’s priorities for the internet are speed and mobile.
  3. In other news, the Pope  _is_ catholic and bears _do_ defecate in the woods.

DonkeyI mean seriously, is that the best we can do when it comes to pushing the boundaries of thought leadership around privacy in the digital society?  Thankfully, the audience was mostly cynical hacks and privacy activists – you can imagine how well those points were received.  

Anyhow, with that out of the way, there was in fact an incredible discussion throughout the day on a wide range of local and global topics around privacy and free speech, what follows below are the (admittedly blinkered) takeaways from the discussion that I want to explore further.

  1. It is clear that the law cannot keep pace with changes in technology. If I had a buck for every time someone on a panel said “technology has made an ass of the law” I would have precisely $16.73c.  Although this point was universally agreed, there seemed to be no clear way forward to address this.  Simon Davies from Privacy International had a particularly pragmatic solution – do nothing – effectively let it happen and let them learn. (The context for that point was the discussion around super-injunctions and Twitter in the UK).
  2. Organisation vs the individual. The focus remains to be on what can the “organisation” do to make an individual’s privacy better. Despite pushing from the audience (advocates from Mydex et al in particular) there was little interest in a discussion around what it would mean to put the individual in full control of their information.
  3. Collation vs Publication. There was still a desire to focus on the search engine’s role in collating the content (i.e. the index) vs the actual publisher of the content. I’m wondering why this point is so hard for people outside the industry to grasp.  (see 4 below).
  4. Search is not the internet. Google’s Drummond put this well, “It’s a search engine, not the internet” but the conversation never followed suit. We should have been pushing Jeremy Hunt on the legal changes and leadership required from government i.e. you tell us which is the content we should remove and we’ll do it, the best example being religious extremist content – you want us to remove it, but you won’t tell us what is and what isn’t? Go fish. (My words).
  5. The “Right to be Forgotten” is a jingoistic phrase that not many understand.  Common (mis)perception means that this should allow me to have control about anything about me on the internet.  They forget of course that this conflicts with free speech.  Where we need to move on this discussion is an understanding that individuals should have the right to remove data _they_ have posted about themselves, but not data that _others_ have posted about them.
  6. Privacy Boundaries.  We established at least three clear boundaries around privacy that need to be explored further: Privacy vs Innovation (consensus was that privacy has _never_ impeded innovation), Privacy vs Free Speech (what’s private to you, may be free speech to me – who decides?), and Privacy vs Public Interest (are super-injunctions an expensive waste of time in a digital age).

Like Max Boyce, always said, “I know ‘cause I was there” – but what did _you_ think?

The other side of social search

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

listenI have a friend, (hard to believe I know, but it’s true) who is the only person I have ever met that can accurately predict whether or not I will like a particular band, album or piece of music. He sends me links and information on bands I’ve never heard of and would likely never discover and makes accurate predictions on the extent to which I will like them even though he knows I’ve never heard of them, never mind listened to them.

It’s a great service for me and saves me no end of time (but equally costs me a lot of money, because when he’s right, he’s absolutely right and I end up buying the entire back catalogue) but what’s really interesting about this, is that it represents a principle of a very different type of social search to the one we’ve been discussing recently around the aggregation of “sentiment” (Facebook “likes” in our case) around a given topic.

The importance of this new approach is that it deals with the assumption that “your friends are like you” that is implicit in the current method of introducing the social signal to search. Although at a high level, this assumption may be broadly right, at a more granular level it’s often completely wrong. My social network is made up of friends, family, colleagues (old and new) and a few other random acquaintances – to make the assumption that all these people are “like” me is, generically, probably true, but at a more specific level it is hideously wrong – for example, one of my brothers supports West Ham United and listens to the Smiths. Not following WHU is probably self-explanatory, but like Mitch, I must confess I never went through a Smiths phase. But I digress, my point is that just because someone in my network likes these things, does that mean I do? Of course not, generically you might infer that our connection may imply I like football and 80’s indie music but to be explicit about it would just be silly.

A new piece of research from our friends in MSR Cambridge is focusing on this principle, using a technique called “prediction extraction” to solicit opinions from friends as to whether they think the individual in question would like the item in question before they have even experienced it.

This approach is based on the observation that “although your friends are not you and may not have the same tastes as you, they are likely the people who actually know you best”.

You can read the detail of the approach here but essentially it offers a number of advantages, primarily around the accuracy, quality and coverage that the harnessing of this tacit knowledge brings, the real trick however is how to extract this information in a way that is easy and rewarding for the contributor and seamless for the consumer.

Predicting your friends opinions is nothing new (Mum _always_ knew best, right?, and it augments rather than replaces the “wisdom of the crowds”, but it does offer a new way of providing accurate, insightful predictions around the relevancy of a given topic or item to the individual. Going forward we’re going to need a range of these techniques if we are to truly humanise the way search provides us the answers we’re looking for.

My friend and music sensei doesn’t like the same music as me (can you believe he only has _one_ Men They Couldn’t Hang album?) but he does know me well, and he loves music – this combination alone could save HMV’s fortunes (and likely bankrupt me!).

Searching for Spongebob–A primer on user intent

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

It’s no secret that the more a search engine knows about you, the better it can serve results. An important part of achieving this is based around an important concept called user intent – effectively, the more I can guess/understand about what you are actually trying to achieve, the more relevant I can make the results.

User intent is typically split into three key domains, Navigational, Informational and Transactional. Watching my young son make his way around the internet provides some good examples of each of these:

Navigational Intent
compassSometimes referred to as lazy browsing, this is simply using the search engine to save me from having to remember the URL’s for my favourite sites, e.g. searching for Spongebob to find his internet home.

Informational Intent
infoThis is where the purpose of my queries is to find out more about a particular topic, e.g. what is Sponegbob’s best friend called? (He’s called Patrick, and he’s a starfish in case you were wondering).

Transactional Intent
walletAdmittedly this feels like a bucket where you put all the other intents that don’t fit into the above categories, it’s a fairly obvious but broad topic, and ranges from I want to buy something, e.g. I’d like to buy some Spongebob merchandise to the use of the search engine to help you with a particular task. e.g. I’d like to set up an email account so I can email Spongebob.

(N.B. A warning to parents with “digital children” – commercial intent is rather easy to acquire and unless you set up your Amazon/eBay etc accounts properly, you’ll find yourselves with a lot of Spongebob merchandise you perhaps weren’t expecting Winking smile)

Now this is all well and good, but the concept of user intent reflects a very transactional view of the internet and how we use it. This was all well and good in the early days of the web when the web was fairly flat and much more reflective of the “book” analogy that html presented, but in today’s internet age, we require something rather deeper and more joined up – effectively some kind of “uber intent”.

Our current concept of user intent is based on a serial, transactional approach (e.g. complete task a, move to task b, complete task b and onto task c and so on), and is the way we are forced to search and use the internet even though outside our digital existence, we complete the same objectives in a much more parallel and holistic way.

Planning a night out or a holiday is a good example of this – in order to achieve the outcome I’m looking for, I’m forced into an endless series of transactional queries – where to stay, what to see, what to eat, how to get there and so on whereas what I really want to do is enter my chosen destination and have the search engine do the heavy lifting – understanding that my intent is a trip to Toronto, I want it to bring me back a range of details on that destination that cover all those areas and I want them all in one location – the results page.

Understanding just how hard that is to do, makes me realise that we are at the very beginning of our journey to really make the most of what the internet has to offer. To us, the internet is still a very dumb tool, offering only a fraction of it’s overall potential. To unlock it however, will require us to face some pretty heavy obstacles –such as; How do you do all this and ensure the (data) privacy of the individuals? Culturally, are we ready to trust the “machines” to make our decisions for us? And finally, is there room for serendipity in a world of anticipated, formulated responses?

Social Signals and Search

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Last week, I was lucky enough to get some time and present at one of the Social Media Week London events. It was a great opportunity to meet with a diverse range of people and organisations, all looking for better ways to use Social Media across their business and their lives.

It was timely too, as we’ve been doing a lot of work about the importance of Social, especially when it comes to search.

What’s key in all of this, is the understanding that Social search is absolutely _not_ what it says on the tin – this is not just about “finding people” and searching Twitter archives, but is in fact much more about how you can use the power of the social “signal” to make searching a much better, more trusted experience.

Watch the presentation to find out why:

http://www.theenvisioners.com/wp-content/uploads/podcasts/SocialSignal.flv

The presentation is also available as a handy download for your favourite mobile device – Social Signals in Search (MP4)

You can find the slides here – Social Signals and Search (Slides)

Searching for a smarter internet

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Regular readers will know I’ve been absent for a few months, there are some boring reasons for that and some well, rather more interesting ones too.

The truth of it is that I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth has been for the last few years and joined our consumer business focusing directly on the potential and importance of “search” in our digital world.

It ticks all the boxes for me, is firmly rooted in all the “consumerisation” hyperbole I’ve been spouting, but most importantly because I firmly believe it’s a crucial area who’s time has yet to come. The delay in posts has simply been because I needed some time to “find my voice” in this brave new world.

For me, search is essentially the UI for the internet, the means by which we extract value from all that the internet has to offer a digital society.  The trouble is, like the web, it’s based on an evolving (and increasingly outdated) metaphor and as a result, I think we’ve all got a long way to go before we can really start to get all of the potential that is on offer.

searchwarningI was reminded of just how far we all have to go by this sign, posted in the ICT lab at my son’s (primary) school. Now look, I totally understand why this is there, but to me it’s more evidence that we’re missing something rather fundamental – why doesn’t the search engine _know_ that the people using it are aged between 5 and 11? Why isn’t it smart enough to understand that and adjust the results accordingly?

The answer of course is complicated, but within it lies a conversation I hope to explore with you about semantic language, user intent and relevance – fundamentally about how we can turn this blunt tool into something much sharper but without sacrificing our fundamental digital rights like privacy.

Search needs to be the best way to leverage the knowledge that exists on the internet, across multiple mediums and a vast ocean of data – this is no easy task but the good news is, I think we are well on the way.  We need to stop thinking about the task-oriented nature of the web, (remember HTML is built on a book metaphor) and start thinking about how we incorporate all aspects of our digital lives to create far better relevance – getting beyond “10 blue links” and into a far richer service that is truly representative of the internet and the potential it offers a modern society.

We’ll explore all of these areas over the coming months and I hope you’ll join me and get involved in the conversation.