Search Patterns – An Interview With Peter Morville

Related posts:

Peter Morville and Jeffery Callender recently released their brand new book “Search Patterns: Design for Discovery“.  I had the honor to chat with Peter about what drove him to write his new book, why he thinks search is such a challenge still,  and his thoughts on where the future of search lies.

JH: Why did you decide to focus on search for your new book?

Peter Morville

PM: In my consulting projects, search kept surfacing as the single biggest opportunity to improve the user experience, and I felt unequal to the task. So, I decided to invest in my own edification by writing a book. Plus, I wanted to inspire others to make search better. After all, search is among the most disruptive innovations of our time. It influences what we buy and where we go. It shapes how we learn and what we know. Designing for search and discovery isn’t just interesting. It’s important. We have a responsibility to get it right.

How is designing for search different from traditional browsing and navigation?

I design for multiple (complementary) modes of seeking, so that users can browse and search their way to success. Explicit navigation serves as a map for wayfinding and understanding, while the search box offers a shortcut that employs semantics to bypass structure. Often, these modes need be distinct only in the opening. In search, users make the first move by typing words to declare intent. But, the SERP (search engine results page) is a browsable interface with visible context. Alternatively, you may begin with browse, but then query the category that you’re inside using scoped search. A well designed system lets people flow between modes and offers immediate feedback, because in the endgame, it’s all about interaction.

What makes search such a challenge, especially given all the advancements in technology over the years?

Search is a wicked problem for two reasons. First, it’s radically multidisciplinary, requiring real collaboration between design, engineering, and marketing. For most organizations, right there, it’s already game over. They simply can’t get these folks to work together. Second it’s a project and a process, requiring a major initial investment and the commitment to continuous improvement. Few organizations are good at both.

How do you see the findability of large scale gestural interfaces (i.e. The ‘Minority Report’ Interface) working in the future?

I’m very interested in gestural interaction, and we include examples in the book from the activation of Google Voice Search (raise your iPhone to your ear) to the augmented reality of Yelp Monocle (query the world by wandering). Undoubtedly, large scale gestural interfaces will offer us surprising new ways to interact with digital and physical objects such as images, video cameras, and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). That said, absent a great leap forward in the technology of the human brain, it will remain as important as ever to make key features easy to use and discover. In fact, I predict that the large scale gestural interfaces of the future will sport a search box as a starting point, even in 2054.

I predict that the large scale gestural interfaces of the future will sport a search box as a starting point, even in 2054.

Why do you think that search has become such a natural behavior for people?

Search is more natural than language. That’s why “natural language search” won’t work. It’s inefficient and artificial. Why string together complete sentences? We’d rather grunt and point or enter a few keywords and go. It’s a great way to start that admits the “paradox of the active user.” We routinely prefer the illusion of speed and simplicity instead of taking time to understand the territory and chart an optimal course. But, the first result set can be a terrible place to end. That’s why the SERP is such an important map. When we find we haven’t found what we need or expect, we’re surprised and ready to learn. In this way, search results create a “teachable moment.” And this evolution from “act” to “learn” is also natural. It’s only when we get lost and know we need help that we stop and ask for directions.

What was the inspiration behind taking a visual approach to writing about Search Patterns?

Search Patterns

Two major sources of inspiration were Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin and Dave Gray’s work on visual thinking. Collaborating with graphic designer Jeffery Callender (my co-author) to bring search and discovery to life with sketches, diagrams, and cartoons was seriously fun. And, I think the book is better (and different) as a result.

Of the patterns you identify in the book, which ones are misused the most? And why?

Advanced search is the pattern we love to hate. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Often, advanced search is a clumsy add-on that’s rarely used, and it lets engineers and designers take the easy way out. Valuable features that are difficult to integrate into the main interface can be relocated to the ghetto and forgotten. Plus, there’s confusion about its purpose. Is it a user-friendly query builder for novices or a power tool for experts? Many interfaces try (and fail) to be both. For instance, isn’t it fair to assume that users who understand what “exact phrase” means also know to use quotation marks to specify such a search? The main problem with Boolean isn’t the syntax, it’s the logic. Even the plain language is unlikely to help the few novices who brave the intimidating realm of advanced search, as shown below:

Advanced search at Genentech: Plain text doesn't make it less intimidating

“This pattern also suffers from an ignorance of context. Searches are situated. They take place in a space. Having navigated through music to the folk genre, users may want to search without leaving. Scoped search is a pattern that meets this need. There’s a risk that users won’t see the scope, but overrides in the case of few or no results can help. In most cases, users benefit, because scoped search caters to context. In contrast, advanced search often teleports us to a distant, unfamiliar locale. It’s disruptive to flow.”

But, advanced search isn’t always an anti-pattern. Sometimes, it’s really useful. When? For that, you’ll have to read the book.

What are your goals with the new search pattern library that complements your book?

Our goals for the book and the library are one and the same. We want to make search better. Or, to be more precise, we want to inspire you to make search better. The book is a linear narrative. It’s best read front to back. The library offers random access to patterns of behavior and design. It’s a maze for getting lost and a labyrinth for self-discovery. And, as with any living library or garden, it’s eternally incomplete. We hope you’ll join us by adding novel patterns and forking paths.

So what’s up with the butterfly?

O’Reilly authors don’t choose the animals, but we do have veto power. To get the lemur, I rejected a golden retriever. To get the butterfly, we refused a kestrel. And, to get the polar bear, we just got lucky.

How do you see search changing as the world becomes more mobile? Will we soon ‘Google our shoes’, as Bruce Sterling suggests?

PM: In search, the potential exists for a multitude of diverse futures, many of which will occur. And, it’s a good bet that these possible futures will co-evolve in a loosely joined sorta way. For instance, I still do most serious searching at my desk, even though today’s mobile devices support traditional web search (via a browser) while also reframing search and discovery through the lens of the specialized app. With my iPhone, I can query barcodes with RedLaser, search for bathrooms with SitOrSquat, and find friends with Foursquare. These are all fairly discrete activities, but for personalization, there’s value in aggregating all of my behavior across applications and platforms.

When we use the term “mobile search” we should unbind the concepts of “searching while mobile” and “searching on a phone” because our devices and the ways we interact with information are likely to undergo radical change. I don’t expect, when I’m 64, that “mobile search” will involve small screens. Instead, we’ll augment reality via iGlasses and display data directly on skin, clothing, sidewalks, and buildings. But, I absolutely do expect to Google my shoes, to learn about their construction, history, and proper disposal; and to find out where I left them.

Recently you launched a contest where people had to try and explain IA as best as they could. Why? What’s the biggest takeaway from this challenge?

Last year, as preparation for his information architecture class, Dan Klyn asked Twitter #whatswrongwithia. My response kicked off a discussion with Andrew Hinton that led to Explain IA. Our goals were to engage the IA community (by fostering creativity and discussion) and advance the field (by evolving our definitions and sharing our stories). It was a huge success and a lot of fun. My takeaway was that although the IA community is quieter than it was ten years ago, there’s still tremendous energy and passion beneath the surface.

Winning 'Explain IA' entry - "A Dinosaur Family Explains IA"

How have you found yourself thinking differently about the way people search after putting these patterns together?

PM: Search isn’t just about findability. It’s also about learning, understanding, sharing, and acting. In mobile, for instance, we can enable people to buy products, share songs, play movies, and make calls directly from the results interface. Or, in research, we can offer ways to compare and contrast results with rich visualizations and overlays of time and place. Having worked through the more basic patterns, I’m now enjoying the challenge of designing search and discovery applications that embrace the full spectrum of user goals.

What would you say is the most important concept regarding search?

PM: C. S. Lewis once noted “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” That’s why I see every search application as having the potential to become a complex adaptive system that exhibits macroscopic properties of self-organization and emergence. And, that’s why I include creators as part of the anatomy of search. On every project, I try to design for interaction and feedback, and to connect (and intertwingle) users and creators, so that the whole is greater (and different) than the sum of its parts.

The Anatomy of Search

You’re going to be talking about Search Patterns at the IA Summit. What else are you looking forward to?

PM: I’m genuinely excited about this year’s IA Summit, but not because of my own session. What I’m looking forward to in Phoenix is Seeing the Summit through the eyes of Dan Roam, Dave Gray, Dan Willis, Richard Saul Wurman, and Kevin Cheng. And, I’m hoping to build on their ideas in my upcoming workshop, Information Architecture with Maps, which is really just another lens for examining search and discovery.

Brad Nunnally

Brad Nunnally is a User Experience Design Consultant at Perficient based in St. Louis, MO. Aside from writing, plotting UX world domination, and tweeting a whole bunch , he fills his time playing with his son and dog.

6 comments on this article