I was listening recently to a podcast on IT Conversations, published 1/17/2009, entitled “Creating Passionate Users”. It is a conversation between Tim O’Reilly and Kathy Sierra.
Tim O’Reilly: You talk about creating passionate users. What are some of the things that make people passionate?
Kathy Sierra: Well, we reverse engineered passion. And we looked at what are all the attributes that are present when people have passion for something, and can we use those as a roadmap. That’s what we used to help develop the book and the blog and any other kind of content that we do. And the one characteristic — I know it’s going to seem obvious now — but the one characteristic that is through everything that people are passionate about is that they’re kicking ass. No one is passionate about something that they suck at. So when people have a passion, they want to keep learning, they want to keep growing, because they’re having this kind of higher resolution experience. Like people who know a lot about wine; wine tastes different to them. They taste more, they perceive more. People who understand jazz music or classical music, they hear more notes. They hear more beats and rhythms and timing and things that the rest of us don’t hear. So we’re always trying to figure out how can we give people a richer, deeper experience. And that comes from them knowing more. And then being motivated to do more and practice more and get better.
Later in the podcast she continues:
Kathy Sierra: And feedback is important. It’s the one component that exists in games. Nothing can be considered a game if it doesn’t have feedback to let you know how are you doing. So of course we include things in our books to make sure that people actually.. don’t just have an “I rule!” experience, but know that they’re getting it, and know that they’re learning, and know that they’re accomplishing something.
Kathy talks about creating products and experiences in which people have the feeling like they have a path to growth. So the natural question that came to my mind was: Do the search engines that we design and use offer that sort of experience? Do people feel like they have a path to growth, that they can get better at searching, through the tools made available to them by the engine? Do search engines provide good enough feedback for people to know, especially when the results don’t come back as expected, how they can improve the query? Do users get the feeling that they’re accomplishing something? One of the reasons I am interested in exploratory search and transparency in search (explanatory search) is that I see part of the goals of this mindset is to give users that path, that way to get better, and thereby induce passion:
Kathy Sierra: That’s what we do. Even if we’re teaching someone about business or marketing, we’re still approaching it as.. y’know.. can that user (or even in the case of a software program, even a spreadsheet program).. is the user feeling like a hero right now. It gets back to that “I rule!” experience. But it’s not a simple answer, because again, dumbing it down doesn’t leave people with a heroic feeling. So we don’t back away from the hard, challenging stuff. I mean, in a “hero’s journey”, by the time you’re at the end of Act Two things are really looking bleak. It’s very challenging for the hero. But they have the tools to overcome that.
Do search engines offer their users the tools to overcome poor retrieval results, when thing are looking bleak? All too often, they do not. Search engines favor simplicity over tools, algorithmic obscurity (“dumbing it down”) over genuine search dialogue. My fear is that this approach does not, and cannot, produce information retrieval connoisseurs and heroes. Just like wine tastes different to people who know a lot about wine — just like people who understand jazz music, or classical music, are able to hear more notes — search engines need to give people the ability to “perceive” more about what the search engine is doing, and thereby “perceive” more relevant documents.