Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Commentary: Meet Google's search anthropologist

On a hot August evening in late 2009, a Palo Alto entrepreneur working in her home office landed on Google's befuddling advanced search menu.

"Oh, I hate this," she said, before immediately clicking away.

It was far from a ringing endorsement of the Mountain View company's product design. But it wasn't exactly a surprise for Dan Russell, Google's search scientist who at that moment was staring over the woman's shoulder, taking notes and video.

Russell had noticed that about 85 percent of people acted the same way when they reached the page, and he'd set out to understand why by observing and talking to users. Call it search anthropology.

It's a little known function within an online giant famously focused on data. But about four years after forming, Google came to realize it needed human insights to infuse that information with context and meaning.

Google began conducting user research studies and hiring human-computer inter- actions experts, snagging Russell from IBM in 2005. His main role is studying Web searchers in their natural environment, at home or work.

"One of the things we can get from data is the behaviors," he said. "But in many cases we don't know why the behaviors are the way they are."

For instance, just knowing people were fleeing from advanced search didn't tell Google how to fix it.

Legal terms and boxes

But the Palo Alto entrepreneur explained that the page's legal terms and bevy of search boxes, which all seemed to demand filling in, were confusing and off-putting. Russell heard similar responses from others.

When he showed a highlight reel of their visceral reactions to a roomful of Google engineers, it finally hit home that the company needed to simplify the user interface. After it did, the bounce rate - or the percentage of people who instantly clicked away - dropped almost 50 percent.

Russell is part of a small team at Google focusing on the human side of the equation for search. In addition to regularly observing searchers, they conduct user surveys, pay people in cafes to try out new products, and invite people to Google to run though exercises and eye-movement studies.

Russell's roots are in computer science. He earned his master's and Ph.D. in the field from the University of Rochester, then went to work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Apple and IBM, before landing at Google.

At Xerox PARC, he focused on artificial intelligence. After developing what he thought was a sophisticated tool for simplifying programming for high-end copiers, he was disappointed to find that nobody - even prominent AI researchers - could figure out how to use his creation.

Russell realized that the most powerful technology in the world is next to useless if people don't understand how to use it. From then on, most of his work has focused on the science of user experiences.

Dates to 1920s

In the U.S., the use of what is known as applied anthropology or sometimes industrial ethnography dates back to at least the 1920s.

Applied anthropology isn't exactly a common practice in the business world today, though it tends to be more popular at tech companies. In addition to Google, Microsoft, Intel and IBM also apply these techniques, said Stephen Barley, co-director of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization at Stanford.

In recent months, Google has overhauled the design of many of its major services - knowing full well that such an endeavor would annoy some users. In fact, people complain so routinely about changes that there's an industry phrase for it: "You moved my cheese!"

The trick is distinguishing the hard-wired aversion to change from legitimate complaints that the company is making things worse. For most changes, traffic patterns tend to return to normal after a few weeks, after users figure out where their favorite features ended up.

But at least one change made around the end of last year seems to have had a lasting impact. Google peeled the "advanced search" button off the main page to make it clean and simple, qualities users always request. Usage numbers declined, however, and stayed down.

During a trip to the San Francisco Public Library in March, it was clear why. Russell spent about an hour observing and talking to librarian Patrick Shea.

He asked about typical patron inquiries and the search tools Shea employs to help them. Then he ran him through some tests, asking how he'd use Google to find vague queries like: "A book about oranges by a Scottish author."

Where is it?

At one point when Shea was stumped, Russell suggested he try advanced search. But Shea couldn't find it. Google hadn't just moved his cheese, they'd hidden it.

Russell has heard from a number of other librarians who can't seem to find it anymore. But when asked, he said that doesn't necessarily mean Google is going to put it back.

Google has hundreds of millions of users, each with different needs and levels of search competence. Every change for one subset - like those who occasionally use advanced search - comes at a cost for others - like the vast majority of people who never use it and don't want it cluttering up the main page.

Striking the right balance requires listening to the data - and, of course, to the users themselves.

Temple, James. 2012. "Commentary: Meet Google's search anthropologist". Chron.com. Posted: April 5, 2012. Available online: http://www.chron.com/default/article/Commentary-Meet-Google-s-search-anthropologist-3462792.php

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