facetofcathy: Faceted prism shown refracting light into the visible spectrum (Spectrum)
[personal profile] facetofcathy
I'm going to tell you all about how I search and browse for things.

Some time ago, I stumbled upon Browse vs. Search: Which Deserves to Go? by Bruce Tognazzini. It's a fascinating post that takes one hapless questioner's search for like minds to have a go at Apple designers for not putting all their eggs in the search basket and uses it as a case study in why you need both. I don't know anything about Lion or the iOS contacts app they're talking about, but the specific list of things being browsed or searched isn't the point.

The point is that people will not use your app or website the way you want them to, or the way you think is easiest. They'll do what works for them. And one of the problems designers have is that they think they're the template for all humanity, but they're actually kind of not very typical folks.

The [original Apple computer] was familiar-looking and approachable. Woz [Steve Wozniak], the engineering genius behind it, later developed the CL 9, the first programmable universal remote control. It featured the keys 0 through F, labelled with the standard Hexadecimal notation so familiar to everyone born with 16 fingers. It enabled you to capture and command 256 different codes spread across 16 invisible "pages." You just had to memorize the page and position of all 256 of those codes and you could control everything! Woz and about three other people were able to make excellent use of the resulting product. Engineering, even genius engineering (and Woz was and is second to none), must be balanced with equally talented design.

And in opposition to those gloriously analytical designers are the rest of us:
Then, there are the users. They are different from us. Users must be assumed to favor full visualization, with 75% feeling significant discomfort with abstraction (Myers, Tog on Interface). This majority has spacial and motor memories that tend to be good, while their ability to rote-memorize and to form complex mental models may be limited, and, in any case, they find those particular tasks unpleasant.

All this in no way should imply we shouldn't offer Search. There are conditions under which it becomes essential. There are millions of people like Craig who are efficient with it and enjoy using it. It does mean we should not assume that because we high-techies are efficient and comfortable with Search and other abstract interactions that everyone else shares our skill and our joy.

A while ago, I ventured into a (not used) book store for the first time in a while. I was shocked to be repeatedly approached by staff who wanted to "help" me. They were human search boxes with a blinking cursor beckoning me to just tell them what I wanted, so they could find it for me.

But I didn't know what I wanted!

I wanted to browse. I mean, isn't that why the books are arranged in categories in the first place? Isn't that why the books have colourful covers and come in different sizes and have different fonts on them? Isn't that why some have the title in big print, and some the author? And all those elements of a book title communicate things--sometimes directly to my subconscious (Argggh, a pink cover, running away!).

The experience of browsing is utterly different from telling the clerk you want the latest thing by Big Name Author, and could they recommend three books by not quite so big name authors that are nearly indistinguishable.

On the other hand, I love Ubuntu's fuzzy logic search box for programs and files. It's what I always use to find the weirdly named utilities I only use once in a blue moon. I think the one I want has a name that starts with C, I'll hazard, and sure enough there it is. You see, the way my memory works, I remember the shape of words and what letter they start with, but I'll mix up pairs of similar words. A standard search is hopeless, but the Ubuntu box works a treat.

I love Firefox's hideously named Awesome Bar that has a similar search function built in. (Normal people call it the box you type the web address in.) I can type in Phil, and that guy's blog I read, who's named Phil something or other, comes up right at the top even though phil is not in the URL.

Now, hand me a vanilla search box and I get really frustrated and will likely have better luck browsing a list.

So, for me, wanting to browse broad categories, which is my usual preference anyway, is only heightened by search functions that expect me to actually know exactly what I want and know what it's called and how to spell it.

And for natural born searchers, a long list to browse with no search function to quickly show them all the things on a list that meet six or ten or two or twenty criterion that they've memorized will drive them to find some other place to go for whatever it is you're, well, archiving.

As I said, I'm a natural browser. On the AO3 (you're only just catching on that that's what this is about?) I always used the tag filter, which is a form of browsing.

I hate the current advanced search with a passion, I won't read that post that wants to teach me all the URL codes to use and I don't have any desire to memorize the allowed formats of search terms in all those boxes.

I used to go to the AO3 when I wanted to read, and I'd look for something that appealed. I don't want the latest thing in the juggernaut pairing the second it's posted. I want something, something in one of twenty or more fandoms I like to read in. I want to browse those fandoms.

In some fandoms, I only wanted a few pairings or characters, in others I'd look at them all, in others, I wanted newly posted, which would include backdated fics too, and I never got that.

I also sometimes used to click on m/m and then order it by word count highest to lowest and scan the whole list. This is real browsing. This is going through 1000 entries and skipping the ones I'd looked at (visited link colours FTW!), the ones with 12 crossover fandoms, the ones with a huge list of tags full of exclamation marks, Harry Potter (sorry fans), sex swap, and holy crap, do I wish fic blurbs had icons on them, because icons communicate things, and there's some that are and instant skip.

And of course that's all past tense. I quit using the AO3 to find fic in January. Let me repeat that, as of January 2012 the tag filtering browse was completely unusable. It had been very irritatingly slow for MONTHS before that. And that basically means I quit using the archive altogether and mostly quit reading fic outside a few things on LJ.

I'm glad the search is being reworked. I'm sorry no one asked the users how they like to search and/or browse. I'm sure the stories would be interesting and diverse. And cheaper than a human-computer interaction consultant as design advice.

I don't even know if there will be a workable browse in the new system or if I will be expected to shape myself into a round peg search box user to use the AO3.

Or, you know, will there be a search that works for the crowd that craves to never see a list of work blurbs ever again that isn't winnowed down to a fine set of criterion that of course they have memorized, duh.

We shall see in time, what will be presented to us as users. But for me, the AO3 is that thing I used to use.

I decided to make this public again because I just read a comment on fail fandom anon that makes my point.

Real people who don't know or care how your system is designed at the code level need to be able to find things in it. Right now they can't, and if search/browse is seen as a module to be plugged into the AO3 and not something fully integrated into the site itself--as in those useless lists of fandoms--then it never will get better. Up to now the AO3 has failed at creating an archive users can actually use to find things in.
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