Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Searcher or Browser

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Buzz Andersen asks a really good question: Are you a searcher or are you a browser?

This is to be understood with a view on the existing ‘search’ capabilities of tools like Google or iTunes and a the upcoming capabilities of Mac OS X.4. While everybody probably agrees that having those powerful search features is (or will be) a good thing, it’s a completely different question whether you’ll actually use them. I am really split on this. And I’m tempted to say that rationally I can be a searcher while emotionally I’m a browser.

Let me elaborate this a litte. Being a searcher ‘rationally’ means for me that using a search option will give me the results I want – or something reasonably close to it. On the web Google achieved the status of giving reasonably good results – and more comprehensive and even better results than any manually filed directory in most cases – a long time ago. Being a searcher paid off on the web fairly soon.

Locally it took longer to become viable. Sure, there were things like BeOS which looked pretty cool. But I’ve only ever seen it once and never used it on my own machine so I can’t judge how good it was. For me searching on my own computer started being viable with iTunes. If I’m really looking for something, it helps me locate it quickly. However, with an ever growing number of songs on my library I found those searches to be slightly less efficient for navigation as there’ll often be some unexpected items in the search results.

While those unexpected items don’t matter when you’re just looking for something, they get in your way when wanting to navigate to a well defined place. And I find that using the search technique to navigate to such a well defined place, an album, say, can take a lot of typing. To get good results, you often have to type the complete band name and some bits of the title. This technique will fail if there is a typo and can fail if the words you type in are too common, if you want to list all songs by ‘The The’, say.

In fact, I observed in my own usage of Google and iTunes that the results these tools gave me have changed the way I use them. Before typing a request into them, I’ll try to pick the search terms that I think will give me better results. When wanting all music by the White Stripes in my iTunes library (which includes the new Blue Orchid single since today) I’ve learned that typing in ‘Stripes’ is much better than typing in ‘White’. And so on. This hints that for good results these search tools may not be quite as good as I’d like them to be. They change the way I think. Another case of me changing what I do to please a computer rather than the other way round.

Another thing that makes me a browser at heart is that I like to go back to places and find them in the state I left them in. It’s not safe to assume that with tools which generate lists dynamically. I also like to know how I got there, to have more details for later reference. (That’s something that the OS X.3 Finder provides in its search result windows, btw.) And even more I’d like to be able to access the context of my search result (something that the X.3 Finder handles reasonably by showing the containing folders; something that’s one of the many reasons why even iPhoto 5 sucks: you can find any photo quickly but you can’t easily go and view the whole film that it’s in) to explore similar files.

Those are just a few things which make browsing more attractive in some situations. I’m not saying it’s the right way to do things at all times. Not at all. But I’m still quite attached to browsing. Particularly for its predictable and reproducible results.

For the searching style of finding data, you heavily depend on the quality of the software you’re using. If the software is reasonably good (like iTunes) and tailored to its particular field, it can be great. This may turn out to be both a big strength and a big weakness of the upcoming Spotlight stuff: It seems powerful, general and open enough to actually be adapted in specialised ways for whatever programmers envision but on the other hand the programmers will necessarily have to add some good customised code to filter or present the search results in a useful way.

While Apple may have the resources to do this properly – just think of the fun Spotlight use they show off for system preferences: probably technically low-key but potentially very useful (and a hint that those prefs have become too complicated already) – many others may not have the money or expertise for this, so I’m expecting the usual share of uninspired and geeky uses of the technology which will seem overly technical and too hard to use. Those will remind us that using search technology to locate stuff will completely put us at the mercy of the programmers. They determine which results are generated, they determine the context you get to see &c.

Fun note for the end: I just realised that I’m really unhappy with the question. Actually I don’t want to be a Searcher or a Browser. I’d be happy to have working Finder…

Mildly related Sidenote: It used to be interesting to note the following difference between the Mac and Windows in the past: At least in their German versions, the Mac seemed to use the word ‘Finden’ (find) for the find menu command while Windows used ‘Suchen’ (search). While the latter may technically be more correct, I always liked the positive spirit of the former. Unfortunately, this difference is one of the many nice things that went away as OS X came.

April 20, 2005, 1:07

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Received data seems to be invalid. The wanted file does probably not exist or the guys at last.fm changed something.