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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thinking Outside the Internet

Much of the research for guiding the design of improved and new technologies focuses on how people use existing technologies. However, knowing what people are doing and thinking when they are not using a technology can also be valuable. To provide a sense of how this is true, I will share two examples of research relevant to online services. The first is about a company familiar to many, and the second is about my own research.

In the MIT Technology Review Tom Simonite discussed his involvement in a recent user research project conducted by Google:
For three days last month, at eight randomly chosen times a day, my phone buzzed and Google asked me: “What did you want to know recently?” The answers I provided were part of an experiment involving me and about 150 other people. It was designed to help the world’s biggest search company understand how it can deliver information to users that they’d never have thought to search for online.

Billions of Google searches are made every day—for all kinds of things—but we still look elsewhere for certain types of information, and the company wants to know what those things are.

“Maybe [these users are] asking a friend, or they have to look up a manual to put together their Ikea furniture,” says Jon Wiley, lead user experience designer for Google search. Wiley helped lead the research exercise, known as the Daily Information Needs Study.

If Google is to achieve its stated mission to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible,” says Wiley, it must find out about those hidden needs and learn how to serve them. And he says experience sampling—bugging people to share what they want to know right now, whether they took action on it or not—is the best way to do it. “Doing that on a mobile device is a relatively new technology, and it’s getting us better information that we really haven’t had in the past,” he says.
In the pursuit of improving its online services, Google is looking beyond its own invaluable data on online behavior and trying to understand its users' needs even when they are not using Google's online services. Read the article here for more thoughts about how this research might impact what Google offers.

Sometimes the "hidden needs" Jon Wiley mentioned can be first suggested in what is openly displayed on a wall. In a post about a dormitory room at Changsha's Central South University of Forestry and Technology, I wrote I would later "provide a small taste of how visiting these rooms can aid in the design of new technologies". One example can seen in the bulletin board I noticed in the back of the room.

bulletin board with notes in a college dormitory room in Changsha, China

The four female students who lived in the room used the board to post notes with their hopes, feelings, questions, and inspirational messages. One note expressed a student's desire to have enough money to treat her roommates to a meal at KFC as she had previously promised. Another expressed a student's sadness due to missing her boyfriend.

So many questions can now be asked, such as:
  • Why are they posting these particular messages on this bulletin board?
  • Did they also share these thoughts online? If not, why not?
  • Do other people post notes in a similar manner?
  • Are there other places where they share their thoughts?

Researching these and other questions has taken me to many more places in China than a single dorm room in Changsha. Although those places don't exist on the Internet, the stories they tell provide clues about what a variety of online services could offer and how they should be designed.

These examples of Google's and my own research provides hints of the value in conducting research that pushes beyond what may seem to be obvious boundaries. A common phrase people use to try to inspire innovation is "think outside the box". In the case of designing online services, it can be better to say "think outside the Internet".

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