Of Candied Herbs and Happy
Babies: Seeking and Searching
on Your Own Terms
Elizabeth F. Churchill
Yahoo! Research | email@example.com
November + December 2008
[ 1] “person” could be
“user” or “human” or
“agent”. I suggest picking one that acknowledges a human is present in the transaction.
A friend asked me to buy some
candied herbs for her while I was
in Italy. I had never heard of such
a thing. It sounded dubious—
and entirely likely, therefore, to
be some foreign delicacy that I
would in fact turn out to adore.
And that was the case. But before
getting there, I needed to find
out where to buy said “candied
herbs.” My friend had thoughtfully sent me a link to a shop where
they were apparently available.
But while the shop was easy to
find, every time I went, it was
closed, windows shuttered.
So I figured I would try to
find another source. What better way to do that than to search
the Internet? The world is, after
all, at my fingertips via a query
in a box. “Candied herbs buy
torino” yielded no results, at
least none I could make sense of.
So I translated “candied herbs”
into Italian: canditi erbe. I typed
this into a search box and got
back many (many) pages in
Italian, a language I don’t speak
or read. I translated said pages.
No luck. I tried Yahoo! Answers
and found recipes for candied
as to where I could buy them in
Torino? Still no luck.
Getting truculent, I start typing in broader terms—perhaps
the problem was the word “can-
died.” I tried various combinations of “sweet” ”sugar” ” herb”
”plant” ”eat” ”cook” ”tourist”
”gift” ”edible,” and various herb
names—all of which sounded
disgusting when combined with
“sugar” or “candy”—sage, basil,
borage….and so on. Still no luck.
Since I was looking for a foreign food in a foreign language
and would not have been able
to recognize a candied herb if
one bit me on the nose, I was not
really surprised that I was having
this problem. But, I also suspected there must be a way to find
this elusive information—if only
I could just enter the right combination, the correct incantation of
words into that little search box.
There is a nice term called
“gaslighting” that means a willful
undermining of someone’s sense
of reality in order to drive that
person mad. I was feeling a little
less sane as I tried to semantically link previously unconnected
concepts to generate possible
relevant query terms and review
the results —so much information, so little of use. The search
engine asserted dominance,
drawing me out and then underscoring my linguistic (perhaps
conceptual) inadequacy: I was
free associating and getting punished for my efforts.
In the end, I just kept return-
ing to the shop that my friend
referred me to. There in the
amazing sweet shop cum apothecary store, circa 1836, lay the
So what does this all have to
do with design? To pose the question differently, what does this
have to do with person-centered
[ 1] interaction design? A lot.
Internet search has become
the dominant paradigm of
information seeking for many
of us. However, the paradigm of
Internet search is in its infancy,
and search as an Internet experience is often construed very narrowly. There is much discussion
about matching query terms,
indexing, and ranking relevant
results, and determining which
are the best algorithms to determine which content is delivered
back as a result of a query. These
are, of course, crucial factors in
the design of good search experiences. Search engines have
personalities based on how these
processes are prioritized and how
results are presented.
But as the example above
shows, seeking and finding
involve (many) keyword queries.
And a lot more than a page and
a query box is involved. For just
that scenario, I opened at least
20 browser windows over two
days, interweaving my search