You're Not the Boss of Me!

When I was growing up, one of life’s great joys was getting a new canister of Tinkertoys, those delightful wooden building pieces you can use to make everything from a construction crane to a fire truck. They always came with detailed instructions on building complex battleships, merry-go-rounds, and fully operational nuclear power plants. Well, at least I think so. The fact is that the first thing I’d do was toss the directions away and build something weird.

I have, of course, put away childish things (well, at least when we have guests over). However, I haven’t lost that desire to play around with stuff to see what emerges. And I still don’t like to RTFM (read the—insert f-word here—manual).

I haven’t been, you know, looking for something new. But I won’t lie; I am starting to feel resentful of many of my longtime information providers. I love you, man, I really do. It’s just that we’ve grown apart. You still offer me tons of sources, computing power galore, and our very own advanced search features—but I think I need more.

I thought things were fine until one day when I was playing around with Google Maps’ directions feature. I didn’t like the route that it was suggesting and—purely out of frustration and not expecting any result—I clicked on the route line and tried dragging it to avoid a nearby town. To my delight, it moved, and the directions were recalculated with the new midpoints. Google let me decide how I wanted its directions feature to work for me.

What Google has learned is that the ability to meaningfully interact with an information source is becoming a must-have for users. It’s not enough to just offer tons of features and lots of power anymore. Econtent publishers can no more remain profitable with that kind of model than could we info pros if we stuck with one-size-fits-all service. You see, you just don’t know what your users are going to want to do. Yes, you have these features that you expect me to use like this, but that’s not what I want to use it for.

My advice? Let go. Be Zen. Relax. You may gain all kinds of insights by imagining yourself as an anthropologist and thinking of us as your subjects. You’re putting us in an information-rich environment, and you’re giving us all kinds of toys. Now watch how we creatively use these tools. That means offering the most forgiving interface you can, letting us weight our search words so you know what we really mean, encouraging user tagging of content, and adding robust data visualization tools.

Interestingly, users see more value in a site that offers us less structure (or at least fewer mandatory rules) and allows more input from users. That input might include a search screen that lets us use text size to indicate the relative importance of various search words, or lets us specify which blogs we would also like included in the search, and lets us see tag clouds that show us the hottest news on a topic. Give us a dashboard like, which uses a variety of data visualization tools to help us see the hot spots around the globe, the emerging trends, and the unexpected relationships among news topics.

Most “advanced search” screens offer more templates and fields to search, but the ways that we can search are still determined by your ideas of how searchers want to search. The assumption is that we want to use Boolean logic and sophisticated field queries. Sure, that’s usually how we have constructed our queries, but what if we want to query the content in an entirely different way?

I am reminded of, the social bookmarking site recently absorbed, Borg-like, by Diigo. While it was originally envisioned as a site simply to share and archive websites, Furl knew enough to provide tools to let a thousand uses flower. There is even a page titled “How People Use Furl,” with all kinds of innovative ideas.

I would love to see something similar in the econtent world. Let users create new apps that let them do things you never imagined. Give us tools to work with the information. We appreciate all the content; now move aside and let us get down to the serious matter of playing with your content.