A Little Bit of Plywood. A Little Bit of Pride.
Okay, I know that pride is a sin, though perhaps not as much of a sin as cat juggling or walrus teasing. But I wanted to show off a bit of a project I just finished.
It’s a funny thing because this all happened with a few pieces of plywood (and a bit of birch) and some amazingly detailed plans from Prairie Designs in California. This was the project, um, maybe mid-stage. There are some short plywood rectangles, some long plywood rectangles, a few two-level rectangles (which were out of birch but could have been out of plywood), and a post. Yup. Not showing the wiring right now, but that was a pain to do so I’d rather not discuss.
Anyway… After countless hours - well, probably 40 or so - I finished my project, a recreation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin III lamp. I think it looks pretty nice. It’s a much softer glow than you see in this photo.
I Am Not Illya Haynes and I Am Making Things Worse
A few weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend Illya Haynes. He was applying to graduate school and had done a search on his name to make sure, well, that there was nothing out there with his name that might affect his application. (He’s a very upstanding fellow so I would have been surprised to find anything offensive.)
Anyway, a curious thing happened when he clicked on Images: the first photo that appeared was mine! I looked into this a bit and realized I had posted on Tumblr that “I was at Psycho Suzi’s with Illya Haynes” some time ago. Since I do not refer to myself in 3rd person, the only name mentioned was Illya’s, and so my photo became associated with his name. Of course, I could have addressed this by adding an alt/title tag to the photo but, really, who does that anyway? Yeah. Nobody.
So here I am, writing this post with Illya’s name in the title, and though anyone reading this will know that I am not him, it’s quite likely that Google will make that incorrect association.
Managing the Megamall of Enterprise Search
I’ve been struggling to find a good analogy for this post and I think I’ve come up with, well, at least something good enough to keep writing. Who knows, maybe I’ll even click “Create post” before the day is over.
As you may know, I work for a large corporation in the glamorous field of intranet search, a.k.a. enterprise search. People who use our intranet searches - we have many searches and even more sites - are often very unhappy with the results. They point to search as being the biggest failure of the intranet. Are they right in this critique? You betcha.
I sense your impatience. You’re asking, “Dave, what is this analogy you’ve come up with? We’re dying to know because we know it’s gonna be a zinger!” First, “zinger”? Who says zinger anymore? That went out with “humdinger.” But I digress… My analogy: Search within large companies is analogous to a shopping mall. That is, you have anchor stores that carry a bit of everything - the Sears of Search - and then all of those other stores that exist because they sell more specific products and their employees have more detailed expertise.
You’re probably asking, “Why should I care?” Honestly, if you don’t work for a large corporation OR if your large corporate employer has a well-managed intranet space and search (HA!), you may not have an issue. You should keep reading to bask in my elegant prose, but I can’t say you’ll gain much for the trouble. However… If you have anything to do with intranet search - if you’re the victim or the culprit - AND if you would like my gratitude, you should read on.
Okay, I’ve lost the thread… The analogy. Okay, back to the mall. The large corporate intranet has at least one anchor store. You can find your HR policies, general procedural information, corporate news, etc. After that, though, your success will be limited. If you’re looking for specific information for your group, or for another group, it may be hard to find. Just like in the real world, your persona changes constantly: Are you helping someone in a different group? Helping a customer? Trying to find information for yourself to do your job? The variants are endless, and before you even start your search you need to know who you are at this exact moment. (Am I sounding too existential?)
But here, alas, is where the shopping mall analogy crumbles. Even a person ignorant of product names would know, walking through the mall, that an Apple store does not sell fruit and that Forever 21 has nothing to do with blackjack. Our intranet searches often don’t give us that context. We may see a URL path, but unless we’re familiar with the site, it does not give us a picture of what the site is about. But what about the title, Dave? Well, think about it this way: If you went into a plant store and said, “I need a bulb” you would get different questions and a different end result than if you made that request in a lamp store. With the intranet search, it’s often the case that you have no idea which store this content is coming from.
“But Dave, this sounds terrible! How can it possibly get any worse?!” Oh, it can. It can. If you searched for “60W bulb” on Google you’d find plenty of sites selling just that. Those exact words would be in the title. Easy enough. On the intranet, though - and here I’m making the intranet sound like some sort of gulag, and that’s largely correct - the chances are as good as even that you will find documents titled “Slide 1.” Yup. It happens. It happens often. To keep with a retail theme, it would be like going to a grocery store where half of the labels were off of the cans and nothing had an expiration date. (That last part is rather apt; it’s often the case that old versions of content will appear in the search before newer content.)
So… Is there a solution to all of this? To be quite honest, not without drastic measures. I would recommend, with no reservations, some sort of penalty assigned to people who published content with bad titles or that failed to remove old content from the site. Yeah, metadata is fine and all, but dammit, titles! It’s also the fault of, um, me, but I’d rather not be penalized because I’m putting in a half bath and, well, I need the cash. But if I were to suggest a penalty to someone LIKE me, but not really me, I would say that person needs to make sure that sites are easily identified. Even when we provide faceted navigation in the search, we show sites by their URLs and not by the name of the site. That’s just unacceptable.
Well, I’ve been jabbering on more than I should be. But, despite what seems to be the inscrutability of this problem, there is a solution. It will not be easy. A lot of people will get offended. But, well, if anyone could really figure out the true cost of bad search - I believe it’s a great cost but I don’t have numbers that I trust - maybe those of higher stature than I will decide to put some effort behind the issue. We’re can’t put in a flower garden until we get rid of the engine blocks and old tires!
Context and Clarity
So I’ve been thinking about search again - it is my job, after all, so it should be on my mind quite often - and the importance of both context and clarity. You could also say that I am just looking for something - anything - to write about, and that is perfectly correct as well.
Anyway, Context. My Dad was in World War II. Around 1990 or so, one of his former Signal Corps buddies started having a yearly reunion. Someone filmed these reunions and I have those VHS tapes. The sound quality is terrible; during the receptions it’s just a din of people talking.
But here’s where I think it gets interesting: Though all you can hear is a din, there is clearly a Nazi flag in the background. If you saw this video and did not know the context - that this flag was taken as a souvenir when they fought the Germans in Italy - you might conclude that this was some sort of pro-Aryan meeting rather than a reunion of old war veterans.
So what’s my point? Well, heck. I guess this turned out to be more of an anecdote than a cautionary tale. Though I guess the point is that you have to know what the context is before you make any conclusions. But, well, that’s pretty obvious. Maybe I’ll move on to Clarity. Yes? Okay.
So, Clarity. My wife’s grandmother is in an assisted living facility. For Halloween they played a BINGO-like game that had a fall/Halloween theme. Instead of numbers they had images. However, these images had a degree of ambiguity that is more than many of an advanced age can stand. One image was an apple and another was a candied apple. One image was a jack-o-lantern and another was a pumpkin. This caused for complete confusion among the players.