Search is a local maximum

The local maximum is one of the most interesting and frightening[1] ideas in UX and product management:

“The local maximum is a point in which you’ve hit the limit of the current design… Even if you make 100 tweaks you can only get so much improvement; [the design] is as effective as it’s ever going to be on its current structural foundation.”

For many tasks and activities targeted by digital services, Google search, and everything that follows (SEO, “How to do X” titles for posts, prioritisation of the freshest content etc) – represents a local maximum: a reasonable but ultimately sub-optimal approach.

Search’s influence is extremely deep. It’s what the web has been built around for the last ten years: it’s where journeys start and it’s how many commercial sites make money. It’s why content is created as it is, why sites are designed just so and its business model is what we look to. If you’ve grown up with the web and are now thinking about digital products, it’s practically in your bones. You can minimise the importance of search – Buzzfeed is one such example – but that tends to mean focussing on Social. Yet even Facebook, which is regularly touted as ushering in a post-Google world, has just deliberately moved back towards search, as though it’s a mountain it needs to conquer.

Aside from Social, Apps represent the other major challenge to a search-centric way of envisioning digital products. Perhaps as a result, apps are still regarded by many as an aberration whose time will soon end. Tom Morris’ recently circulated ‘No I am not going to download your bullshit app‘ is an ideal example of the antipathy they inspire from some quarters. It fulminates with righteous anger, and over 14 steps bangs home its one point: many apps are technically superfluous, and their functions can and should be fulfilled by the search-focussed web and its many disparate webpages.

Defenders of apps often build their arguments on the notion of focus vs clutter. The web is too busy, both visually and conceptually. When you open an app on your PC, particularly a browser based one such as Google Docs, it’s a confusing matryoshka: GDocs > Browser > OS > Computer[2]. A touchscreen device is purer: it’s a complete chamelon, transforming into whatever app you touch upon.

This is true, but in itself, isn’t the reason that apps are opposed to search – because if you have a search app, or search hardware (Chromebook, Glass), you solve the frames of reference issue.

A big reason apps are often opposed to search – and they often are, I think – is that they are the closest digital products have come to having a sensibility, a fundamental essence and set of values. Search has no essence, because it’s built on absence. Whether you’re looking for your keys or a review of a new pizza restaurant, it’s the absence which defines the activity. Online, digital search needs editorial prioritisation – I only have one set of keys, but there’s a thousand sites to tell me about pizza restaurants – but Google actively tries to surpress consideration of this, talking about fairness and faith in data instead. There is not a sense from Google that decisions are being made; instead its view is that thanks to its cleverness, algorithms and data-centers, fundamental truths are simply being uncovered.

Nowhere is this truer than the Knowledge Graph, a still ill-defined idea that Google is somehow becoming an AI/neural network/learning machine that knows how information relates to other bits of information and will therefore know what you want. It was puffed in the Guardian recently, but for many purposes it seems a very long-winded route – why teach the machine my sensibility when I know what I like, and I recognise apps which reflect it instantly? One app that I find myself using a surprising amount is the London’s Best Coffee App. It’s a collection of nice coffee shops in London, with useful information (opening hours, menus) and a map. It is entirely the kind of thing that can be done on the web, but the app does a great job both functionally and emotionally. I use it often when I’m out in the city, and what I like about it is not just that it’s focused, it’s that it delivers things I like. I can trust it, and I knew this from a thousand tiny signals, from the icon to the interface to the descriptions of the coffee shops, to the fact it includes ones I already go to. It’s a classic case of an object that I enjoy because it reflects my sensibilities.

Physical objects – and particular media objects, such as magazines – are adept at broadcasting a sensibility. Consider these two sentences and try to imagine what the person I am describing looks like:

James is 28, lives in Hackney, wears selvage denim jeans and reads GQ.
Jane is 33, lives in Bristol, likes purple dresses and often uses Google.

Your image of James is far clearer than Jane, I’d bet, even if you’ve not read GQ in years. You probably already know James has a moustache and boxy black plastic glasses, whereas the fact Jane uses Google tells you virtually nothing about her. It’s slightly above ‘She has two eyes.’ How about if I said TripAdvisor, or that she reads the Huffington Post[3]?

Apps do a better job of having a sensibility and telling you about their values. If I told you Jane is an avid user of Foursquare then that mental image of her is probably coming together a bit more. Apps generate a tighter, more graspable sensibility than websites do, and they do it faster. This is not to say sites can’t – from Reddit to This Is My Jam, they clearly can, it’s just the exception rather than the rule. 

Since search doesn’t really hook into the app ecosystem, can’t send apps traffic, and isn’t how people discover apps, they’ve been free to rethink a lot of what with the web is done in a certain way. Implicit in my critique of Quora is the idea that the site hasn’t chosen the right sensibility – it hasn’t recognised the best way to solve many of its problems, instead just lazily absorbing Google’s approach (and a bit of Facebook’s too).

Apps are able to be more expressive both through features and visual style because they get more of a user’s attention and have more control of a user’s device. And this can be useful – because sometimes, what we as people want, is driven not by a search query, but something more fuzzily defined, and sensibility appeals to that. How many people buy GQ because it answers a specific query? (“Are blue ties in”) vs the people who buy it because it matches their sensibility, or even more hazily defined, what they want their sensibility to become (“I want to be a bit cooler”)? Sensibility is where many of the world’s biggest and most successful brands operate.

What matters with apps is not whether the job they do can be technically done on a webpage; it matters whether that is really the best way to approach the problem. Search requires us to be able to formulate every desire into a query – but that’s far from easy and far from the optimal thing to make your users do.

[1] It is also one of the most humane ideas, because it hints both at the limitations of perspective that have been part of perception since the year dot (“can’t see the wood for the trees” isn’t that far off the above) – and of course, the divine inspiration and creativity that can solve it.

[2] There is a great blog post on this, written, I think by Dave Addey or Matt Gemmell and I cannot for the life of me find it right now.

[3] You could argue that these websites are used by many more people than than read GQ, so perhaps I should try and find a digital service with a comparable audience – but a website with 131,000 unique users a month is relatively obscure. Websites struggle to become brands until they are massively accepted services. And is it really just reach that makes Google and the sites it has inspired/driven bland? It’s also, I think, the decentralized, task-orientated, atomised nature of them.

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