November 11th, 2004

  • evan

msn search, neural theory of language

There's another Microsoft search beta out that's worth a look. I think the "results ranking" sliders (under "search builder") are cute but ultimately useless; I certainly consider myself a "power user" but I have never even used Google's "advanced search" page, nor seen the tilde operator. Why? Because the results without any tweaking are good enough to get me what I want. Whenever I see user interfaces like these I remember the section from Joel Spolsky's book about how your users have better things to do than learn the details of your program; they want it to just work. And depending on how well it works for them, people learn less and less, and ultimately that's the way it ought to be -- these tools are only a means for solving greater concerns.

However, they (back to MSN search) do have a question-answering system, though I can't quite figure out how to trigger it except for using the questions I see in the press about it. This sort of thing, if done well, can potentially revolutionize search: search engines are already information portals, but few have been able to figure out how to provide answers directly instead of a list of potential answers. On that note, I got to catch a talk by S. Narayanan yesterday at Stanford about his research at the Neural Theory of Language project, which combined some linguistic theory, some cognitive science (including a slide with MRIs to support an argument(!)), and a lot of computer science to make what sounded like a pretty sophisticated system. Unfortunately, he didn't present any results, though it looks like he has some on his website.

Too many things to think about, always.
  • evan

firefox 1.0 vs. meena

Meena called me last night to ask me a question about setting up firefox. Her uncle ran (what I imagine was) adaware on her computer and it found hundreds of spyware files, and a friend of hers at school told her to switch, and so she did. (I try to not push my technology choices on her, in general; she was surprised to hear that I used firefox, and as far as I can tell was not aware that it was the browser she used on my Linux laptop.)

The reason she called was because she didn't understand what the "import stuff from IE" dialog from the installer was offering. She saw mention of IE and, because she was switching away from it, she didn't think she wanted its settings. And then, later, she went to an HTTPS site and didn't understand what the "this site is encrypted" dialog was telling her.

I mention these because I think it shows we're not all the way there yet. She is the sort of person our software ought to target: intelligent and willing to learn, but also intimidated, afraid of breaking things, and certainly with better things to do than learn what "encrypted" means.

(In happier news, she's dead set on her next computer being a Mac laptop.)