Wanna kick some interface designing butt? Hit the stacks.

Hi there. I’m Amy. I design interactive experiences that are so unexpectedly nice, people write me to tell me that they wish they had a need for my software, just so they could have an excuse to use it.

I’m no superhero, I just have a secret weapon. Which I’m going to share with you, right now.

Let me step out of the usual coy article-writing character, and say it up front:

You wanna kick butt? Read a lot of research papers.
Yes, research papers. The publish half of publish or perish. Dry, academic, boring, inaccessible (and sometimes expensive) research papers.

They’re simply a gold mine.

They will make you smarter, better, and yes, even hotter (when your eyes start going bad from all the tiny type, you’ll resort to getting yourself a sexy monocle).

I know, you’re thinking that this is the very definition of hyperbole. But stick with me til the end of this article. I obviously can’t force you to read citations til your eyes blur, but I would bet you money I can convince you that you should.

We all agree that great interaction design is important, or we wouldn’t be here.

So, let’s talk about interaction for a moment.

Everybody says that excellent interface is one of the big reasons Google wins. It’s so simple; it just works; it’s a big friendly question box, just sitting there, waiting to help us. And, of course, Google was founded by two very ambitious PhD students.

So, if some research came out that totally demolished our view of how people search for information, you’d think that Google would be first on the scene. Right?

Sadly, wrong.

Let’s take a look at what they’re missing out on.

The Berry-Picking Model of Search

According to Marcia J. Bates, graduate researcher in the Library and Information Sciences department of UCLA, our existing models of search are dead wrong.

She proposes a different model, more accurate by her measure (and also by mine). She calls it berry-picking.

In reality, she says, users almost never find the desired result on the first try. This isn’t just because they don’t enter the correct terms. Their very idea of what they are looking for evolves over multiple searches and their desired documents extend across multiple searches, too.

Imagine a little girl tra-la-la-ing through the forest as she picks berries. She stops at this berry bush, and that berry bush, then returning to the first because it just looks so good, taking some berries from each. Then you pretty much have got it down.
Imagine, then, a search engine that helped you when you searched like that—the natural way to search. It would show you your old search terms, so you could revisit them, in case your newest forays were unproductive. You could “pin” results to some part of the page for later, in case you found nothing better, or wanted them in addition to the new goodies you found.

Wouldn’t that be great?

Doesn’t that sound exactly like the kind of thing Google should be doing, to push the boundaries of search engine design?

Or, if not them, then a competitor trying to get a leg up?

Now: I want you to guess when this research paper came out.

I’ve never seen any of these feature ideas implemented on any search engine, ever. Have you? So this paper must be really cutting-edge, right?

Actually, it wasn’t even published in this decade. Or this century. In fact, Marcia Bates published this remarkable paper in 1989.

You could be first on the scene with a practical application.

There are tons of research papers out there, like this one, that are just ripe for the picking (no pun intended).

Thanks to the publishing model of science, there are many people who spend their entire academic careers doing research in user interface-related topics. They don’t typically develop or release software. They often don’t even offer specific feature suggestions. But they do describe reality, and tests they made, and what does and doesn’t work.

You can read their papers and come up with the features and design them yourself.

Convinced yet?

How to get started

There are four major sources for computer-related research papers online:

  1. The General Web
    Many researchers and/or their universities publish their papers online for free. If you read papers, or books, that cite papers, you can often find their citation lists online for free. You can find Marcia J. Bates’ paper, THE DESIGN OF BROWSING AND BERRYPICKING TECHNIQUES FOR THE ONLINE SEARCH INTERFACE for free. I recommend it.
  2. The ACM
    The Association for Computing Machinery offers a yearly subscription of about $200 for anybody off the street, and this gives you access to a large portion of their online library. It dates back decades and is fairly searchable. You can also buy individual papers instead of a membership.
  3. Other online services
    The other two major sources I’d recommend are Questia and Highbeam, although not in any specific order. They are not as affordable or comprehensive as the ACM, but the ACM does not have everything.
  4. Books
    There are also many available books that compile industry research papers. Some analyze a whole body of papers so you don’t have to read and digest them yourself.

One more easy place to get started

If you’re new to research, I can recommend no better place to start than the personal information textbook Keeping Things Found. The author talks about berry-picking, among other things. (It’s not a bad read, either.)

In conclusion…

Most user interaction professionals never bother to read a single research paper. Those who do, have a huge leg up on the competition. And a greater chance of making happier users.

Research papers are available, they give you a professional & competitive edge, and they’re not terribly expensive (sometimes they’re free). Usability researchers even tend to write better than, say, philosophy PhD’s.

You’ve got nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

It’s time to kick some interface designing butt! Now, go read.


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