At this point, you may be wondering: what exactly is findability? This section is for you.
Findability is a quality that can be measured at both the object and system levels. We can study the attributes of an individual object that make it more or less findable. The title of a document. The color of a life jacket. The presence of an embedded RFID tag. And we can evaluate how well an overall system supports people's ability to find their way and find what they need. Can patients navigate a hospital? Can users navigate a web site?
Of course, the successes of findable objects and their systems are often closely linked. An orange life jacket fails to grab attention in an orange ocean, but a statistically improbable phrase jumps right out in a sea of books. Findability requires definition , distinction, difference. In physical environments, size, shape, color, and location set objects apart. In the digital realm, we rely heavily on words. Words as labels. Words as links. Keywords.
The humble keyword has become surprisingly important in recent years. As a vital ingredient in the online search process, keywords have become part of our everyday experience. We feed keywords into Google, Yahoo!, MSN, eBay, and Amazon. We search for news, products, people, used furniture, and music. And words are the key to our success.
The power of the keyword search has combined with the richness of the World Wide Web to foment a revolution in the way we do business. This revolution is not simply about moving the shopping experience online. It's about empowering individuals with information and choice. Never before has the consumer had so much access to product information before the point of purchase. Never before have we had so many products to choose from. Power has shifted and continues to shift toward the consumer.
As the pendulum swings from push to pull, the effectiveness of advertising diminishes relative to the importance of product design and quality and price. No longer forced to trust the promotional spin of television advertisements and predatory salespeople, we now have the ability to find the best products and the best deals. We can make informed decisions, thanks to the simple keyword and our sophisticated engines of findability.
For when you examine the tools and systems available for finding and evaluating products, keyword search is only the beginning. Consider the richness of Amazon, where we can compare and contrast myriad products in amazing detail. The hunt starts with a keyword search or perhaps the choice of category and subcategory.
Let's say we're looking for a digital camera. We choose Electronics, then Camera and Photo, then Digital Cameras. Now the selection really begins. We can browse by brand or filter by megapixel range. We can focus on the bestsellers or the lowest prices. For any given camera, we can view descriptions and specifications from the manufacturer, and weigh their claims against the color commentary of customer reviews.
These customer reviews are funny, insightful, and valuable, yet they also force us to play a more active role in evaluating our sources of information. Who do we trust? Amazon? The manufacturer? Some random customer? We need to validate claims by cross-reference, so we check out Epinions, CNET, and Consumer Reports. And if possible, we ask a friend. All of these sources and our own judgments about their trustworthiness and credibility inform the process of finding the right product.
The credibility and authority of sources become even more important when we step into the arena of health information. In an age of skyrocketing health care costs and doctors with little time to spare, we are taking our questions online. In the United States, 80% of adult Internet users, or almost half of Americans over the age of 18 (about 95 million individuals) have researched health and medical topics on the Internet. We learn about specific diseases. We educate ourselves about medical procedures. We search for nutritional supplements. And we seek alternative treatments and medicines for ourselves and for our loved ones. In the process, our literacy is put to the test. Can we find what we seek? Can we evaluate what we do find? Are our decisions getting better or worse?
I can tell you from personal experience that Google does not perform well when it comes to health. Recently, our youngest daughter, Claudia, was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy. Suddenly interested in a topic I had never cared about before, I turned to the Web for answers. Google sent me to specialized sites such as peanutallergy.com, a shallow and grossly commercial web site pushing favored brands of nut free chocolate and soynut butter. Yahoo! and MSN didn't perform any better. I did eventually find what I needed, but only by drawing on my advanced searching skills and familiarity with authoritative sources like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. If I weren't a librarian who lives on the Web, I would have failed to find the right answers.
Sometimes the health information we find online validates our doctor's diagnosis or advice. Sometimes it sends us for a second opinion. And sometimes it simply makes us feel better informed and more confident. Consider the following excerpt from an email message sent to the National Cancer Institute:
In this message of grief and gratitude, we can find hope and inspiration. Hope in the reality of progress. The sender couldn't have found what she needed only a few years ago. Though we already take it for granted, the Internet is still the fastest growing new medium of all time. And inspiration in understanding that the work we do to connect people with content and services and one another truly makes a difference. Designers, developers, writers, and others who labor behind the screens to shape the user experience rarely get to see the personal impact of their work. We maintain empathy for the user as a matter of faith. Messages from and contact with our users help us to renew that faith.
Of course, the user experience is increasingly out of control, as wireless devices inject new interfaces and affordances into an already complex network ecology. How do we design for mobility? How do we create good experiences when we can't predict context of use? Will our users be in the office or in the bathtub? What's their bandwidth and screen size? The variables will only multiply as ubicomp transforms the Web into both interface and infrastructure for an ambient Internet of objects we can barely imagine.
Ambient findability describes a fast emerging world where we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. We're not there yet, but we're headed in the right direction. Information is in the air, literally. And it changes our minds, physically. Most importantly, findability invests freedom in the individual. As the Web challenges mass media with a media of the masses, we will enjoy an unprecented ability to select our sources and choose our news. In my opinion, findability is going ambient, just in time.