Thursday, June 11, 2009

Information Retrieval Serendipity

Serendipitous information retrieval is the art of finding things you didn't know you were looking for until you find them. It's the joy of finding stuff, serendipity, good fortune, an auspicious search moment and you are happy. A search "ah ha" moment and they are fun. Serendipitous information retrieval is search nirvana.

I had my own serendipitious search moment late one Sunday night. Doing a little channel surfing to attempt to cure insomnia, I found an HD concert channel. Paying no real attention while multitasking on the laptop the HD concert was just background noise until Dave Matthews Band came on. It was musical nirvana. Something new but kinda old as Dave put himself during the concert. Aside from the commentary about being late to the party, for me it was an amazing find. Four concerts and 102 songs later, I still consider that channel surfing to have been a serendipitous event.

Serendipitous search is a creative investigative process. It's about thinking and navigating through information, and data, and web sites, and images, and enjoying the trip. It's the opposite of search paralysis where you just can't seem to find what you are looking for and keep giving up and starting over until you call it quits. Amazon and Netflix and the smart phone app stores all have a variation on these types of searches to help their customers navigate and make new discoveries by leading them down the path of searchers that came before them, it's a kind of simulated curiosity encouraging you to keep looking.

We learned about serendipitous search when we were working on our diagnostic imaging project. Doctors and clinicians talk about having a hunch and seeing if their hunch is right or more importantly when researching a problem, seeing where their hunches take them. When you ask them what they don't like about the current state of the art in search they'll tell you it's just too hard to follow their hunches, the tools just aren't there.

Richard Feynman's book "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" shows how the art of finding things out and the process of doing it has it's own pleasure. Like when you're a kid and you have to tell everyone "look what I found." Or when you have one of those white light enlightenment moments when you learn something new.

David Pescovitz wrote an interesting post on serendipitous search in the real world, how people search in malls, at flea markets, in the real world.

So that's what we're trying to do, to try to create serendipitous search experiences. To make the search experience one where you don't want to heave the laptop out the window.


The phrase serendipity came from a 1754 fairy tale by Horace Walpole retelling the story of a 1557 Italian story, retelling a 1302 Persian fairy tale retelling a tale based on life of a Persian king who lived around 402. The English version is called "The Three Princes of Serendip" in which "the heroes were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity of things they were in quest of."

If Serendipitous search isn't your thing, you can always go to Serendipity in NYC founded in 1954, 200 years afer Walpole's translation. They have great ice cream!!

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