MindSet, intent-driven search from Yahoo! Research

This is very interesting. Yahoo Research MindSet is a search UI that includes a slider that lets you indicate your “intent” by moving a slider between shopping on one end and research on the other. It then re-ranks the search results accordingly. Works pretty well. Try a search for shoes or search for wind surfing.

The whole effect is surprisingly transparent, probably because it’s a single axis and a fairly natural one for web users at that. I’m not sure a slider (vs. a couple of radio buttons to represent each extreme of the spectrum) is the right UI presentation, but the slider’s a fun toy for the research guys at Yahoo!, I’m sure.

(Via Geeking with Greg, who includes a characteristic dismissal of anything not invented at Findory. I’m with him on the sliders, although I’m not against tuning knobs of all kinds, period.)

I think search has to get smarter, and I think users will know what to do with a few judiciously chosen and well-implemented control knobs, at least until some kind of consensus on a new “ideal search engine” emerges, a decade or so from now (if ever).

My car has a setting for the wipers that moves the wipers only when a sensor on the windshield detects a certain amount of moisture. I use that sometimes, and it works pretty well, but it’s not perfect and there’s also a manual control that activates the wipers at fixed intervals, a feature which I don’t think is going away anytime soon. The knobs currently available (collectively known as “advanced search”, e.g. date ranges and all words vs. any of the words) in search engines are not intuitive and they certainly fail the “grandma test”. But a few knobs that more intuitively allow the user to guide the search will be well received, I think. Yahoo! is going in the right direction here.

But while the shopping vs. research axis of intent is useful (it cuts down results spam — for now — and folds in a Froogle-like tab into the main search results), it’s only the Flatland of intent, a modest beginning. The next trick would be to accomodate additional axes of intent (maybe whole hyperspaces of intent?), without giving up the transparency and intuitiveness of the UI.

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