"Designing the search experience" - Marianne Sweeny at the Polish IA Summit

 by Martin Belam, 13 April 2011

I’ve just come back from Poland, where I was giving the opening keynote session at the Polish IA Summit, and this week I’m posting my notes from the rest of the sessions I saw in Warsaw. On Monday I started with presentations which looked at design processes involving children, and yesterday had a focus on technology with my observations from talks by Krzysztof Trzewiczek and Tomasz Kopacz. Today I’ve got my notes from the opening session of day two by Marianne Sweeny.

Marianne Sweeny - "Designing the search experience (Not your mom’s SEO)"

“Machines and people do not look for info in the same way. As humans, we are squishy bipeds. We are emotional, and tend to be distracted by bright and sparkly things.”

The central premise of Marianne’s talk about search was that “Search engines are trying to absorb human intelligence into machine calculation”. That means that IA and UX practitioners need to think about the machine implications of the way they structure information on the web, and think ahead about the human implications for the way that search technology is developing.

She said that search engines don’t look or act anything now like they did in the nineties, but that the techniques we use to optimise for them are mostly the same. What is really galling, she added, is that everybody thinks they can do SEO.

When talking about the huge number of factors that go into a search engine algorithm, and the complex maths involved, Marianne came out with the line of the whole conference:

“I went to Catholic School, so my math is really bad. But I can explain The Trinity to you.”

On “Black hat” techniques, or “naughty SEO” as my colleague Chris Moran prefers to call it, Marianne argued that the web has become to big to police, and your greatest risk is not Matt Cutts and his spam team, but your competitors ratting on you.

On the buzzword topic of “content strategy”, she quoted Woody Allen - 80% of success is showing up. For her, content strategy was all about making sure you had appropriate content in “the intersection of what your company has and does, with what your customers are searching for about what you have and do”.

Marianne was certain that user experience teams and information architects should be the gateway keepers of the search experience. “Need”, she said, “is an experience. It is a state of being. Do not let the developers and engineers design this kind of experience”.

For anyone who didn’t think external search was of interest to a UX practitioner, she had this to say:

“We spend way to much time worrying about the experience on the page, and too little time on the experience of getting to the page. They have to get to you in order to have your ‘user experience’”

She had short shrift for anyone who thought that “social media” was going to replace search as our dominant way of finding information on the web anytime soon:

“I don't know about you, but my friends don’t know as much as a billion page index, though I love them dearly”

You can view Marianne’s slides and notes on SlideShare.


In tomorrow’s post I’ll have my notes from Polish IA Summit sessions that featured eye-tracking, designing for older users, and the redesign of a telecomms provider site.

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