Ms Dewey – Lessons in how NOT to design a search engine, brought to you by Microsoft

Ms Dewey

If you’re going to design a product with a smart ass attitude, then you really need to make an extra effort to make sure you get it right. Ms Dewey, a recent entrant to Search Engine Land, has all the attitude, but none of the smarts required to pull it off.

So, here’s the idea in general. You put a hot chick on a screen with a search field. So, you figure you’re going to get the edge on the male 18-35 market, yeah? Fair enough. What about the other 52% of the searching population.

Well, if Ms Dewey had not just the looks but also the intelligence to deliver a good search experience, they hey – she’s got potential to become the poster girl for information architects and interaction designers the world over.

Sadly. She’s just a pretty face. Ms Dewey doesn’t just fail to deliver a good search experience. It’s downright annoying. It’s not that I’d prefer a different interface, it’s that I can’t stand using this one!

The concept is a little fuzzy to start off with. After all, most people would agree that people who are performing the task of searching are really looking for it to be a rapid transaction. Enabling people to get their search done quickly and to give them fast and accurate results are the keystones to good search experience. How does the Ms Dewey character add value to this? Well, frankly. It doesn’t.

Not only does it take a LONG time to return search results (around 10 seconds when I was playing with the site this evening), but you have to go through an annoying and repetitive inanity from the character before you get your results. (Something about a girl always being prepared). This adds no value to the user experience. All it does is make me wait. And wait.

I can’t tell you what the results are like, because for some reason or other, there were no search results available for anything. When it is working, apparently, you’re given results from the Microsoft Live search engine – with some special Ms Dewey Easter Eggs for searches on terms such as beer and boobs. Lovely.

So, in terms of passing the first test – letting me achieve the task that is my key reason for being at this site – Ms Dewey fails abysmally.

There are other things that really bother me about this site though.

  • The call to action for the search is all wrong. Now, I was there knowing that this was some kind of search engine, but also with experience of things like Ask Jeeves and Subserviant Chicken. The call to action reads ‘Ms Dewey, Just Tell Me’ followed by a text field and a button that says ‘search’. So, this is a different kind of search engine… am I supposed to structure my search query differently? The woman on the screen is ‘conversing’ with me… am I supposed to write my query as a question?Of course, with a few experiments (assuming the search is working) I’d quickly learn that standard search queries are what’s required here…. but Ms Dewey isn’t exactly the most friendly gal. I don’t think she’d be too nice to me if I did something dumb here. The call to action makes the action required from my ambiguous. And it makes me, as a user, uncomfortable.If you’re going to screw around with a convention as strong as this one, you’ve got to think about the outcomes.

    I’d be interested to see the search terms that are being entered and whether or not people ARE actually taking a much more conversational tone in their query structures.

  • The feedback whilst I’m waiting for my results is all wrong. Sure, the text changes to tell me that Ms Dewey is now thinking, but Ms Dewey looks to me as though she’s doing anything but thinking. Thankfully, she does stop the pouting and carrying on, and maybe even cracks a smile, but she doesn’t really do anything different to indicate that she’s actually carrying out the task I’ve asked her to perform. She looks as though she’s about to start filing her nails.If you’re going to make me wait that long for search results, then at least give me the impression that you’re taking seriously the work that you’re doing for me. Especially when you have such a big stage and an actress to do so.
  • Can you be mean to your users and deliver a good experience? One of the nice things about some of the apps that have come out in the web 2.0 era is that many of them have an injection of personality – hooray! I can’t think of any, though, that take an bored and impatient attitude with their users. Rather, they tend to be more friendly and playful.Ms Dewey has much better things to do than wait around for you to make a search. Funnily enough, that’s where all of the work seems to have gone in this project… a series of different sequences of Ms Dewey being bored, or huffy or pouty, or entertaining herself with a magazine or mobile phone whilst waiting for you to search. Personally, I could do without the attitude. Especially that, in reality, it’s me that spends time waiting for Ms Dewey to do her work… all I want to do is make a search.

    Personally, I get enough of this attitude in shops and restaurants around London, and I certainly don’t need it in a search engine.

    And that sequence about Ms Dewey learning more as we search more so she can rule the world…. all the more disturbing when you realise that this is actually a Microsoft project.

Yep, that’s right. Microsoft are responsible for Ms Dewey. Although, you won’t find any mention of them on the site. Microsoft says:

“Who says search can’t be fun? At Windows Live we are constantly exploring new and creative ways to promote our search offering and deliver relevant information in an interesting and engaging way. The Ms. Dewey website is just one example of these efforts.

This is not an advertising campaign. This really just an experiment for exploring different ways to introduce people to search and Live Search specifically. We are not promoting the site but simply putting it out on the Web for discovery.”

Well. I’m dead keen to explore new and fun ways to search, but for me Ms Dewey is a half baked idea that could potentially be interesting, but that needs to be a whole lot smarter and a whole lot nicer before it becomes a valuable addition to the suite of possibilities for search.

What’d you think?

less is not enough

Less is Less - How Cover

OK. So I’m finally almost brave enough to send you in the direction of my very first ever podcast that I did for the Office 2.0 Podcast Jam. (Assuming you haven’t wandered over there and had a listen already.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about this ‘cult of less‘ that 37 Signals seems to be leading and whether, in fact, it has an evil side. Well… ok, not an evil side. But is it all as good as it seems?

I started thinking this when I was listening to Peter Morville give the keynote at EuroIA the other weekend. He was pondering the ever increasing abundance of information that we have around us now, and wondering if it was helping us to learn, to make good decisions.

I wondered the same about information architecture and interaction design.

So, I’ve been thinking a bit about these web based project management solutions such as BaseCamp and GoPlan and thinking about what they *don’t* do when compared to more complex software such as Microsoft Project.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that there aren’t some *serious* problems with Microsoft Project but it was, for better or worse, instrumental in teaching me how to be a project manager. This is something that neither BaseCamp nor Go Plan could do.

Similarly, we’ve seen some interesting user testing lately that has shown users asking for more complexity to help enable their decision making.

So our natural response as designers, to simplify the interface, may in fact, be reducing the ability of the people using our software or websites to be able to learn, and to make good decisions.

So, that’s the crux of what I’m thinking of. What do we lose with ‘less’? And is it (always) worth it?

If you want to hear the full blow raving version, you can find it here.

I think I sound a bit less like Judith Lucy in this one :)

Image credit: 37 Signals being featured in HOW magazine

How a little change could make a big difference.

I ordered some tickets from Ticketmaster the other day. For reasons known only to them, the only delivery option I have is Secure Mail. A few days ago I got an email or a txt message to let me know that they were planning to make a delivery sometime within a ridiculously large window of time.

SMS from Secure MailOf course, TicketMaster doesn’t let me use my work address for delivery, it has to be the mailing address for my credit card. So, from the very beginning, I had a bad feeling about this. It was a pretty good assumption that I was going to be home when they wanted to make the delivery.

(Why do so many companies work on the utterly flawed idea that so many of us are so able or prepared to not go to work for a day in order to receive their services? Do so many people not work these days?)

This is Secure Mail’s explanation:

Your secure delivery will be made between 9am and 5pm. To increase security our delivery agents constantly change their delivery routes and times which means we are unable to give a specific delivery time.

OK, so security. At least it’s on brand.

This morning, I receive a text message from Secure Mail (Murphy’s Law, not fifteen minutes after I’d left the house to go to work). They informed me that they’d tried to deliver my tickets but, surprise, surprise, I wasn’t there. To rearrange delivery, they said, I should go to their website.

So I did.

Please tell me if you can see what I am supposed to do now?

SecureMail homepage

Yep, that’s the complete set of options on the Secure Mail website.

Where’s the bit that talks about re-delivery, missed a delivery, received an SMS? Any kind of keyword that I would see in this situation and identify that yes, that’s the right section for me.

As it happens, the section I’m supposed to go to is ‘Book your Delivery’. That made no sense to me as I was convinced that this was some kind of a courier service and that the Book Your Service was to initiate a courier service.

From what I can gather, SecureMail lets you know if they have something they need to delivery to you, either by If we are holding a secure mail item for you we will have let you know by text, calling card or letter.

What if, instead of saying ‘arrange delivery’ (even though that’s how the people at Secure Mail might think about it), you put a little section on that page that said something like ‘received an SMS, letter or calling card?’ or ‘did we miss you earlier? need to rearrange a delivery?’

I’m betting that a whole lot more people would find what is actually quite good functionality allowing me to re-schedule the delivery (even to my work address) on a day that suits me.

How could Secure Mail tell that this has worked? Well, I’d be looking for more transactions via the website and fewer phonecalls and contact form submissions. I’d be looking for shorter session times on the website, and less angry and frustrated customers.

OcardoAnd I’d be looking for blog posts the opposite of this – saying how great the Secure Mail service is because it let’s customers have more control over the crazy, annoying ‘we deliver when and where we want to, even though we’re delivering your stuff’ approach that far too many companies take.

More like the good stuff I’ll say one day about Ocardo, who let me choose a 1 hour window for my grocery delivery! What luxury is that. And they let me add items to my list after I’ve submitted my order! See, good delivery service. It can be done!

The trick is putting your customers at the centre of the design process.


heart stoppingly bad user experience

It was a busy day today, so at about 3pm I grabbed my bag and my phone and headed out to grab some lunch. Just as I got out the door, my phone rang. It was an unknown number.

I answered the phone, and a woman said she was from the Police.

She asked me to identify my husband.

Now… perhaps I watch too many episodes of CSI, but when some one says ‘can you identify this person’ it makes me kind of nervous. Particularly when they’re talking about a loved one.

With my past, present and future life flashing before my eyes, I tried as best I could to identify my husband. I asked the woman why she needed me to do this. She said the police were dealing with it and she’d get back to me. She asked me a few more details – was he a white male? What colour was his hair?

Then she put me on hold.

Now… perhaps I was over reacting, but at this stage I was physically shaking and imagining all kinds of horrible things I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.

Eventually (and, there was no hold music, just silence) she came back on the line and told me that my husband was using my debit card to pay for a few pounds worth of fuel. He’d lost his wallet on the tube a few days before so I’d loaned him my debit card… and because it said ‘Mrs’ (which, incidentally, I’d never asked for it to say) they’d assumed it was stolen and called the police.

So, for a few minutes, I thought that something dreadful had happened to someone I loved, because of the way that they handled that customer experience.

Now – hours later – I still feel powerful effects of that conversation.

Surely, people who work for the London Police don’t do that to people all day, every day. If so, it’s a miracle any of us are sane.

Surely, if someone had considered personas and user scenarios – there is no way that a call like that would ever have been made.

I whinge a lot on this blog about user experiences that piss me off. But this one has shaken me in an incredibly powerful way.

I’m not writing this so you say ‘oh, poor you’. I’m posting this so you think about how what you do might impact on peoples lives.

User experience is way more than not making my day frustrating. User experience might be not making me confront mortality when I just want to go get a sandwich.

Is that too much to ask?