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?

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

  1. pakeha October 30, 2006 at 1:24 am #

    Why is it when something different is tried the Tech Press/commentators provide only negative feed back?
    because it is easier that working and thinking?
    Shame

  2. leisa.reichelt October 30, 2006 at 10:02 am #

    hey Pakeha,

    If I’d have just said ‘I don’t like it’ then I think your point would be fair… and as I said, I’m really keen to explore new ways of approaching search – in fact, I’d say it’s one of my special interests.

    But there is no point positively supporting something that, by my estimation, is just heading completely down the wrong path in terms of supporting seaching tasks for users AND which is also potentially insulting for a significant proportion of the internet audience.

    I’m disappointed that this project wasn’t thought through more thoroughly, not that they tried something new and different.

  3. Cheryl October 31, 2006 at 6:35 am #

    Hey I see what you mean – it took over a minute to load from a work connection, then about 55 seconds to actually do a search. Then when I was scrolling through the search results, she kept tapping the screen and rolling her eyes and saying “C’mon, type something here” and getting pissed off cos I was reading results.

    I couldn’t wait to leave the site! What a terrible user experience.

  4. leisa.reichelt October 31, 2006 at 10:14 am #

    yep, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about Cheryl. Who needs to be hounded by a search engine – AT THE WRONG TIME! (if there’s ever a good time to be hounded by and pouted at by a search engine… I’m not sure)

  5. leisa.reichelt November 1, 2006 at 6:24 pm #

    I finally got some search results out of Ms Dewey today… what do we think of the scrolling in the search results? I quite like it!

    (See!… I’m not a curmudgeon criticising because I don’t like innovation!)

    If it was my site I’d have the URL as links as well as the title for each results… it’s weird seeing a URL and not being able to click it!

    The Easter Eggs in this site have also generated a whole lot of blogging/searching interest… so it’s a great example of effectively using easter eggs to create intrigue and possibly even some kind of community.

    The best list of Easter Eggs that I found is on Digg (of course)

  6. Cheryl November 1, 2006 at 11:08 pm #

    ahhh I hated the scrolling in the results – I did a search and had about 20,000 results, but they only showed 3 or 4 at a time, so I had to scroll through.

    I like that they tried to be different and “rethink search” but when I do a search it’s for a specific purpose, I want to find something. If I want to be entertained, I’ll do it another time.

  7. David November 3, 2006 at 11:01 pm #

    It’s certainly different!! I went fot the conversational approach, but the search engine worked fine but gave me different results to the MSN Search. (yes, I was sad and checked it).

    Some improvements are needed (Speed, sassy attitude, display of results), and it is probably just a ‘fad’ but interesting and different is good. Shame people don’t like change though…

  8. Donald July 22, 2007 at 2:38 am #

    I like Ms. Dewey. The interactive part is far from perfect but, you have to start somewhere. People get a life, she is for entertainment. Can you do any better?

  9. leisa.reichelt July 22, 2007 at 8:24 am #

    she’s a search engine, Donald – so I think she’s got some functional responsibilities in that area.

    I’d have no problem if she was a search engine that worked reasonably well AND was entertaining. Although, I don’t think I’m directly in the target audience for this kind of entertainment.

  10. dan mirante January 8, 2008 at 5:11 pm #

    Its just an experiment… I don’t think they were aiming for anything other than an exploration of the technology and the medium. Its obviously aimed as a niche piece…

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