What Chance Do End Users Stand with Searching?

Article excerpt

Paul Nicholls, Ph.D., is a consultant, the editor of NewMedia Canada, and an associate of the Media Research Institute. Send news and article queries to him at: Pelican Island Information Box 24004 London, ON N6H 5C4 island@execulink.com

This issue's article by Marilyn MacKellar and Franki Elliott suggests that end users need to be able to do more than just press the right buttons on the computer. They need to understand underlying database and search concepts--preparation that usually involves a couple years in a graduate library school plus a few years on the job. That's a problem-end users only get 2-hour seminars.

Trainers can be very good, but you have to wonder if their task might not be impossible. "User-friendly" interfaces can't make searching easy, they can only mask its complexity. When the user-friendly interface does clever things all by itself (such as making word stems and plurals, or dreaming up synonyms), the search process actually becomes even more unpredictable and therefore more unreliable. Multimedia introduces further complexity. Try AltaVista's new image search feature and see what happens when you click the "find similar images" function. I needed more pictures of an abacus, but the "similar images" were mainly of Louise Brooks and monkeys.

I think that, at NUT, they would say that artificial intelligence is dependent on first solving the problem of natural language understanding-and that solution is still some years in the future. Today, we can type "Why is the sky blue?" into the Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM, and, like magic, a few relevant articles will be retrieved. …