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Searching for Stability

Christina Wodtke is the former director of design for Yahoo and author of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. In her GEL talk, she discussed how Yahoo approaches search, how people search the Web, and the need to be right — as well as consistent. What follows is a partial transcript of her talk:

Earlier this week I was driving into work. I was listening to NPR. You now know my political leanings. They were talking about Ralph Nader's run for president and how he's the only one who can run against the war. Bush started the war. And Kerry voted for the war. That reminded me of something that Winston Churchill said, which was, "I'd rather be right than consistent."

Consistency is extremely interesting. People have studied it. By signing a petition, you can trigger the mindset that someone is civic minded. You can then encourage people to do other civic-minded things even if it's nonsensical. If you're a Mac user and you've used a PC, you may have felt some cognitive dissonance. Who is hiding my files?

Yahoo's founders are still there. Yahoo was started as a directory. The directory is more a part of our self-image than it is our business model. It doesn't make us a lot of money, but it's still important to us. We were using Google as our search tool, but we weren't using Google to search the Web. We used Google to search our directory.

We decided that Yahoo wasn't a bunch of people making sense of the Web. We had to let that go and let computers do it. We also had to overcome what Matt Jones calls the tyranny of the search paradigm. Users have a very set idea of how search works. You type something in a box, and magic answers come back. Most people search using two terms or less. They search for "Chicago" or "New York." People have distinct expectations.

So when we redesign search, it doesn't always work. If we put something at the top of the page, people thought it was an ad. In search, there are only results and ads. There are no helpers or refiners. So we took some baby steps toward making a magical search experience. If someone types in "New York weather," do they want a page of search results, or do they want the temperature and weather report?

In 1841, the essay "Self-Reliance" also addressed consistency. In honor of that, I'm going to appear briefly inconsistent. I used to be design director at Yahoo. I left my job two weeks ago. Sometimes conferences can offer more questions than answers. I think the good thing about this conference is that there are mysteries. Choose to be right instead of being consistent. I wish John Kerry were here so I could say it to him as well.