Finding answers when you don’t know the question (..on the World Wide Web)

Jan 14 · 2 min read

Many years ago I was training to be a Librarian. I love books, enjoy helping people and had read it was the least stressful of the traditional professions. Then the web came along and my career took a bit of a turn.

One of the things I loved though was helping students (as I worked at a University library) who didn’t really quite know what they were looking for find what they needed — and I marvelled at the skill with which the experienced librarians were able to achieve this.

The problem of helping people find something when they don’t really know what it is they are looking for has always been a challenge — you need to be a detective, questioning, analysing and prying clues out of the ‘subject’ which when combined with your knowledge means you can narrow the focus and provide the help they need.

The ‘Google’ search pattern — so focused on knowing a ‘keyword’ (or two) — really does not help in these tasks and its dominance means there seems to be fewer and fewer experiments in other patterns of discovery which is a real pity — particularly because what I am working on now needs something a bit different.

The project we are working on is based on this knotty problem. Users can’t find the answers because they aren’t completely sure of the right questions and even if they stumble onto something they lack the context to be confident in what they have found.

There is plenty of quality content out there but users need to be steered or guided to it — being provided context along the way. Exactly the sort of things I used to watch those experienced Librarians do.

Now of course people are going to shout about AI and probably chatbots and maybe those attempts at ‘Virtual Avatars’ that people were so fond of when Second Life was a thing people cared about. I liked things like Wolfram Alpha but don’t think that is the answer here. I’m open minded here to be honest. Other people must be thinking about this stuff — researching it — prototyping it? What should I be looking at? Who should I be talking to?

Answers in a comment or a Tweet to @jukesie please :)

As a postscript I know that so much of this is about the content design and probably about adding structured data to it and generally improving its discoverability — I know that — but that isn’t THIS question :)

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade