Desktop Search: What hasn’t changed

Posted By on May 20, 2009

A few posts back, we talked about why search on the desktop works a lot better than it did just a few years ago.  In this post, we’ll talk about how desktop search hasn’t kept up as the way we find and consume content on our computers has changed.

As recently as 2000, the deluge of emails, files, podcasts, blog posts and everything else that we have to keep track of was more like a drizzle.  The average hard drive held about 8 GB of data and we averaged about 7 non-junk emails per day.

As of 2009, those numbers look pretty different.  My laptop’s hard drive is a relatively tiny 160 GB; most computers come with at least 320 GB.  The way we work with email has changed too.  We now average 25 emails per day (almost a whopping 10,000 per year!) thanks to a lot of mailing lists and a lot of CCing.

Of course, we’re not suddenly 60 times more productive than we used to be.  Instead, we just get more of other people’s content.  Before Gmail made email quotas obsolete, CCing large files to everyone who might want a document wasn’t practical.  In 2000, blogs didn’t really exist, and the number of pages that interested each of us on the Internet was orders of magnitude smaller.

The problem only intensifies if we think about it from a corporate perspective.  How many gigabytes of data does your entire company have?  Where does it live?  At our former company, many groups had internal wikis, all of them had internal sharepoint sites (at least three, and as many as fifteen per group!), we had a document management library, we had personal websites with documents attached; everyone cared more about getting the job done than setting it up for other people to have an easy time finding what they created.

So there are now a lot more fragments of information in our brains and a lot more places that the rest of that information could be.  We spend a lot more time asking ourselves “where did I see that again?”  That translates into a lot of time and money. Bill Gates says that the average knowledge worker spends 11 hours a week looking for information, costing his/her company $18,000 per year in lost time.

The future looks like it is going to be even more chaotic – we will not only access more information in more places, but on more devices as well.  We will see some content on our computers, some on our $200 Netbooks, more on our iPhones or BlackBerries, and even more on our Kindles or Sony Readers.  And as we see more content on more devices, remembering where we saw the content we need NOW is going to get even harder.

A lot of productivity gurus are challenging us to “take charge of our Inboxes!” and implement a regimen that will help us manage the information.  But technology caused this problem.  Why isn’t it fixing it?

Fundamentally, the way we look for information hasn’t changed a lick since 2000.  Whether searching our computers or the Internet, we try to figure out what we want to find and we type it into a search box.  We get results that we hope are good enough – they often are.  When programmers have tried to improve on the search box, they’ve come up with some terrifying things.

I’ve attached a screenshot of the MIT Simile Seek project’s implementation of what is called faceted search below.  It’s a programmer’s dream.  I think I am wired to love driving tools like this.  It feels like piloting a starship.  If I know i want the 2nd top level domain to be because I know it came from someone at MIT, but I don’t know which lab, faceted search puts that power right at my fingertips.


But when I showed faceted search to anyone who doesn’t program computers for a living (like Electrical Engineers), they did not share my enthusiasm.  Other search improvements yielded similar gnashing of teeth.  The search box remains the search box.

So we’ve got a lot more content than we’ve ever had before, located in a lot more places than it’s ever been before, and we access it on more devices than we’ve ever used before.  And we still do pretty much the same things to find it that we did in 2000, when we had a lot less content, all on one hard drive, all on one computer.

So there’s a lot to fix.  And we’d love to fix all of it!  But for now, we’re trying to siphon off just one aspect of the problem where we think our technology can make a big difference.  In a few days, we’ll talk more about how we’re going to do it.


  1. It’s worth mentioning that GMail supports power searches from the search box, I think this is a nice compromise between power and simplicity while avoiding a spaceship UI.

    For instance:
    “from:bill in:inbox has:attachment foo -bar”
    An “advanced search” GUI form exists to assist people with deep searching who don’t know the power search syntax.

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