The San Francisco Chronicle has an article out this week entitled “Social science meets computer science at Yahoo!”. It’s about how Yahoo have been hiring “highly credentialed cognitive psychologists, economists and ethnographers from top universities around the world”. Carol Bartz being one smart chick realised early on that you couldn’t run a search engine at this point in time without experts such as those. In order to understand how people use websites, tools, and how they combine all of those…you need people experts. The web is social.
Computer science has created the infrastructure in this virtual world if you like, but now we have to make sure everything is ergonomic and usable. Sometimes architects create paths but people cut across the grass rather than using them. This is an example of how things work in reality. In computing, psychologists, social scientists, anthropologists and more help us to understand how to make sure things work for people. I won’t discuss here whether Yahoo! are right or wrong to do this because it’s a no-brainer for me. Of course they’re right to, we need to make sure people can easily understand and integrate new technology into their every day lives. Instead I want to look at the different types of roles other than computer science oriented that could really boost the business of search and the web as a whole.
In my own PhD research I found myself studying and researching areas of cognitive psychology in order to build a dialogue system. First hand I was able to see that without understanding how humans process language, I couldn’t come up with a good artificial solution. Psychology has many sub-fields (neuropsychology, abnormal psychology, comparative psychology…) but as a whole it can help with understanding why people do certain things as well, and how to encourage them to do something else. It can help us understand how online communities work, how different individuals influence things more than others and how to best assist users. From a search engine perspective psychologists can help us to understand which results are deemed more relevant by people and why. Things like personalisation of search results require a good understanding of how people search, what they look for and how they use the information for example.
We often think of them as dealing with money and working in banks, the government and the stock market for example, but their job is also very social. They are active in research in international development aid, study markets, micoeconomies, consumer attitudes and many more areas. They can make recommendations on how to provide a better service to user, and tell us also what users are after as far as product is concerned. Do they want a social search experience or do they just want an answer? What are people prepared to spend their money on? Answers to questions like this can help search engines move forwards and make the right decisions.
- Occupational health therapists
Alright, this is a bit of a cheat because they do belong with the psychologists, but their role is a bit different. They go to the workplace or homes of individuals and identify things that may make them sick or contribute to it. For example a stressful environment could lead to anxiety, depression or cardiovascular issues for example. These experts are useful because they are more sensitive to things that affect people negatively. If you run a search engine, allowing an OHP to observe the users and the environment they are working with may highlight things such as too much data being served up, mistrust and any other areas of tension.
These guys are social scientists who focus on qualitative research. They talk to people, observe them, interview them and collect data which is then analysed. Basically, they study humans. Their value is in running large studies in context and finding out how people might use a search engine but taking into consideration all of their background and their life offline too.
These people are both psychologists and linguists. Their role is to observe and study how people use language and why. It’s the study of psychological factors in language. Sociolinguists study language in its social context. When it comes to understanding how people choose keywords and search phrases, they are invaluable. They can even help to understand why people comment on some blogs and not other for example. Their work is highly interesting and super useful.
- Behavioural scientists
They look at how different organisms interact with each other be it animal or human. They particularly focus on decision processes and communication strategies among organisms and their social system. If we want to understand how people share links with each other for example, or how people create structure within their own experience of the web, we need behavioural scientists to do the research. Their skills are extremely useful.
- Animal trainers
When all else fails, I suppose that getting back to basics is in order
Many companies would do well to have a chat with one or all of these professionals about their own projects be it software, websites or virtual communities. There is a lot to learn from these fields and being open to this can only improve the web.
Here are some cool places to learn more about these areas in relation to the web:
Patti Anklam: Networks, complexity and relatedness
Clay Shirky: Writings about the internet
Dave Snowden: Cognitive edge
Graham Jones: Internet psychologist