|You may not believe it, but many years ago I
engaged in somewhat radical behavior. (Shaddup!) Well, at least it seemed
pretty radical to me. This was back in the 1970s in the midst of the feminist
revolution. (Does anyone out there still recall the origin—or meaning—of
the acronym "MCP"?) I can remember a bumpersticker acquired at a woman-owned
bookstore that read, "Women are like yeast, and they will rise." Following
this strategic advice, some friends and I established a Women's Lobby at
our corporation to advocate the welfare—and acquisition—of female employees.
This may not exactly rank with strapping oneself
to the Washington Monument, but our campaign for advancing the hiring and
promotion of women gave us a scare or two. In those early days of affirmative
action plans, the addition of women to clauses protecting minorities was
seen as an afterthought and even, by some, as a practical joke. (This was
an era in which one of the most powerful House committee chairpersons informed
his colleagues that "there is more difference between a woman and a man
than between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse." Suffice it to say
his venerable seniority ended in the next election with a surprise female
At one of the earliest discussions between employees
on our company's affirmative action committee and corporate executives,
the issue of women didn't arise until the tail end of the meeting. When
it did come up, one of the department heads popped out with the remark,
"Oh, good. Women are cost-effective." He should know. He headed up the
economics department. Seeing the look on the faces of the two women present,
the president of the company quickly intervened with a nervous clarification,
"You don't understand what he meant. He meant that women are cheaper."
Needless to say, the Women's Lobby came into
being within 24 hours. The first battles we fought dealt mainly with the
tendency for management (which was almost all male) to use their pre-existing
conceptions of women's career goals instead of research or investigation.
Turns out they had "fast tracks" and "slow tracks" in their minds,neither
of which were communicated to individual employees, male or female (though
it's amazing how ladylike those managers considered the more leisurely
pace). Instead, managers conducted performance evaluations in silent solitude.
Nothing went down on paper or, at least, the paper never appeared before
the subject of the evaluation.
Groaning, weeping, and rending of garments accompanied
our every success in trying to establish personnel procedures in which
the personnel actually shared in the knowledge of their own career plans.
But when the dust cleared, a personnel department executive admitted to
me, reluctantly, that the cumulative impact of all our struggles was to
establish competent and professional personnel policies and procedures
companywide. Since this particular company's primary product was research
and itsonly assets people, it would seem logical toprovide the same level
of documented attention to the welfare and use of those human assets as
one would assign to inventories of office equipment and company cars.
Lucky they had us Women's Lobbyists to help them
out. Right? We gained advantage for our own members too. In the midst of
the revolution, the nation was hit by a recession and the company by a
major downsizing. We "troublemakers" braced ourselves for a Night of the
Long Knives, but actually, when dawn broke it seemed that active participation
in the lobby served as a kind of protection from layoff. In fact, among
the bodies of the slain lay some of the very women who had publicly disparaged
and distanced themselves from all connection with our cause. Some of us
had warned them this might happen. Remember the wise words of Egyptian Nobelist
Naguib Mahfouz (Echoes of an Autobiography): "When will the state of the
country be sound?... When its people believe that the end result of cowardice
is more disastrous than that of behaving with integrity."
Even when the threat of affirmative action consequences
eased—partly due to a changing political environment, but also to the successful
recruiting of women and minorities and their integration into the ebb and
flow of corporate life—the company still maintained the policy and procedural
changes installed in those years of struggle.
The Structure of Interaction
So how does all this relate to the information
industry and its products and services? Well, it's just another example,
on several levels, of the need to improve the structure of interaction.
Employees and management at my old firm needed to listen to each other.
They needed that process of listening and the information gleaned from
it to affect decision making. And sometimes it took hard times and strong-minded
opponents to teach that lesson. Today the traditional information industry
certainly faces another case of hard times and strong opposition. Once
again, however, the answer may lie in more listening.
For a long time I've advocated the introduction
of effective feedback mechanisms into online search interfaces. Well, let's
assume that all the vendors still reading this column have projects underway
to add such features to their products. (Meet you in the bar when you're
through work.) So let's move to the next step.
Search interfaces must inquire as to user needs
and desires at the start of the search process as well as the conclusion.
Equally important, they need to find out more about the searchers. They
need background information on the searchers' knowledge of the subject
area, their comfort with technical terminology or jargon, even their access
to other sources of information. Any experienced intermediary searcher
can tell you that this is the most critical phase of any search interaction,
not just for the information it supplies the intermediary (or intermediating
search system), but also for the clarification and education it often provides
Expecting end-users to go to help screens or FAQs
and learn special techniques or extensive details about sources is just
unrealistic. I hereby challenge any vendor reading this column to go to
his or her Webmaster and ask for a statistical analysis of the use made
of help documentation. Little to none would be my prediction and, even
when help documentation or training material is used, I'll bet it's only
after the searchers have tried to find the information without paying a
learning entrance fee. This eternal truth explains why we all know the
meaning of the acronym "RTFM."
Chatting with users about themselves and their
interests at the start of the search process can also help market a site.
People like talking about themselves. They appreciate anyone—even a machine—expressinga
sincere interest in their welfare. If your end-user clientele seeks an
even warmer experience, vendors might add the ultimate in customer-relations
management: live, online personnel. But even without them, intelligent
interfacing can route users to different sections of databases. It can
preset qualifiers' (e.g., date, language, etc.) matching fields within
the databases.A chatty interface could also help interest users in the
background of the data, making them more willing to learn details.
Straight to the Database
Some might fear that such interfaces would turn
people off and discourage usage. For those in a hurry, the interface could
clearly offer a quick route straight to the database, one that bypasses
the interview. But I believe that some may underestimate the willingness
of people to discuss their needs. Years ago, an experiment compared the
success of early computer medical diagnostic software with diagnoses by
physicians. The physicians won, but some interesting observations came
out of the study. One of them was that the computer had more success in
conducting the interview with patients. Not only did the computer takethe
time to ask all the relevant questions (and a few irrelevant ones), but
patients answered computers more truthfully.
Some might consider this phenomenon to be explained
by the computer's willingness to give a patient all the time he or she
needed to complete the interview. But I have always suspected that it might
also stem from a psychological factor. Namely, that you only have "it"
after a doctor tells you so. This can make one reluctant to trigger bad
news with excessive information. On the other hand, computers aren't perceived
as wise and authoritative, like live physicians. Heaven knows what they
will diagnose if not given every specific detail!
Of course, one real problem remains. Once you've
taken down all these details and processed them, you must be able to supply
answers to the questions that you now assume the system understands. In
fact, vendors might even find themselves having to learn to say "I don't
know" or even—this is the Third Millennium still, isn't it?—how to send
users to alternative sources where the answers can be found.
Why would vendors go to all this trouble? Because
it's the right thing to do in an era of end-user searching in which more
and more people have come to rely on the Internet and its Web as the basic
source of all needed information. Because it's the safe thing to do in
an era of a litigious public where standard marketing language could be
construed as implied promises to deliver targeted truths. Because it's
always profitable to learn about one's customers if one expects to develop
products and services that do good and do well.
Up the rebels!
Barbara Quint is editor in chief of Searcher,
a columnist for Information Today, and a longtime online searcher.
Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.