Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ask.com’s Usability Architect: Exclusive Interview With Michael Ferguson

User interface design insight from Michael Ferguson ...

"I love an underdog, especially a smart underdog. So I’m definitely rooting for Ask.com, because I think they’ve been an undervalued player in the search game. All the headlines have been focused on the big three and in the meantime, the team back at Ask.com has been quietly building a better search engine. A much better search engine. And from the user’s point of view, one of the main people to thank is Michael Ferguson, Ask’s key user interface person.

Michael and I met a few years ago when we both presented on the same panel at Search Engine Strategies (the name of the city escapes me at the moment). This was back when the butler was safely riding high at the top of the results page. Jeeves seemed blissfully unaware of what his fate might be in a few short months. I was a little apprehensive when I saw Michael’s name on the panel notes, because I had publicly taken Ask Jeeves to task a number of times previously for their unabashed jamming of sponsored ads at the top of the page, driving the top organic listings below the fold. Our first eye tracking study had showed what a dangerous and limited view of monetization this was. You might make the quarter, but you’re blowing off your customers and in the long run, it will kill you. I was picturing an ugly public display of differing viewpoints, degenerating into a full blown SES smackdown.

... The first thing I did was ask about Michael (and Ask’s) approach to user experience:

Michael: A lot of what we do is, to some extent, informed by core search needs but also by our relevant market share, understanding that people have often experienced other engines before they come to us, not necessarily in that session but generally on the web. People have at least done a few searches on Google and Yahoo, so they have some context coming from those search experiences. Often, we’re taking what we’ve learned from best practices from our competitors and on top of that, trying to add a lot of product experience and relevance experiences that are differentiated.

And also, of course, we’re come from this longer history of the company where we’ve had various user experiences over the time we’ve been around. We marketed around natural language in the late 90’s and answered people’s questions at the top of the page, but in the last year and a half or so, we’ve rebranded and really focused on getting the word out to the end users that we are a keyword search engine, an everyday search engine. A lot of the things that we’ve done with users have been to try to implicitly, if not explicitly, inform users that are coming to the site you can use it very much like you can use any other kind of search engine you’ve been on before. Or, if they’re current users and people are coming back to the site, to let them know that the range of experiences and the type of information we bring back to them has greatly expanded. It’s informed by the context of not just a sense of pure search and information retrieval and all the research that’s gone on that in the last 35 or 40 years, but also the dynamics of the experiences that we’ve had before and people’s previous experiences with Ask and then, an acknowledgement that they’ve often searched and looked for information on other sites."    (Continued via Search Engine)    [Usability Resources]

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