How do you out Google the Google?

How are we going to be better than Google, a colleague of mine asked.

It’s an honest question, but one that I'd say nobody has any idea how to answer. Nobody I know can say "this is how to do it on the Internet” any more than “this is how to do it against Google.”

Sure, people have been successful. But there’s no tried and true method. Only books about tried and true methods. And most of them are shite.

It’s a big monster, this commercial information age, swallowing everything that matters to them.

Being better than Google? You can't out Google Google. You have to go  niche. Deep niche. That means not returning the most results, but the best hits. It means, in our sense, returning things we can provide more context to our users. Only problem is, I am not supposed to use the word context. That’s from my colleagues, not from Google (who don't know we exist).

Nobody really understands what you mean by context, my colleagues tell me, continuing: We only nod in agreement because you say it at every meeting. Context to me is the legend of a map, answering the "so what?" question, or the "why is this important?" question.

David Weinberger, in his work on networked information, points out that links take readers forward; pushing the idea you're currently reading about forward, pushing your curiosity forward. Paper books and journals had no method to create this action; if you wanted to follow a writer's argument, you had to go back to the stacks and find the books/journals cited yourself.

I am taking this argument somewhat out of context (that word!) for my point, but here's a different take: The internet and its network gives us information, the raw material in the process that forges meaning.  This is a nice piece on the hierarchy of meaning from Aeon Magazine by Dougald Hine.

Information is perhaps the rawest material in the process out of which we arrive at meaning: an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense in which we go fishing for facts. But the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed. In most human societies, there have been specialists in this skill, yet it can never be the monopoly of experts, for it is also a very basic, deeply human activity, essential to our survival. If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by.

Knowledge, then, is higher level stuff, the context added to information:

Knowledge has a point when we start to find and make connections, to weave stories out of it, stories through which we make sense of the world and our place within it. It is the difference between memorising the bus timetable for a city you will never visit, and using that timetable to explore a city in which you have just arrived. When we follow the connections – when we allow the experience of knowing to take us somewhere, accepting the risk that we will be changed along the way – knowledge can give rise to meaning.

For content aggregators, like where I work, it’s a tight-rope walk providing information to users or providing context.

People don’t want too much of a heavy hand. Most feel that it smacks of the old way of doing things. The "go get the book off the shelf" way of doing things. Even if you're old enough to never have gotten a book from a shelf to find information, it feels old. Musty and grimy.

Answering the "so what?" question for people feels too much of a heavy hand. It can get clunky. Too AOL. And you never know how much context to provide. Or, what kind.

The map legend idea works kind of well, because we're thinking of information as a map where disciplines and subjects take up space. I deal with health systems, so we can say training and educating health workers goes here while managing health workers and providing incentives to them is over there. (Not the best example, I know.)

But is this physical-ness the best way? It feels right, now. But we'll have to see.

The bottom line is we need to find how our little digital library is going to keep users coming back after they've stumbled upon us from a Google search. The big search companies -- and there are a few more that just the G- -- eat guys like us for lunch. Even if were real niche.

But users? Users are even worse. They don't have the time nor the patience for cluttering up their information with knowledge.

Photo: Can hierarchy and sharing co-exist? (high res) by

Lost memories: Libraries and books destroyed in the 20th century (and today)

The number of libraries and archives lost to natural destruction and human war is incalculable. During the twentieth century, the two World Wars were the greatest enemies of libraries and archives. As we mark the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, we must also remember that the real enemy is those people who hate books and what they stand for: memory and culture of a people. 

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A gap in expectations: E-learning, faculty wants and student needs

There's a lot of benefits to e-learning. It can be easily personalized to student need, intersts and aptitude. It offers access to a variety of content. You can take it when you want.

It's important to remember that in developing countries e-learning has become a method to provide basic education to many services. On the other hand, the developed world uses e-learning to enhance education.

A study (pdf) by Wannasiri Bhuasiri, Oudone Xaymoungkhounb, Hangjung Zo, Jae Jeung Rho and Andrew P. Ciganekc found a few surprising results regarding the gap between student and faculty expectations to e-learning content and delivery. The bottom line: Faculty are more worried about delivery issues – computer & network reliability, ease of use of the interface, etc. Where ICT experts fret about the quality of the course material, motivation of students and teacher attitudes toward interacting with those students.

From the study:  

This study found six dimensions for implementing e-learning systems in developing countries, including learners' characteristics, instructors' characteristics, institution and service quality, infrastructure and system quality, course and information quality, and extrinsic motivation. Based on the results, the most important dimension for ICT experts was learners' characteristics whereas infrastructure and system quality where the most important dimensions from the faculty perspective. This study also revealed at least 20 critical factors for e-learning success in developing countries from both an ICT expert and faculty perspective. For ICT experts, learners and instructors' characteristics were very important factors. For faculty, infrastructure and system quality was most important consideration for e-learning success. 

The study: Critical success factors for e-learning in developing countries: A comparative
analysis between ICT experts and faculty, published in Computers & Education, can be accessed here. (pdf) 

Getting the voice of the customer to better create products and services

"Products and services that don't solve peoples' problems, or don't solve them in a competitive cost, fail," writes Abbie Griffin in her chapter Obtaining Customer Needs for Product Development [pdf] in the book: The PDMA Handbook of New Product Development.

To build these products or services, organizations must understand exactly what people need and make a product to match those needs, Griffin writes. There's a second way: give people something they didn't know they needed; create a new technology that solves problems people may or may not know they have. "Although teams can be successful this way, it is a far riskier path to success." 

The real goal is learning how to talk to customers, asking their needs and adapt your products or services to meet those needs. This is far easier than it sounds. First, Griffin says, many firms speak only generally to their customers. So they come back with only general needs. "The key is to talk to customers using appropriate methods and asking questions customer can answer and that can provide information useful for developing new patterns," she writes. 

Another important lesson: Only ask customers to provide information they can, in fact, provide. A whole list exists of things customers cannot help you with: 

1. They can't tell you what exactly you should develop. Features, looks, etc. should not come from customers, but from your team. 
2. Customers also cannot provide reliable information on what they have not experienced or do not know firsthand. If they aren't ebook users, don't ask them to weigh in on a new reader.

On the other hand: 

Customers can provide reliable information about the things with which they are familiar and knowledgeable or that they directly have experienced. A customer can provide the subset of the needs information that is relevant to them in an overall category of customer problems. They can articulate the problems and needs they have. They can indicate the problems and features they currently use to meet their needs, where these products fall short of solving their problems, and where they excel. The only way that a full set of customer needs for a product area can be obtained is by coming to understand the detailed needs of a number of customers, each of whom contributes a piece of the needs information.

The bottom line: Understand customer problems and how these problems impact how they perform their job or live their lives. 

This means asking customers very in-depth questions about how they obtain or acquire and use products and services to fulfill these particular needs. Ask them why they use something that way. Get as much of the context as you can. You need to ask patrons why they did something, what worked well and what did not work well. 

"Please tell me about the last time you searched for a book to borrow."