A generation that grew up with Google is forcing professors to rethink their lesson plans
Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.
Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.
…But it may also be that in an age where every conceivable user interface includes a search function, young people have never needed folders or directories for the tasks they do. The first internet search engines were used around 1990, but features like Windows Search and Spotlight on macOS are both products of the early 2000s. Most of 2017’s college freshmen were born in the very late ‘90s. They were in elementary school when the iPhone debuted; they’re around the same age as Google. While many of today’s professors grew up without search functions on their phones and computers, today’s students increasingly don’t remember a world without them.
To a point, the new mindset may reflect a natural — and expected — technological progression. Plavchan recalls having similar disconnects with his own professors. “When I was a student, I’m sure there was a professor that said, ‘Oh my god, I don’t understand how this person doesn’t know how to solder a chip on a motherboard,’” he says. “This kind of generational issue has always been around.” And though directory structures exist on every computer (as well as in environments like Google Drive), today’s iterations of macOS and Windows do an excellent job of hiding them…Today’s virtual world is largely a searchable one; people in many modern professions have little need to interact with nested hierarchies.
But in STEM fields, directory structure remains crucially important. Astronomers, for example, may work with hundreds of thousands of files in the same format — which can be unwieldy to scale to a searchable system, Plavchan says.
The primary issue is that the code researchers write, run at the command line, needs to be told exactly how to access the files it’s working with — it can’t search for those files on its own. Some programming languages have search functions, but they’re difficult to implement and not commonly used. It’s in the programming lessons where STEM professors, across fields, are encountering problems.
Humans are bad at coming up with search queries. Humans are good at incrementally narrowing down options with a series of filters, and pointing where they want to go next. This seems obvious, but we keep building interfaces for finding information that look more like Google Search and less like a map.
All of these things, from text search boxes to links to algorithmic feeds, occupy places on a single spectrum, the spectrum of “interfaces people use to find information”. On one side are interfaces that teleport the user straight to the result, like URLs or search. These interfaces can be precise, but if the results aren’t what you want, you have to try again from the beginning – there isn’t an “incremental” way to use text search or URLs if you feel like you’re close but slightly off. Sure, you can tweak the search query a bit and re-search, but it may land you somewhere completely different.
On the other side of the spectrum are interfaces for approaching what exactly you’re looking for incrementally – links and recommendation systems. With these, you may not start exactly where you want to be, but with every click you can tell whether you’re getting closer or farther. Over time, not only are you likely to stumble into what you were looking for, you also end up with a mental map of a bunch of things related to what you were looking for that may be just as interesting to you.
…when designing an interface for finding a note in a small pile of personal notes, or building an app to organize a small team’s working documents, most of the “finding stuff” interface ideas are in play. It’s in these situations where I want to make the argument: prefer interfaces that let the user incrementally move towards the right answer over direct search.
Humans are much better at choosing between a few options than conjuring an answer from scratch. We’re also much better at incrementally approaching the right answer by pointing towards the right direction than nailing the right search term from the beginning.
I’ve been pondering this gap between one-shot and incremental information-finding interfaces in the context of knowledge tools recently. Text search boxes are easy to design and easy to add to apps. But I think their ease on developers may be leading us to ignore potential interface ideas that could let us discover better ideas, faster.