HCI Web 2.0

Wolfram Alpha and user experience

There are a lot of ongoing discussions about the power of Wolfram Alpha. I think that most of these conversations are flawed because of the argument that Wolfram Alpha does not find you enough information.

I believe that the mistake here lies in the common way the press have introduced the service. Wolfram himself has not been clear enough, and when he has, the press has of course misinterpreted him. Wolfram Alpha is not a search engine.

Many articles and blogs have been issued on the topic will Wolfram Alpha be the end of Google?
The problem here is that the two services are actually very different. Wolfram Alpha is a self-defined computational knowledge engine, not a search engine like Google. Google is able to return millions of results for a single search, whilst Alpha returns a single, often aggregated, result about some topic.

Alpha is basically an aggregator of information. It selects information from different data sources and presents them to the user in a nice and understandable way. Google is more like searching in the phone directory. So you’re supposed to ask different questions to the two services.

Of course, Alpha makes mistakes. A curious example I’ve found is the search for the keyword “Bologna”. Bologna is primarily the name of a town in Northern Italy (the one in which I attended university); it is also the name of a kind of ham, commonly known as “Mortadella”, especially outside Bologna itself. In Milan, for example, Mortadella is commonly called Bologna.

Well, search for Bologna on Google, and compare it with results on Alpha.

Google will return mostly pages about the town of Bologna, and its football team, where Alpha will tell you nutritional information of Mortadella.

Is this a ‘mistake’? I think that the only mistake is in the expectations users have about Alpha. it yields results from a structured knowledge base, hence its index is not as general as the one of Google. Nonetheless, I believe that there’s at least a problem in the user interface that should be corrected: the search box. It’s exactly the same as Google’s, same shape, same height, same width. But is there any alternative way of presenting an answering engine on the Internet?

What I think is that more HCI research is needed to let users understand what are the goals and the capabilities of a service like Alpha. If users think of it as a search engine, it will never have success.

Just to have a hint of what Alpha should be about, try this search.