Search As Interface

At the moment we could say that the internet and our computer provides us with so much information that the problem is not that the information you want is not there, but that it is difficult to find.

Back in the early days of computers we developed the concept of files and directories. It has been the underlying metaphor used on your computer since the late sixties.

At the same time there were researchers developing what we call “hypertext”. The idea was first described by Vannevar Bush in 1945. It could be said that the first actual system was “ONS” show by Douglas Engelbart at “The Mother Of All Demos” in 1968, but this was more of a demonstration of the windows, icons, mouse pointer system that was further developed by Xerox PARC and Apple to become the modern computer interface. The hypertextualisation was minimal.

The first real hypermedia system in common use was the Macintosh application “Hypercard” written by Bill Akinson. Through Robert Cailliau (a colleague), Tim Berners-Lee was highly influenced by HyperCard when he developed HTTP and HTML to give us the World Wide Web.

This quickly became a second interface to information. Searching it was not too bad when we only had a few million pages but quickly became unwieldy when it was hundreds of millions of pages.

Curated web pages and lists of web pages became major information sources. Indeed companies such a Alta Vista sprang up to use the power of folksonomy to develop user curated indexes of pages on various topics.

There were problems even with this. The current solution is Google’s. They developed “Page Rank” which ordered the search results by the number and “quality” of the links to the page. Google, and others, have spent a lot of time and money improving and adding to the basic concept.

One of the major advances is to use your “history” to improve search results. Google watches what you click on when presented with results and uses that as one of the criteria when ordering results. It also uses the clicks of others, more “popular” sites trickly further up the results.

Then we have the situation on your computer. (I’m not talking about my computer, we might get to that later.) Back in the early days of the desktop interface each document was a treated as a “black box” and you could only search by external attributes like name and creation date.

Apple extended this with the introduction of Spotlight which allowed the underlying metadata system to index the contents of files for which it had an “importer” and allowed third party vendors to add importers for their files.

Since it’s introduction Apple have extended Spotlight and unified it with the Finder GUI. Two of the biggest extensions were the addition of “Quick Look” where you can have a look at the contents of a file to be sure you have the right one and the addition of searching of places such as Wikipedia and Maps.

This gives us two interfaces to search, Spotlight and your web browser.

I’ve actually almost totally given up using any sort of interface other than those two search interfaces, though I have spent some time improving both.

So let’s look at how you do that. I’m going to recommend you do two things. The first is to change your default search engine in your web browser. Change it to “DuckDuckGo”. It’s easy, just go to that page and they have a button t do the work for you.

Now you’ve done that you’ve added a brilliant add on to searching in the address field. (That’s the field which displays the address of the web page you are on.) You can now search a huge number of web sites just by typing “!” followed by a one or two letter key. Go to DuckDuckGo Bang to explore more but the ones I use a lot are :

  • !w wikipedia
  • !ga Google Australia
  • !yt YouTube
  • !gi Google Images
  • !a Amazon
  • !d
  • !od Oxford Dictionary
  • !t
  • !imdb Internet Movie Database
  • !rt Rotten Tomatoes movie reviews

The list I use keeps on growing. Every few weeks I go back to the bang page and explore to find a new one or two to add to my list.

Another change is I have totally given up saving bookmarks in my browser. Safari remembers what my favourite web sites are. Typing the first letter or two in the address field and a right arrow and return and I’m there.

For other web sites I use Pinboard and Instapaper. I have bookmarklets in my Favourites and so one click and a bookmark is saved to a better place. Long articles I want to read later go to Instapaper where I can read them on the site or every Friday they get sent to my Kindle.

For shorter web sites I want to go back to soon I have a bookmarklet that saves them to Pinboard and marked as “read later”. For sites I’m researching I have a bookmarklet that pops up a dialog to save the bookmark to Pinboard with fields for a description and tags. Oh, and I can of course search my Pinboard bookmarks from the address bar by typing “!pb”.

Searching Your Computer

So now we have a search centred interface to the net. How do we build a search centred interface to our local computer?

Using Finder search and, even more critically, Spotlight we can go a long way to using nothing but search as the interface. This is the second task I would like you to perform. Learn how to use search well.

Opening an application is the place to start. I don’t know about you but I have over a hundred applications installed on my Mac (you probably have a lot less but I’m always trying out new applications) and so the Dock or Launchpad are no good. So go in to System Preferences and make sure in Spotlight you have “Applications” ticked. Now when you want to open an application just open up Spotlight and type the first few characters of the application name. Voila, right there ready to be opened with a quick ‘return’.


Here is the Spotlight System Preference pane. Here you set what search results will be shown to you.You can see which ones I use.

Spotlight also makes it easy to find the files we are working on. Spotlight will search inside a huge number of file types right out of the box. Text files, PDF files, Pages, Numbers, Keynote and those terrible Office documents from Word, Excel and PowerPoint. So to find a file you want you can either remember how the name starts or a couple of words in the document. Then when you select the file you will get a quick look to make sure it is the right one and then a return to open it in the default application.

Default Applications

You may find that the default application is not the one you want to open your files. For me, for example, I want even Excel spreadsheets to open in Pages. Setting the default application is easy. Find a file of the right type then open up the “Get Info” dialog. About half way down is “Open with:”. Click on the application name and select the one you want to make the new default and finally click on “Change All…”. Now all Excel documents will open in Pages.

Get Info

The “Get Info” dialog. Notice the “Open with:” field that is set so the spreadsheet is opened by default with “Numbers”.

Talking of “Open” have you noticed that in an application the “Open…” dialog has a little “Search” window in the top right. It’s actually a Spotlight search so it allows for the same searching inside documents as the ordinary Spotlight.

The Finder Can Find

So what if we have a file that’s a little harder to find. I started writing a blog post about depression and medication about six months ago. My usual Spotlight search for documents containing the word “depression” won’t work as I have a lot of blog posts and draft posts with the word “depression” in them.

Turns out the Finder is pretty good at finding. So I go to the Finder, select my “Writing” folder and open up Finder Search. Type “depression” and “medication” into the little search window. But that finds me about twenty documents, which one is it? This dialog allows you to construct more complex finds so I can set it to show only files created after the 5th of July 2015. I can even sort them by the date last opened. This makes it a much shorter list. Still not sure? Select the top file and hit the space bar and you get a Quick Look window. Hit the down arrow and the Quick Look displays the next file. When you have the right one a Command-O opens it in the default application.

Give Up The Sorting

When we think about organizing the files on our computer we should realise that the only reason we spend the time to do this is to make finding the files easier later on. If you have a good organizing system then you don’t need searching. What you need to realise is that the reverse is also true. If you have a good way of searching and finding the right file then you don’t need to spend the time doing the organizing. You should also realise that you are far from perfect – you won’t do the organizing as well and as often you might require. Search, on the other hand is always with you. Learning how to use it well and properly is time well spent.

So now we have moved on from that original interface. We have too many files and too much information for the metaphor of files and folders to work any more. Search is the new interface so embrace it.


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