Of Mice and Search Syntax
Mar 25, 2009 David Lang

Of Mice and Search Syntax

For years, whenever PC and Mac users would debate the relative merits of their respective platforms, PC users would frequently criticize the Mac for its one-button mouse. For most people trained to use a PC, the lack of a second mouse button seemed a crippling limitation, and Apple's stubborn refusal to add it seemed hopelessly backward.

What the PC users didn't realize was that Apple had experimented with multi-button mice while it was developing the Mac (and its predecessor, the Lisa). In its usability studies, Apple had found that regular people could easily grasp the use of a one-button mouse because it was analogous to pointing with the index finger. Users could hold the mouse with their index finger extended, point to the desired object on screen, then click with the same finger to grab it. When a second or third mouse button was added, most users became confused, because now they had to train their hands to do something unfamiliar. Apple therefore settled on a one-button mouse as the most intuitive approach.

When Microsoft Windows popularized the use of a mouse with Windows PCs, it took the less intuitive approach of including a second mouse button. But Microsoft did one thing right. It gave this second mouse button a consistent function: that of calling up a contextual menu. Windows users quickly learned that if they were at a loss to know what to do next, they could right-click to get a list of contextually appropriate options. In other words, the right mouse button covered a multitude of Windows' interface sins, quickly becoming an indispensable feature and a deeply ingrained habit.

Suddenly Apple was faced not with a public completely unfamiliar with the use of computer mice, but with a multitude of people trained in the use of two-button mice. To these people, Apple's insistence on one button seemed unintuitive and required training to overcome. Apple eventually enacted some compromises designed to retain one-button simplicity while reducing the barriers for those used to two buttons.

Why am I telling this story? Because it illustrates how much familiarity influences what we see as intuitive. For people completely unfamiliar with computer mice, a one button mouse is "intuitive" because they are familiar with the act of pointing with one finger. For those who have been trained to right-click, the lack of a second button is unintuitive and confusing.

I was reminded of this recently when a user told us that he wished searching in Accordance was as "intuitive" as doing a Google search. I would argue that Accordance is more intuitive than Google, insofar as it does not present you with unanticipated results. But Google has become so ubiquitous that it has trained most computer users in its search syntax. This familiarity makes it seem intuitive.

In Accordance, if you want to search for a word, you type that word, and when you perform that search, you get every occurrence of that word. If you want to search for a phrase, you type the phrase, and you get every occurrence of that phrase. For anyone unfamiliar with other forms of search syntax, that's intuitive. You get what you expect to get, and nothing else.

If you want to do something more sophisticated, like broadening the search to include other forms of a word or to include various combinations of words other than a sequential phrase, you have to do something additional: namely, enter wildcard symbols or search commands. Again, Accordance tries to make this increased level of complexity as simple as possible by listing all those commands and symbols in submenus of the Search menu, even including brief explanations of the symbols.

Now compare this to Google's search syntax. When you enter a word in Google, Google does not just search for that word. It uses stemming to search for other forms of that word. In other words, you might search for the term "commentary" and get a results page with the word "comment." That's cool, and it makes it more likely that you'll find a relevant web page, but it's not really "intuitive" insofar as it's not what the complete novice would expect.

If you type a series of words, Google does not search for those words as a sequential phrase. Instead, it does an OR search for those words. It may not appear that way because of the way Google delivers the results, but that's essentially what it does. It will return pages with that exact phrase first, followed by pages with two or more of the words appearing together (what you would get by doing an AND search), followed by pages with just one of those words. Google also uses other criteria for ranking pages, so you might find a popular page with a less exact match before a more obscure page with the exact phrase you entered. If you want to search just for the exact phrase, you have to enclose it in quotation marks, an added requirement which is not immediately obvious.

Now, a user new to searching with Google might initially be surprised that Google finds words he didn't enter or something other than the phrase he was looking for, but he quickly gets used to it. Since Google's purpose is to search the vastness of the internet for relevant pages, he comes to appreciate Google's flexibility and breadth. Google's search syntax and the way it delivers results are an excellent interface for broad-based searching, but that does not make it truly "intuitive."

What's more, the unexpected results are of great benefit in a web search, but such results will quickly become frustrating when trying to search for a phrase in a specific text like the Bible. For example, I just searched for kingdom of God (without quotes) in a Bible program which follows Google's search syntax and got 401 hits (each word being counted as a hit) in 100 verses. Many of these were simply verses which happened to contain the words "kingdom," "of," and "God." Doing the same search in Accordance returned 67 hits (each phrase being counted as a hit) in 66 verses. Enclosing the phrase in quotation marks got a similar result as that found by Accordance, though it still found something other than the exact phrase "kingdom of God."

My point here is that when searching a specific text, you are less likely to appreciate surprises, because you're now forced to wade through a series of false hits. If you never learned the convention of enclosing a phrase in quotation marks, you're likely to be extremely frustrated, because its not easy to intuit how to narrow your search results.

For all these reasons, we've chosen not to switch to Google's search syntax, an approach to searching which is less intuitive than the simpler approach of giving you what you ask for. We realize that requires an adjustment on the part of people who have become expert googlers, but we hope you'll understand that we have good reasons for the approach we've chosen.

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Archived Comments

Mike Aubrey

March 25, 2009 12:56 PM

I'm not sure that the two button mouse and google are comparable. Google search syntax is definitely complex and takes time to learn, but with the mouse, there's only so many possibilities - two. So while a one button mouse and Accordance searching may both be more intuitive than their respective counterparts, there definitely a difference of degree.

David Lang

March 25, 2009 2:17 PM

Mike, sounds like you're a two-button apologist! :-)

You're right that a two button mouse only presents the user with two choices, but that's twice as many choices as a one-button mouse. The difference between the two buttons is not hard to grasp. What's hard for beginners is training two different fingers to press two different buttons each at the right time and without having to think about it. For those who've never done it before, there is a period of training involved and a frustrating tendency to make the wrong choice.

That period of acclimation is probably far shorter for new users today who have grown up with multi-button gaming devices and gadgets than it was for non-computer users in the early '80s, but that just proves that we have been better trained to deal with interfaces requiring manual dexterity. When Apple was trying to introduce a completely new way to interact with a computer, it deliberately chose to make the input device as simple and intuitive as possible.

R. Mansfield

March 25, 2009 3:23 PM

I heard a fellow railing just this week in a Mac site forum about the Mac's one button mouse and why he'd never switch from Windows. But right click context menus have been available since what OS 8? 8.1? When I got my first Mac in 1998, one of the first things I did was to buy a two-button ABD mouse, and it was easy enough to get one, even if it wasn't made by Apple.

When did Accordance integrate context-sensitive menus? I use them everyday. 

And for what it's worth, Google could learn a few things about searching from Accordance.

Jack Caviness

March 25, 2009 7:31 PM

FWIW My bride of 48 years, who only became computer literate four or five years ago, had me reprogram her Mighty Mouse so that all 4 buttons are simply point and click.


March 26, 2009 1:43 AM

I am a cross platform user myself and apple's mouse is just plain lame.  The two button mouse is king for a reason.  That being said, the gestures on the new macbook buttonless trackpads are unmatched (including the 2 finger tap, 2 finger scroll, and 4 finger slides)...they got that right.

As far searches go, I think Accordance does it right.  I would really dread a google style search in Accordnce :)


Chris Echols

March 27, 2009 6:08 AM

Great explanation, but as with anything in business (and programming) there may come a time to make it a user preference feature in the future that would make accordance stand out from the rest.

Some study sessions I enjoy getting exactly what I type in, but most of the time I don't know the exact wording or phrasing (as most newbies I assume) thus it would be great to have an easy way to tell accordance that I really don't know what I'm talking about.

David Joyce

March 29, 2009 4:48 PM

I think I can understand your position, however, I wish the search were simply more intelligent. We're working on a computer here. Everytime you're tempted to ask me (the user) more information about my search ask yourself, is this something that the computer could do instead?

For example,

If I do a search for a phrase, and I didn't get the wording right, I don't think it should say "No results found". It should see what it can find that's similar to what I entered and give me those results. Maybe I mispelled a word, or maybe I left out a comma, or maybe I was searching in the wrong version. The program has the search string that I want on hand but it's not intelligently analyzing it to determine what I might have meant.

For example, I just searched for "I am the way the truth and the life" and got nothing. There should be *plenty* of info there to formulate some results. But I get nothing.

I don't know about the current version, but in my version (6.7) I have some search tools at my disposal under the "Search" menu, but they're full of programmer logic, wildcard characters, ranges, my favorite, "XOR". I have an IT degree so I have an idea how to use these features, but I don't even want to go to the search menu bar, it's not user friendly. I have a very intelligent computer that can work with those tools far more efficiently than I can.

My dream product is Accordance with a minimalist UI, and a basic search field and one translation of the bible of my choosing - at a cost of 30 dollars. And Accordance Pro for the true bible scholars. - Oh, an iPhone version would be fabulous too.

David Joyce

March 29, 2009 5:03 PM

One more thing...

All I'm basically asking for is a version of accordance that has 80% of the features stripped out completely or invisible to me and is all contained in one window.

Accordance doesn't need more features, it *needs* less, and the best way to improve the software from here on out is to make some major refinements to the interface and basic functionality. I was telling my sister in law a while back, I feel like just figuring out how to program something myself with XCode. Because all I want is the bible on my computer, it should be as easy to use as a real bible, and it shouldn't cost an arm and a leg.

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