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.