Towards serendipity

Christmas has come and gone, it’s a new year, we’ve moved house, I’ve broken my foot and badly sprained my ankle* and now suddenly it’s almost March. I’ve not read as much as I had wanted during the ‘break’ but have managed to keep things ticking along at some lower level in my thoughts.

Some general design reading has been done (Bruno Munari, Kees Dorst) and some more specific reading on search experience design, information retrieval and serendipty.**

I suspect I am not alone in my reaction to the prospect of not being able to see the books in the UTS library collection once the LRS is in place. It was emotional and physical. The potential loss of the ability to stumble upon something brought on a kind of mourning.

Which is ridiculous.

There is no reason why I can’t stumble upon ‘things’ without the physicality of a book. For example, there is a thing called the internet which allows for all sorts of lateral movement through ideas and thoughts (and is a giant time suck).

My initial thoughts around serendipty were, then, emotional. They associated it with something poetic and intangible but necessary. I built my idea of it as some kind of mystical part of research that could possibly be encouraged but not defined.

Of course I was wrong. Librarians and other information professionals have spent years trying to define serendipty and its role in search and libraries in general. Not that many of them but enough to prove my initial instincts wrong.

For instance, Foster and Ford’s 2003 paper “Serendipity and information seeking: an empirical study” provides a decent basis upon which you can get your head around the idea of serendipty as something which doesn’t just occur, randomly and without reason. It is possibly, in the information-seeking instance, a situation brought about by the convergence of different forces and factors, some of which can be observed and even influenced.

Thank god for that! (There IS some science here). The whole thrust of my project is to design an interface that provides opportunities for serendipitous discovery. My ideas for how to do this were initially based around something intangible that I couldn’t describe (obviously). Now I can at least think that perhaps there is some empirical basis that can inform the design.

Having said that, I still think a successful design will combine poetics with what we know about how people search and find.

We shall see.

*Some bad serendipty right there (fell down stairs giving dogs their daily treat).

**Also read: Gideon Haigh on Shane Warne (Christmas gift, highly recommended), Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo‘s The Terrorist (the last of the series, if you’re going to read them start at the beginning), Martin Flanagan’s superb trilogy on Australian Football The Last Quarter.


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