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One interface to rule them all

May 07, 2006

Following up on my post about Google's desire to establish its OneBox search interface as the default user interface for many corporate software applications, Sukumar Rajagopal explains the advantages that a search interface would hold for companies and their employees. He points out that our reliance on the dominant "WIMP" interfaces - those built on windows, icons, menus and pointing devices - has important drawbacks. First, it forces software programmers to include the design of complex WYSIWYG interfaces for information retrieval (the "read" function) into every application, thus slowing the application development process and increasing its costs. Second, it leads to a confusing array of interfaces, each with small or large variations that users have to learn and remember. Third, using a WIMP interface is time-consuming, often requiring numerous navigation steps to get to where you want to go or to find the information you need.

Moving to a common search interface for information retrieval, supplemented by a common set of more sophisticated analytical tools, will, Rajagopal argues, alleviate many problems, both for developers and for users:

I think Search will make the WIMP interface obsolete for basic Information Retrieval/Foraging purposes. Of course, for more advanced information retrieval applications you will use business intelligence tools ... A typical company has tons of OLTP [ie, transactional] applications each of them having their own confusing WIMP or Text-based UI making information retrieval a painful process. Here is where Google's Onebox concept could prove very powerful. You have a single search for searching all the intranet portals and use keyword-triggered searches on specific OLTP applications to bring back information. So when you type "purchase-order" followed by the customer name, it triggers a query on your Purchase Order system and brings back the relevant purchase orders ... I think this approach will help us escape the deadly embrace of the WIMP interface and make information retrieval a no-brainer.

To underscore that the use of search as a universal front end to business applications is what Google has in mind, Rajagopal quotes Google's top enterprise executive describing the OneBox interface:

it's a development environment. Any given company may have all sorts of information that they would like to make available, and they can make it all keyword triggered. You could type the word "contact" and then a name and it would go to Exchange. It's really up to the administrators to decide how they want to trigger it. But the user experience - and this is really important to us - entirely mimics how Google.com works.

Should this come to pass, it would, of course, shake up the entire business software industry. Control of the user interface also means control of the user experience and, in turn, the user relationship. The underlying applications begin to disappear, for many users, turning into pure commodities, invisible sources of data which flows through the network like electric current.


I think you overstate the importance of the search interface to the entire corporate user base. Yes for bloggers, writers etc it is lifeblood but to the accountant. the trader, the shop floor worker other interfaces are far more "default" - especially since they are entering transactions not just retrieving data. Actually same with Google Earth or Calendars = yes the box is present but the entry template changes ...The Universal Interface is a Holy Grail in my opinion. A think a Google or MS Home Page or portal is much more the standard...

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at May 7, 2006 12:32 PM


Yes, this is about information retrieval, but I think you may be underestimating the importance of information retrieval to employees. Also, it's pretty clear, from the consumer side, that Google is interested not just in providing a tool for finding information but also a set of tools for manipulating information.


Posted by: Nick Carr at May 7, 2006 12:49 PM

Nick, for a variety of reasons - technological, information architecture, commercial, security centered etc.. I do not think that the enteprise world would accept a common interface – a google centric one that easily – the questions of demonstrated value would be far more difficult to answer. The deployment of technology inside enteprises are generally far more sophisticated and complex than that seen in the consumer world.Enteprises taxonomy keeps evolving and to think of a unified interface for search and synthesis looks far too complicated - aside from the fact that more speialised players other than Google are already at it and doing a good job.

Posted by: sadagopan at May 7, 2006 04:52 PM

Hmmm ... sounds like a reinterpretation of the Unix command line interface.

Posted by: Nick Nichols at May 7, 2006 09:31 PM

One interface to rule them all? You can't be likening Google to Sauron, can you?! Why that would make Bill Gates... Gandalf? Maybe not what you meant ;-).

At any rate, since you're all excited about common interfaces to business information can we have a post on Duet and MS efforts to wrangle PeopleSoft customers into the "Dynamics" fold? MS has a better track record than Google of accomplishment in the enterprise (at least they *have* a track record...)


Posted by: Brian at May 7, 2006 10:31 PM

As much as it is an effort to build, maintain and upgrade a WIMP interface, can the benefits it provides - as it is today, be completely replaced by a "one-box" search interface?

A WIMP interface with its myriad of menus, icons, buttons, boxes etc. will typically adapt itself based on user input. For example, a list box maybe populated differently based on input provided in another menu/edit box. So, in essence at a very _coarse_ level, a WIMP interface is already built to address a specific requirement (and hence understands the _context_ under which an operation will be performed) or is built to understand the _context_ under which an operation is being performed and will adapt itself to help perform that operation in an optimal manner.

In the one-box interface recommended, how do I even make a simple query as follows - "Give me all invoices processed by John Smith and reviewed by John Doe after 08/11/2004".

Not everything that looks good and enticing at the consumer level will fit into an enterprise.


Posted by: Ganesh at May 15, 2006 03:53 PM

Yes, I agree that the search based UI navigation will shake up the entire business software industry. We are trying a similar idea in Zoho Writer ( http://www.zohowriter.com ). Check this out & let us know your feedback.

Posted by: Mani at May 16, 2006 01:01 AM

So one of the things you only slightly touch upon is "why" the one-box from Google came about - Scale. If all your search results came from a pool of less than 25 items, does the one-box still make sense? Not really. So yes, as enterprise applications scale up, the ability to search those results easily and quickly becomes paramount.

The other side of the coin that should be address is the 'learnability' factor. With Google, the process of learning how to get a result is easy, but the process of learning how to easily constrain your results is much more difficult. (There are entire books dedicated to it!)

Now applying the same to enterprise software, no one's going to put up with the loss of productivity for users to ramp up on how to craft rule syntax to find the specific items they want. Therefore, the search has to be available in conjunction with the standard browsing function. One doesn't displace the other, since they live on either end of two balances: small v. large scale & learnability v. speed.

Posted by: Josh Johnson at May 18, 2006 06:17 PM

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