Tuesday, February 10, 2015

New series: How-to-find...

I thought I might try something new here.

My plan is to start doing weekly (or biweekly, depending on how energetic I am) series of posts about "How To Find....<something>" (HTF)

The idea is that <something> will vary from week to week.

This week, I'm trying out my HTF notes about finding "Do it Yourself" information.

Please let me know what you think of this. I'm especially interested if you have additional things I should add to this "HTF DIY Information," or if you think the whole idea is a good one.

Do you have any particular topic you'd like to see in the HTF series?


-- Dan


How to find: DIY information 


A common thing for people search for is “how to” information.  Sometimes called “do it yourself” (DIY),this kind of how-to-do-something is an important part of how people share their craft with others.  In the past few years, plenty of  web sites have sprung up to teach people how to sew, repair broken appliances, darn socks, or do thoracic surgery.  Once this kind of information was the area of hobbyists and obscure, difficult-to-find speciality magazines.  But now, the DIY and Maker movements have broken boundaries with some sophisticated DIY information that’s easily findable and widely available.  (Think about examples like  “how to build your own surfboard,”  “set up your own Minecraft server,” or “how to do fire spinning.”)  

Sometimes, getting the DIY information rapidly is critical--the water is gushing out of my plumbing NOW and I need to stop it instantly.  Most of the time, getting the DIY information is leisurely--you can learn how to fly a drone or build a Minecraft server pretty much any time.  In the get-it-to-me-now case, you don’t want to spend a lot of time futzing around… and that’s why you read this article now.  In the leisurely case, you probably want to find pretty reliable “how to” information so you don’t crash your drone on its first flight, or spent lots of time building a broken server.  

What is DIY content?  

DIY--or “how to do it”--information tells you (or better yet, shows you) how to do some particularly skilled thing.  Usually DIY info is for topics where it’s really not obvious how to do it (for instance, how DO you cut glass to make stained glass artwork?), mysterious (how do you make a fishing net out of a long string?), or involves steps where doing it wrong is really dangerous or expensive.

Lots of DIY content these days is in video form, although printed manuals and how-to guides are sometimes easier to use.  

While there are MANY kinds of DIY information, we’re going to look at just the most common kinds:
  1. How to do a particular skill?  (Think twirling a fire baton, riding a unicycle, replacing car brake pads, or how to strum a power chord on your electric guitar at max volume.)  
  2. How to fix something that’s broken?  (Your blender / TV / computer is broken.   Your socks need repair. Your kitchen faucet needs replacing.  What now?)
  3. How to make something from scratch?  (Learn to bake a cake, build an igloo, make the best paper airplane, or write a strong resume.)  
  4. How do you use a tool or piece of software?  (You need to learn how to fix up old photos using a software photo editor.  You’d like to learn how to use an awl correctly, without sticking it into your hand.)  

DIY searching: What do you need to learn?  

Luckily, the internet is full of people who have created tutorials and written-up how-tos for even the most obscure topics.  (Need to know how to take care of a pet spider?  There are tutorials written for you. Really.)  

Consider what you already know.  If you’re looking up DIY information about creating a new Mardi Gras costume, think about how much you already know.  Are you a sewer?  Do you have a closet full of needles and thread, ribbons and bolts of fabric?  Are you already an expert in the field?  

When starting a DIY search, first consider what kind of information you need.  If you’re a beginner, you’re going to need an overview or quick introduction to the field, if only to learn the language and to assess whether or not this is a good thing to start doing.  (It could be that you’re taking on something way over your head or budget.  That’s the point of up-front research:  Find this kind of thing out before sinking lots of time and money into a project.  Learning how to bake bread is fairly straightforward; learning how to bake a beautifully decorated cake involves more time, money, and practice.)  Check out the results all the way to the end.  (Don’t be surprised by a suddenly large amount of time you need at the end of the recipe when your dinner party is TONIGHT.)  

Once you’ve started finding your research, think about building up a collection of articles, evaluating which one(s) you think are the best.  Are they in language you understand?  Is it clear what’s involved?

Pro tip:  Always search for at least two or three different how-to articles (or vidoes) before diving in.  It’s often the case that one article will illustrate the method in a way that doesn’t make sense until you read another take on the same topic.  

DIY  search process

Start broadly:  When I’m doing a DIY search in an area I don’t know much about, I start broadly, usually learning a lot about the field before I dive into the specifics.  For instance, I know very little about knitting.  So if I wanted to get into knitting as a spare-time activity, I’d first look up more general articles about knitting to get a sense for what’s involved.  Use queries such as:  

    [ knitting overview ]

    [ introduction to knitting ]

    [ beginning knitting ]

I’d look at the high end to see the things I’d like to aspire to do one day, and then go back and look at the entry-level, or beginner’s level materials.  Can I get there from here?  

Dive in:  If I already know what I’m doing (or if I’ve learned a lot already), I’ll start to dive into mechanics of searching for teaching material.  I start broadly, casting out a wide net, and look for specialty sites along the way.  Let’s take the example of guitar playing:  

    [ how to play guitar ]

    [ guitar instruction ]

    [ guitar lessons ]

And if you know what style of guitar playing you’d like to pursue, add that in as well:

    [ how to play flamenco guitar ]

    [ gypsy guitar instruction ]

    [ jazz guitar lessons ]


In this section we cover 4  different methods for searching out educational content.  Broadly speaking, these methods are all ways to translate what you know about an educational need into search-engine specific strategies.  

1.  Use specific terms that are use in your interest area.  For instance, a cable weave is a kind of knitting stitch, while a cable braid is a way to manage all of those pesky computer cables under the desk.  A “caliper” is part of a car’s brakes, but also a machinists measuring tool.  You can use specific terms like this to get very on-target search results.  (Caution:  Be sure you know what your speciality term means!  Don’t search for “penny whistle” if what you’re really looking for is “recorder.”  Use [ define  ] to double check.)  

     [ cable weave knitting pattern ]


     [ woven cable headphone ]

2.  Check out different kinds of media.  Remember that there can be many different kinds of content.  Often we turn to videos to find out how to do something physical (e.g., fix plumbing or learning a dance move), but printed documents can also be very helpful, especially when they’re specifically for the thing you’re trying to repair. Sometimes an exploded parts diagram that you can refer to is exactly the right thing.  Also look for images for your topic.  Electronics repairs often require a schematic diagram to help you understand how things are put together.  

    [ repair manual PDF Cuisinart blender ]   (will find PDFs for a Cuisinart blender)

    [ furnace schematic ]   (Image search)  

And while it might seem odd, remember that Books can be a useful place to learn how-to do something.  Be sure to checkout Google Books.  (Books.Google.com)  

3.  Look for Q&A or Forum sites.  A Q&A (questions and answers) or Forum site can be a superb source of information.  These sites are usually run by enthusiasts in that particular field to answer questions that come up for people.  

    [ forum tile repair ]

    [ Q&A bicycle repair ]

4.  Search for online communities in your interest area.  Many social media networks (Facebook, Pintrest, G+, Tumblr, etc.) have communities of people with a shared interest.  It’s simple to look on a social network for things like:

    [ piano enthusiasts ]

    [ woodworking ]

    [ surfing ]  

and get quickly linked into those communities, usually full of people who are more than willing to answer your questions.  

5.  Search for DIY content for your specific device / widget / gadget.  People love to talk about their particular gadget.  So it’s realtively straightforward to look for how-to information that’s keyed to a particular kind of device.  Notice:  Be sure the article you’re reading and the device you have are the same model (or release).  Nothing is more frustrating than reading an entire how-to article and then figuring out that this was all for the previous version of the device… that you don’t own.  

    [ GoPro Silver how to time lapse ]

    [  Photoshop CC tutorial ]

Specific DIY Resources  

There are many videos on YouTube for your interest area.  Be sure to look not just for individual videos, but also for channels that are on your topic.

Stack Exchange Q&A sites on many topics.  http://stackexchange.com/sites

Often a manufacturer will have a website that’s dedicated to supporting their gear.  (A couple of examples: GoPro http://gopro.com/support/, Seagate http://www.seagate.com/support/ , etc.)  

Popular DIY sites:  


MOOCs:  There are a great many MOOCs that will teach you specific things (e.g., how to code, how to do data analysis, how to play jazz guitar).  Although they tend to be longer format, they’re often a great resource for life-long learning.  

Lynda.com -- a commercial online education resource (costs real money), but some of their technical content is superb.  

Chilton’s auto repair manuals (available in many libraries)  

Don’t forget about university courses and classes at your local library.  


  1. Hello,
    Nice. I like this new addition to the weekly search challenge (as long as it is not a replacement). :-)

    I would add that Google now offers steps for many DIY items in a knowledge graph. Example [ how to uninstall a program on windows 8 ].

  2. Congratulations Dr. Russell for this new series. I think it is a great idea and of course we will learn a lot.

    Maybe, the time could be one per month. With that, we know when you will post and have plenty of time to try what you teach too. And also, will give you time to no be overwhelmed. One each week or biweekly is fantastic and I am sure that will add lots of work and sometimes is not possible with all the activities that a regular day has.

    Thanks for giving us more tools and knowledge.

  3. I really like the idea of getting direct instruction from you on a topic. It's a nice complement to the research activities. Thanks for undertaking it.

  4. Anne and I love this new series. We may include this in our weekly newsletter we put out to staff. We think once a month is good to start out.

  5. Google Helpouts may not be the first place one might go for direction, advice or help with your DYI because it will cost a little bit of money. It likely has to be scheduled but you may be able to get assistance right away. I personally haven't use it. But spending a little money could save you hours & hours of searching. https://helpouts.google.com/home

    I am a DYI language learner. I have amassed a huge library of resources including many website, podcasts, devices and apps. I was thinking about this lately because I've asked some friends learning languages in what I'll call the tradition manner i.e. classroom setting. "What resources are you using to learn Spanish/French?" I get this blank look. "I attend class and we have a textbook. What more is there?" Wow! So I would say that opening minds to new ways of learning in DYI scenarios is really important.

    We laugh and say "there must be an app for that". Well it kind of is true. The example of fix bicycle is a great example for me. Since I do long distance riding anywhere from 60 - 150 kms & I do it often on my own I need to know how to fix things along the way. I do have a downloaded app just for that purpose.

    If you want to know about something sign up on a quality blog. Isn't that we are all doing here? I personally tend to stay away from forums but a moderated well set up blog is worth its weight in gold, like this one.

    Your idea of a HTF series is excellent. I imagine that you have plenty of material based on past challenges. I think that with the constantly changing environment searches are conducted that an important area would be the updating of how we go about getting the information needed is relevant but the process has been improved or in some cases no longer exist.

    Here's one little tidbit I just discovered but perhaps its been mentioned before I am not sure. Word Lens has been mentioned here before I believe. And we know Google bought the company. Well now did you know Google Translate has a camera icon and you click on that and it can automatically translate signs for you. Even better since I used Word Lens I can tell you Google has improved it so you can use it for more than just signs. Its really cool.

    Good luck with this new series.

  6. Yes. I like this a lot, especially as a searchable archive to refer to as needed. I love Search ReSearch for how it helps me think about and approach searches but this would be very useful.

  7. A while back I read that there is a kind of singing/chanting in which one person can simutaneously produce two different notes. I tried youtube, and read what I could, but couldn't do it myself. What might be the best way to learn such a skill?

    Also, what is the most efficient way to compare policies (health, liability insurance, long term care insurance, etc.) ? I can locate them, but is there a most efficient way to compare them?

  8. This is a grand idea. Some DIY stuff I have searched out are: WWW site that only displayed the HTML coding. Took me months to stumble across the easy solution. THe big problem was I could not figure out how to describe it. The key fob remote for the car: One had not been used for some months and now would not work. Battery OK. dealer says hundreds of dollars to reprogram. Found a YouTube that showed how to do it in seconds.

    I check plumbing stuff. How to get the TV to show closed captioning. Ken across the street is always sussing out marine parts and tips and tricks.

    Being an Ancient Treasure I can use Elder College for all sorts of courses some academic other s not so much. I teach some stuff - currently geology - and have taken many courses too.

    Have MOOCed geology, dinosaurs, time and so on. Wife has searched out certain ukelele moves.

    Also got an alumni card so I can access my Uni academic journals. Your idea. Thanks.

    Looking forward to more along this line

    jon tU

  9. Forgot to mention PowerSearch and Advanced PS

    jon tU

  10. I would like to see a tutorial on how to search for email and telephone information for long-lost friends without having to resort to a paid service.

    Many thanks for everything you are doing!