Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Answer: How to do slow research?

 Searching slowly isn't the norm... 

1.5 million balloons over Cleveland

In fact, people search engine companies go to a lot of trouble to make sure that searches return results as quickly as possible.  We know (see this paper, for instance) that even a little delay (0.1 seconds) will cause a fall-off in user response!    

But we know that not all SRS Challenges require instant responses. Sometimes slow and deliberate is the way you want to go--especially with complex topics that require some depth.  Let's call this kind of search slow researchWhat are some ways to do this?  

I put this to you with this specific idea--Suppose I want to write a book on this topic: 

Sometimes when you take an action, something very unforeseen happens as a consequence after that action is taken.

For example: in 1986, the Cleveland United Way charity planned on releasing 2 million balloons as kind of spectacle, with donors pitching in to sponsor a balloon.  But with a storm coming into the city, they decided to release the  balloons early, causing all kinds of problems with the flood of balloons in the area, ultimately causing a net loss for the charity along with a host of problems.  

What a fascinating topic!  But how can I make this long-lasting research problem work well?  

With this as context, the Challenge for last week was... 

1. How would you set up a continuing stream of information to you about this topic?  This is partly a question about the way to do this, but also a question about what the search terms should be.  What would you do?  How would you search for this phenomenon?  

Let's break this Challenge up into two parts:  

A. What would be good search terms for this potential book topic?   (That is, what would you search for?)

B.  How can we set up a continuous stream of information that will bring information about this topic to me?  

A:  The question for part A is the eternal quest for great search terms and phrases.  Our Challenge task is a fairly complex / subtle topic.  The first sentence in the Challenge is "..Sometimes when you take an action, something very unforeseen happens as a consequence after that action is taken..."  Let's work forward from what we have towards some terms and phrases that might be useful.  

Here, the key ideas are: 

a. taking an action that has an outcome, 

b. that outcome isn't what is expected,

c. that outcome isn't desirable.

What's a succinct way to describe this?  

Here I'm looking for a stereotypical phrase, something that people would write about--something that captures the sense of this idea.  

I started with a query: 

     [ action with unexpected outcome ] 

Note that I'm NOT looking for a result, I want to scan the texts of these results looking for a common phrase that would capture the essence of this idea.  

Here's what I see in my SERP.  Note the two phrases I've circled... 

"Unintended consequences" is a good phrase that is pretty much what I want to find.  

How else could I find other phrases for searching? 

One quick way is to look at the suggestions Google gives as you type your search. Here's what I saw: 

This more-or-less confirms that the phrase unintended consequences is pretty good, but it also suggests "intended action"... which makes me think that perhaps searching for the opposite idea ("unintended benefits"!) might be a good idea.  

Let's keep pushing on the unintended consequences idea for a moment.  I could do a search for: 

     [ "unintended consequences" synonym ] 

Which gives more good ideas: 

Of course, exploring the other results (by opening in other tabs--for lateral browsing) leads to some interesting findings.  Additional useful phrases I found like this are collateral consequence, blowback, boomerang, side effects, adverse reactions.  

One more idea: I also want to check out what a reverse dictionary might tell me.  (Remember we've talked about this idea before.)   You just do a search for [ reverse dictionary ] and enter "unintended consequences" and... 

From the OneLook dictionary/thesaurus 

There are some great suggestions here:  blowback, accident, serendipity, law of effect, etc.  

You get the idea. Working from the fairly pedestrian, ordinary description of the Challenge, we can get to some useful search terms.  In this case, we went from a fairly open-ended and ambiguous statement to search terms that are reasonably precise.  

Now... what about Part B?  

B:  As we know, many search tasks are NOT quick short-fact lookups.  If you're buying anything fairly expensive (think: car, refrigerator, vacation), you probably do more than one or two searches, and probably over a long period of time.  You probably look things up, extract some information, and then consolidate that info to make a decision later. 

Likewise, if you're researching any complex topic (such as a medical issue that you or someone in your family has), then you've started a legit longitudinal research process.  Such research tasks often need some way to keep the task front-and-center.  People often start a longitudinal research process with the best of intentions, but then drop it somewhere along the way.  Obviously, that doesn't happen with high priority research tasks (like learning about and managing a critical health care problem), but for the other tasks--in my case, writing a book on this topic--we need to set up periodic reminders to pay attention to the task. 

The two tricks I use to help me stay focused are: 

1. Set up a repeating calendar appointment with yourself.  I check my Calendar multiple times each day ("what am I supposed to be doing now??"), so it's part of my work practice.  To keep moving forward on book writing, I just set up a 2-hour meeting with myself on the Calendar for 2 days out of the week.  (When the writing gets more focused, I'll change it to be 1 hour/day.)  

That's a simple hack.  

2. Use Google Alerts to keep a  constant stream of new results coming to you in email.  This not only keeps reminding you that you're working on this topic, but it also keeps you abreast of the latest developments.  

It's easy to set up an Alert.  I just do a search for the link:  [ Google Alerts ] -- that will bring the link to the Alerts setup page for you.  Once there, it's straightforward to set up a repeating search (using all of the Google search tricks you know about).  I set mine up to run daily, showing me the "best results" for all of the different media streams.  

Then, my email inbox gets a stream (once/day) of relevant articles.  Looks like this: 

You can see that my Alert query is:  ["unintended consequences" OR "unintended side effect" OR "unintended effect"] 

Bonus Alert Hack:  It turns out that Google Scholar has its own Alert system.  (That is, you can't set up the regular Google Alert to also search through Scholarly results--you have to set up your Alerts over there.)  Use the same trick of searching for the link: [ Google Scholar Alerts ] to take you to the Scholar Alert setup page.  

I could have put in a longer query here ("unexpected consequences" OR "unintended consequences" OR "blowback") but I wanted to keep the example simple.  

Search Research Lessons 

1.  Sometimes slow search is the way to go.  Complex topics often require real research work on your part. Learn to recognize tasks like this and learn to NOT blow through the questions as quickly as possible.  I'm sorry to tell you, but research sometimes requires work!  Embrace this.  

2. Setting up calendar reminders to work on a research task work quite well.  This is especially true if you run your life off your online calendar.  

3. Use the Google Alerts to get automatic updates of new information.  You can use all of the power of Google search and have them emailed to you daily. 

4. For more academic or scholarly research questions, remember to use Google Scholar Alerts!  They're NOT automatically included in your default Alerts. 

5. You can search for synonymous phrases by regular search.  It's worth spending a few extra moments to search for a better way to phrase your query--one that captures your intent more precisely.   

Hope this was useful to you.  Search on! 

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