Facebook’s success is based on understanding how people present themselves, what they remember, and how they seek information. Facebook’s new search tool is designed to help users find answers to nearly any questions they can think of. The search tool answers queries by mining the data at the company’s disposal. Facebook’s ultimate goal is to draw more and more people to the site and keep them there longer.
The design team that created the new search tool included two linguists, a Ph.D. in psychology, statisticians, and a cadre of programmers. Their mission was to teach Facebook’s computers how to communicate with people more effectively. The entire code had to be restructured. Loren Cheng led the natural language processing part of the project. She had to teach the search engine how to adjust to the demands of users. She said, “It used to be you had to go to the computer on the computer’s terms. Now it’s the user.”
Instead of relying on “robospeak,” the machine had to be taught how people actually talk. The team began to teach the search engine the building blocks of questions; somewhat resembling the way schoolchildren are taught to diagram a sentence. To capture the nearly infinite variety of ways people pose questions, the researcher consulted dictionaries, newspapers and parliamentary proceedings.
Facebook constantly tests and tweaks its features for its diverse, global audience. Team members tested each tweak to the search tool extensively and measured how certain groups of people responded. They watched users exploring different versions of the search engine hidden behind one-way glass and filled their notebooks with observations about the interactions.
Clifford I. Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford who specializes in human-computer interaction, said that what Facebook builds is not exactly a replica of how people interact offline, but rather reflects an “idealized view of how people communicate.” He explained, “The psychology they are drawing on is not pure psychology of how humans communicate, but the psychology of what makes people stay around, spend time on site and secondarily, what makes people click the advertisements.”