Finding gold among the pebbles

A 7 minute read written by Dave May 19, 2015

An illustration of a group of pebbles with a gold nugget among them.

The trait I look for in a new hire is something most people are embarrassed to admit.

I have never seen anyone list it on their resume, but it’s something most great designers and developers are skilled at.

A year or two ago, someone I work with sheepishly admitted something he was great at – and maybe it was his best skill. To him, it seemed obvious: how to enter a term or phrase into the open search box in Google, and end up at the right information. It took him very little time, and he was able to capture an idea or problem, search for more detail and find the answer he needed. He was great at googling, but to say that out loud that sounded silly.

I’m great at googling?

If you were at a meeting and had two business cards passed to you across the table – one that said “expert researcher” and one that said “great googler,” you might form an opinion about the people behind the cards. I’m pretty sure I can guess who you’d go for drinks with after the meeting, and who you’d call to solve a problem you had at work the next day.

Saying you’re good at googling sounds as comfortable as saying you’re good at Microsoft Wording or describing your skills with The Photoshop. Searching is often synonymous with a brand –Google – but Bing doesn’t sound any cooler: binging? I find my team is often shy to admit that searching is a skill – and an important one.

Googling may seem like an obvious skill to people who are good at it, but it’s not as common an ability as you may think. When I consider what makes a person great at googling, and what makes them less successful when they search, it boils down to the principles of basic research.

Research principles

The people I know who do the best research have a specific ability: they can use what they learn in their research to dig deeper into search results. There is so much information online the most important thing in search is identifying what’s valuable, and what’s not. The inherent challenge in learning something new is that it’s hard to identify what’s pebbles and what’s gold as you sift through. However, if you can use what you find in search results to identify what’s valuable and dig deeper, then you’ll make progress towards an answer. It’s this principle of bootstrapping your knowledge with what you’re learning that I find critical in good research.

So how do you learn how to do that?

That’s where basic research principles come in. There are two types of research: primary (discovering things that don’t exist yet) and secondary (finding summary or synthesis or meaning). When you search, you’re looking for secondary research, so your goal is bringing ideas together to find meaning. You’re not looking for the best pastrami or the best rye bread, you’re looking to make a great sandwich. You may not even know the exact question you’re trying to answer, but you’re digging deeper into knowledge in a particular area.

One of the ways to think about this process is by considering the shape of a funnel. It’s wide at the top, and quickly narrows down to a small flow. The goal of a good researcher is to move as fast as possible from the wide array of knowledge on the Internet to the specific information you’re interested in and the answer to your question. In other words, you’re not digging around aimlessly hoping to hit your target, you’re systematically prospecting to narrow the field before you start digging in earnest.

So how do you learn to sift through pebbles to find gold?

I used to love book stacks when I was a kid. I would use the card system in the library to find a topic and then wander around the shelves looking for a book. For those of you who never had this experience, when I was in school, libraries had a set of index cards that were organized by topic in drawers. You had to look up the topic you were interested in, and then the index card would give you a number (e.g., 810.142). You’d look through the shelves of books until you found the matching number on the back of the book you were looking for.

I still remember the mind-expanding day when I figured out how these systems worked. When I started using them, I would use the cards to find a specific topic, locate the number of my book with the index cards, and then wander over to find it on the shelves. I’d skim the book, see if it was useful, and if not, head back to the drawers of index cards. Then one day, I slowed down a bit and looked up, and realized that the shelves were organized by topic, and if I could figure that out, I wouldn’t need the cards.

I know: It was pretty simple and obvious realization, but I remember how dramatically that changed how I went about my research. After I figured out the system I’d use the index cards to get close to my subject, and then poke around the shelves nearby to narrow in on my topic. I’d browse the books I found until I had one that helped me get the specific answer to my question. That’s when I figured out how to move from the vast array of books in the library to the narrow focus of my topic.

What I learned from searching bookstacks:

  • Know when to pull up for perspective.
  • Know when to chase a thread and when to drop it.
  • Write down a useful summary of information so you can remember and retrace your steps.
  • Manage your time and limit your scope; don’t get lost in book stacks (or hilarious cat videos online).

I use the same principles when I’m searching online. Often I’m exploring a new idea, or I’ve got a hunch about something I can’t prove. What I need to do is educate myself about a topic enough to craft the right question. So I start by searching for a question or term that’s near to the topic I’m exploring. Then as I get close, I watch the language that authors who are intimate with the topic use, and I try and learn from how they describe their work and ideas. If I can learn enough from how the experts describe their topic, I can ask a question that pulls me closer to my answer.

The best answers come from good questions. So how do you ask good questions?

  • Start simple: think about your topic, and ask questions based on what you know.
  • Read the results, and look for keywords that seem like they will further your knowledge.
  • Learn the language and terms specific to the topic you’re researching.
  • Keep good notes as you work.

Asking the right question

I have this experience regularly: I’m sitting at my desk with a problem in front of me that seems impossible and unsolvable. I decide I need help (a good step!) and I wander over to talk to someone on my team. I start to describe the problem and as I’m going through the process of bringing them up to speed and stating the problem, I come up with a solution, or another path to chase - even before I get through my description of the problem.

Stating a problem well can help you learn where you need to focus your research or it may just give you the answer you were searching for. Write down what you know, to explain the problem you’re trying to solve for someone else, and you may end up asking the right question.

What tools do you use?

Before I begin my research I almost always start with paper and pencil and write down the core idea I’m trying to figure out. If I can’t do that, I write down what I know, and the closest I can get to an answer.

Here’s a bad example: “The code doesn’t work – and I want it to work.”

Here’s a better example: “When I load the content on my phone, the second half of the content does not display, but it works on the desktop.”

If I need to learn a new idea or dig into some deeper knowledge about a problem, I use Evernote to track research about a topic. I’ll spend 15 minutes searching and collecting ideas, pages, tweets, and save anything that looks good into Evernote. After that I’ll spend another 15 minutes scanning through what I’ve collected and either deleting what’s useless, or searching again on topics that I think are useful. Again, I’m narrowing the field so that I can I focus my search.

My next step is to dive deeper into some articles and read them thoroughly. I take physical notes in a notebook at that point, and sketch out ideas that I think are useful. I’ll often take pictures with my phone and track all that knowledge in my Evernote notebook. Once I’ve gone through that process I often have enough knowledge to be able to formulate the right question, or get close.

In general, I try and give myself a fixed time for that work. It’s easy to get lost down rabbit holes doing research and keeping yourself focused helps you get to your answer faster. I’ll set 15 or 30 minutes, and either keep a clock visible or set an alarm with reminders.

Principles of good research

  • Use simple tools (pencil and paper, or notepad).
  • Write down what you’re learning.
  • Circle or collect common terms used by authors.
  • Identify authors that help you further your knowledge.

Following these principles will help you find that gold among the pebbles sooner. You may have your own process, or your own research methods – I’d love to hear about them.

Are you great at googling?