The hype has passed, and it’s clear that Wolfram Alpha isn’t the new Google killer as initially anticipated. But what is this new computational knowledge engine, and how shall we use it? It seems to me that we have been given some sort of a command line tool for a comprehensive information database. The search box acts as a peeking hole into Wolfram Alpha’s wonderful inner world of facts and figures, giving us a sense of what’s hidden inside there, while at the same time making everything slightly inaccessible. Like with a command line, you have to know what you’re asking for, and you must know how to phrase that question in a way Wolfram Alpha understands, in order to get a decent answer.
Wolfram Alpha is perhaps less of a search engine, and more like a question answering engine. Being something other than a search engine may be a strength in the fight for survival alongside Google, Yahoo and Bing, but it also means that the general Internet population must learn how to use this new tool. And that doesn’t happen overnight, especially since we’re already so accustomed to the quick and dirty web search. Wolfram Alpha can be both tedious and puzzling to interact with, and must therefore provide some serious extra value if it expects us to make the extra effort.
I’m comparing Wolfram Alpha to a command line, and if you’re not a geek, you may not know what a command line is. In short, it’s a way of giving instructions to the computer, like deleting a file, by typing text commands into a special window, instead of clicking and dragging the file icon to the trashcan with your mouse. The command line is loved by many for it’s efficiency (I do!), but it’s also an interaction paradigm hampered with some serious poor usability issues. Jono DiCarlo of Humanized does a great job at summarizing these issues in his post about the problem with language-based interfaces. Here’s why he believes command lines are inherently difficult to use:
- Not discoverable: There’s no guidance given to a first-time user. You type some letters and nothing happens: it feels like shouting into a void. If you don’t already have the basic commands memorized, there’s no way to figure out what they are.
- Cryptic names: Whether for historical reasons or for brevity, the standard names of commands, programs, and locations are all called stuff like ‘tar’ and ‘mkdir’ and ‘/usr/local/bin’. Because these names are unnatural and unfamiliar, they have to be learned by rote.
- No feedback: I just entered a command and all I got back was a blank line! It worked, but what did I just do?
- Options are hard to remember: Does the ln command take the source file first or the destination file first? What does the -z option on tar do again?
- Really easy to make mistakes: One wrong character and your innocent command is transformed into a ruthless file murderer. And there’s no undo!
Let’s look at each of these misfeatures in turn, and see if any of them apply to Wolfram Alpha.
Not entirely true for Wolfram Alpha, since the welcome page provides a multitude of helpful hints on how to get started using the engine. There’s examples of mathematical formulas, geographical locations, dates, stock quotes, demographic data and other computations Wolfram Alpha is capable of handling. But even with this collection of well-chosen examples, Wolfram Alpha’s special flavor of knowledge computing feels a bit like a guessing game. And that makes it difficult to learn how to type in the right questions.
The normal rules of web search (like typing in whatever is on your mind) don’t apply here, and feeding Wolfram Alpha the same kind of search input as you would to any other search engine seldom works. Considering that Google sees about 20-25% new and unique (never seen before) queries every day, it’s natural to assume that Wolfram Alpha’s natural language processing will have a hard time providing sufficient query formulation flexibility to searchers and their diverse information needs.
Wolfram Alpha is riddled with scientific abbreviations and mathematical notation, which are rather unfamiliar to most people. These specialized features of the input language reinforces my impression that Wolfram Alpha is a search engine for specialist (in various domains). You have to possess some prior expert knowledge in order to ask the right questions, without which you can’t get access to possibly valuable information.
If you successfully managed to execute a query, Wolfram Alpha gives you a lot more back than just a blank line with a blinking cursor. But if you don’t succeed, it’s usually the case that “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.” Not very helpful, unfortunately, but I guess it’s hard to do more, especially while the engine is still in its infancy.
Instead of just dismissing unlucky searchers, Wolfram Alpha could start to back-fill unsuccessful queries with web search results delivered by eg. Google. That would avoid creating a dead-end feeling. Sure, there’s a link to web search in the sidebar, but it’s well hidden. Back-filling with web results could make Wolfram Alpha more appealing to the general audience.
Options Are Hard To Remember
Not really transferable to Wolfram Alpha, but as with cryptic names, search operators like “/” must be taught to the user before they provide any value.
Really Easy To Make Mistakes
Relax, there’s no risk of you accidentally erasing Wolfram Alpha, or the Internet for that matter. But it is really easy to make mistakes when you’re typing in a query. Wolfram Alpha seems to be equipped with a decent spell checker (Levenshtein, perhaps), but it doesn’t work as well for various abbreviations. For example, gbp norway gives a different result altogether than gdp norway. Sure, no harm done, except perhaps to the user’s sense of pride and confidence in the engine.
5 Things Wolfram Alpha Does Better
So much for my Wolfram Alpha bashing. Stan Schroeder of Mashable tells us what he thinks are the bright sides of Wolfram Alpha, the computational knowledge engine. He makes a list of 5 things Wolfram Alpha does better (and vastly different) than Google:
- Complex Queries – Like finding information about our solar system by typing in the names of a few planets. Wolfram Alpha gives individual information about each planet together with different comparisons, while Google simply returns the best matching web pages.
- Localization – Currencies and units of measure are easily converted when treated as first-class information objects, like Wolfram Alphawho’s mostly restricted to returning whatever is on the web page, localized or not. does. It’s not so easy for Google,
- Precision – Wolfram Alpha surely can’t answer all questions. But it tries to be as precise as possible with the answers it does give, and refuses to deliver anything half-baked. I would say that precision is nice, but it’s not everything. Exploration and discovery usually starts with a few good alternatives as basis for further research and analysis.
- Calculation – Google provides direct answers to some specialized queries, like paris hilton height and 100 USD in EUR, but nothing close to what Wolfram Alpha does.
- Comparison – Comparing information across web pages does not work that well for document-centric search engines (like Google). But with Wolfram Alpha it works like a charm.
Wolfram Alpha is a bit like a box of chocolate – you never know what you gonna get. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. If you happen to love command line interfaces above everything else, you may want to check out Goosh – the unofficial and curious Google command line. And if you you’re looking for some light entertainment, check out these Wolfram Alpha easter eggs.