Improving the World

I like to improve the world.

If I described my day job to most people, they would probably say I’m not improving the world very much. I work on improving the local search product of a commercial entity; the work I do doesn’t directly contribute to solving hunger, or saving lives, or what have you. I still feel like I am improving the world though, even if it’s in a smaller way.

Nokia phones are used by millions of people around the world every day. We get millions of users using our local search product every day. I can use the numbers we have to put a percentage on how many search queries are successful every day, and track that over the past couple years since our team started working on the problem.

What is a successful search query worth? Well, on a mobile phone, a bit more than you might think. In rapid-fire testing — attempting to run search queries as quickly as possible, with good knowledge of what I’m looking for and a solid understanding of the search experience — a single search query might take as little as 20 seconds. Reviewing some logs in the past and looking at typeahead, we have seen that for users on some devices, simply typing a query may take some users upwards of a minute.

If I can make search .1% better, with 1 million daily users, I’ve just saved 1000 users 30 seconds or so — or about 8 hours of productivity has been created that might not otherwise exist, assuming that the amount of productivity lost is equal only to the time to do a new search.

In the search team at Nokia in the past year, we have made much more significant gains than this; in fact, given our usage and our improvements in the past two years, the amount of productivity we save each day via improved search alone is more than 3 times the total working hours per day *of our entire team*. That’s right, with the improvements we have made in search, all the time we have spent getting to this point will be paid off in increased productivity in the world in 1/3rd the time we have invested into it; and we continue to make improvements at an approximately linear rate (without, so far, drastically growing the size of our team at a supra-linear rate).

While increased productivity isn’t the same as solving world hunger, or even more mundane acts of saving the world, it is a little bit nice to work on a product where the work we do is a net positive on human productivity. It’s certainly not going to save in the world, but it does help improve it.

One Response to “Improving the World”

  1. josepj malicki Says:

    3x productivity gain is actually short of shit, considering it’s pretty difficult to capture that consumer surplus (see wikipedia on consumer vs. producer surplus… and the difference between creating value and capturing it).

    3x in creating surplus is low enough in tech that it falls into the “not worth it” bucket.