Okay, so when we initially conceived of the Lifestyle Search Essay Contest, I was pretty excited to lock-in the $500 prize. I mean, I know a thing or two about lifestyle search, I know the judges, and I've got some creative ideas, y'know? I figure I'm a lock, so I'm debating between buying a PlayStation 3 or a new video card with the $500 that I'm sure to win. Then I read this:
You do not have to be a client of Onboard. And Onboard employees can submit, but cannot win. [ED: So no money for you, Rob.]
Wow. How cold is that? Can you believe Megan threw me under the bus like that?
Nonetheless, because this is a topic near and dear to my heart personally (and professionally), I offer this non-eligible essay.
Types of Search
As I see it, there are actually two different kinds of "search": Browsing, and Trying-To-Find.
My wife likes to engage in the former, especially when the object being searched involves things with tags like Prada. She can spend hours in a store and walk out with nothing, but have thoroughly enjoyed herself.
Psychologically, I think people enjoy seeing "what's out there" even if they're not really feeling any urgency about finding anything. Whether that's clothing, or computer equipment, or gadgets, or cars, or houses, people like just "looking around" to see what's being offered for sale. (Incidentally, this is why people buy magazines to read the ads; they're interested in seeing what's new.)
Most browsers are not going to turn into buyers. But some do. Whether it's the impulse buy, or the "Oh my god, what a great deal!" (which often results in purchases one regrets years later while look at old photographs...), browsers aren't really in the market, but then again, they sort of are.
Let's call this "search as entertainment" because these people are really just amusing themselves. They're the ones who love to look at window displays to see the creativity, or look at mannequins to see how the merchandiser put outfits together.
Trying-to-Find people are different: they have a definite goal in mind. Men usually shop for clothing this way. They know exactly what they need -- "I need to buy a new tie" -- and don't really want to browse racks upon racks, being overwhelmed with choices. They would much prefer walking into a store, walking up to a salesperson, saying something like, "I need to buy a tie that goes with a blue suit", and walking out five minutes later with said tie in hand.
These folks get frustrated when the process between the start of searching and the actual finding of the item is (a) too complicated, (b) takes too long, or (c) results in nothing. And too many choices is cognitively the same as "nothing" since you can't possibly choose between three hundred ties.
Let's call this "search as research" since these people are really looking to make a decision. The information gathering involved in search is basically research that will provide enough justification to make a decision: this tie, or that one.
Real Estate Search
The trouble with real estate search, in my oh-so-humble opinion, is that it is not entertaining and is too fragmented to be research.
Sure some of the sites out there, like Estately, can be sorta fun. And Trulia has a lot of fun with their celebrity homes stuff. But really, browsing for housing isn't as fun as, say browsing through Ebay, just messing around Amazon, or even going to high-end fashion sites.
So my vision of search incorporates, on the one hand, a really entertaining aspect to it. It should be FUN to browse for houses. Lifestyle search can accomplish this.
Imagine being able to search based on "my favorite books". How about a "Top Five Movies" list, then the system spits back houses located in areas where people share my taste in movies? (My Top Five Movies, incidentally, are The Godfather, All About Eve, Broadcast News, Braveheart, and Aliens.) For the browsing public, there should be hundreds of specialized, fun applications based on lifestyle search.
If you're Maxim, have a "Rentals near single young femmes" search widget. Bon Appetit could have searches within 10 minute distance of restaurants of famous chefs. The possibilities are bounded only by the imagination.
On the flipside, for people who are really in the market and looking to find a great place to live, a slick implementation of full lifestyle search will cut down the time and effort between starting the search, and actually finding a manageable number of properties. This satisfies the "search as research" people.
Instead of wondering, as Daniel does, what the schools nearby a property are like, the future real estate search simply allows for direct filtering or direct search based on schools -- both relative criteria ("show me only houses within districts in the top 10% of state") or absolute criteria ("if the school isn't at least a 8, forget it"). And with intuitive user interface (maybe sliders or dials) the serious-research people can balance cost vs. convenience vs. fun vs. schools vs. taxes vs. whatever is important to them. The goal is to cut down the universe of possibilites from thousands to perhaps six or so properties, quickly.
My ideal search, when in "serious research mode", should help me hone in on the five or six homes I should really look at within 15 minutes of starting the search. And it should be accurate, such that I don't curse the system for its many errors as I start to look into each of them, and the neighborhoods they're in.
Going Beyond the Web
Furthermore, the "search" isn't limited to just something done on a website or via mobile. It can become a crowdsourcing platform.
Perhaps, with the push of a button, all of my various search criteria can be broadcast (syndicated?) to a host of people (realtors? friends? family?) so that they can tap into their offline knowledge to help me find what I'm really looking for.
"Oh, honey, you only think you want to live near the beach," my mother might think upon seeing my criteria. "You sunburn too easily; you need to be near the mountains."
A realtor might see the "ISO" (In Search Of) criteria and realize that although I wasn't thinking of his area, it would actually be perfect, and send me three or four properties to look at given my criteria.
A sort of eHarmony for Homes could send me alerts when a "match" occurs between my numerous criteria and something that just hit the market, "based on twenty-six dimensions of compatibility".
All of this means that real estate search saves me time, energy, and money, and reduces the stress and PITA factor of looking for a new house.
Fun And Useful
That's what I want. That's my ideal search. Something that can be entertaining on the one hand, but powerful on the other to help me drill down very quickly to finding, instead of merely looking for, what I want.
Image Credit: Robin on Flickr.com