Thursday, 4 June 2009

The locus of problem solving, search engines, and African marketplaces

From the late 1980s onwards, several high-profile research papers appeared looking at how businesses can best serve buyers when the businesses and clients do not know exactly what the other one knows or wants. When this happens, businesses may offer buyers a product or service that is not what the buyer wants at all. To get around the difficulty, businesses and buyers may work together on different parts of the product design, for example by businesses dealing with the parts they know best such as engineering processes and buyers dealing with the parts relating to specific design. The paper here discusses the issues and gives examples.

The research could have been used to anticipate the success of internet search engines. People know what they want to find out, and the search engine knows how to find it. The search engine does not provide a list of things the person might want to find without first asking them. The most successful search engine, Google, has a plain main page, for example. Search engines differ in the degree to which they equip the user for the second stage of user input, where the user clicks on a link to visit a website. I have mentioned the World Bank's basic search engine before on this blog, for providing not-very-helpful search results. The newly launched Bing search engine looks like it is making extra effort to provide the user with information so that the user's second stage of input is made easier.

The analysis can be applied to African marketplaces too. For example, a market chaotically arranged with no indication of where to find goods provides little scope for buyers to use their known purchase preferences. A market may provide a map or billboard with the positions of stalls indicated; buyers can use their knowledge to a greater extent but there might be limitations on them if the map is incorrect, or they cannot read well, or the map location is in an unsafe area. A market designed to give buyers the best opportunity for using their information might have pictures of the product types with arrows pointing clearly and accurately in the direction of the stalls, with the pictures displayed prominently throughout the market.

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