Here at Design News, we're committed to delivering the most useful and thought-provoking editorial. To that end, we spend a lot of time talking to readers all over the planet about what works and what doesn't work, and how we can do a better job getting you the information you're looking for.
You've probably received a survey or two from us in your e-mail inbox — thanks for taking the time to respond to us. It helps us better target our content to your needs. We also do a lot of face-to-face research with readers. I personally get the best feedback with a bowl of cocktail peanuts and a beverage in front of me!
The readers who participate in these events love it, mostly because they get paid to talk a lot. But all of our readers benefit, because we take the results seriously. For example, RSS (really simple syndication) has begun to pop up in our research as a preferred content delivery mechanism. Now, you can sign up for RSS feeds for all of Design News' content, or just the specific technology area that you're interested in. Sign up here: http://rbi.ims.ca/4922-529.
Because you've told us that you value input from other engineers, we also like to share the most exciting and useful information that we learn in these focus groups. Recently, we spent two evenings talking to engineering students at MIT about how they use the web to search for technical information. The meetings were scheduled from 9-11 p.m., which tells you we weren't dealing with our typical readers here!
The least surprising thing we learned was how web savvy engineering students are. The most surprising thing we learned was how big a role Wikipedia plays in their research. Founded five years ago, Wikipedia is the open-source, online encyclopedia www.wikipedia.org that allows anyone to enter or edit content. If you're skeptical of how that could work, you're not alone.
But Wikipedia, with nearly a million entries in English today, is starting to prove that leveraging the collective minds of many may not be a bad strategy. In fact, in a recent comparison of scientific entries in Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, the journal Nature reported that there were few differences in accuracy. Read a BBC article about the research study at http://rbi.ims.ca/4922-530.
Why do students like Wikipedia (more than Google for some types of searches) so much? "It's a great starting point when I know little or nothing about a subject," was a typical response. But what students really valued about the online encyclopedia is the related links in the articles. The links, they said, get them to more credible (non-anonymous sources) and help them perform the kind of tangential searching that is so critical to any research effort. Google, in their opinion, often returns too many results to sift through, while the Wikipedia links are presumably vetted to include only the most important — in the minds of the authors.
Do you use Wikipedia in your research? How credible and useful do you think it is for the kind of information you're looking for? Drop me a line, I'd love to find out how pervasive and accepted it is among professional engineers.
Oh, and the two other sites that made the students' top three list: http://www.digikey.com and http://www.mcmaster.com. And if you like edgy cartoons, check out Foamy the Squirrel http://www.friendsoffoamy.com.