Remember the slide rule? This simple tool helped professionals to find the calculations they needed without the hassle of performing complex math calculations on paper. The slide rule was the steady companion for generations of engineers.
The slide rule dates as far back as the 1600s, when an Anglican minister named William Oughtred first developed this calculation tool. Throughout history, slide rule features and techniques were refined to help engineers find specific answers they needed to solve problems. In the process, slide rules were used in creating some of our most well-known structures, including the Golden Gate Bridge.
The slide rule was a success because:
1. It provided answers in a simple and efficient way that engineers needed.
2. It was an inexpensive and easily accessible tool.
3. It was relatively simple to understand but also very powerful; it could grow
with you as your needs expanded.
By the late 1970s, the pocket calculator had all but replaced the slide rule. Today engineering information is accessible online and anywhere with smartphones and tablets. How does reliance on the smart phone – the modern equivalent of the slide rule – reflect the generational differences in engineers? As a product manager, I was curious to understand this better. It turns out that, as a general rule, younger engineers navigate applications and the web much differently than more seasoned engineers. Let’s explore these differences in more detail.
The Generational Gap
Engineers in their twenties are digital natives. They rely primarily on search engines to find information. The good news is that much can be found online, the downside is that too much valuable time is spent sifting through results from resources that may not be reliable or relevant. A significant amount of high quality reference material is missing or hidden from public search engines. One engineering librarian lamented the typical online search of his undergrad students, “I call it the iceberg effect. What they are missing is appalling.”
This “iceberg effect” is one of the reasons why older, more experienced engineers often search by author name or for specific titles. Some engineers even memorize page and chapter numbers for key references. However, younger engineers may not have accrued the knowledge to pull that information from memory.
In our observations of engineers using the Knovel platform, we found that age and experience influenced their search habits. Students and practicing twenty-something year old engineers search preferences could be described as follows:
-they would rather search than browse
-they are significantly more likely to search for a specific topic than for
-citations are important
-Google and Wikipedia are their first choices for information, library a distant
-their slide rule is Google
Experienced engineers historically learned best practices from the library or “the engineer down the hall.” They differ from our millennials in several ways:
-they would rather browse than search
-what comes to mind when seeking information is a specific book or author
rather than topic or keyword search
-they may use Boolean search, learned from a librarian
-they have a bookshelf of reference books in their cubicle or office
-they utilize Google and library search functions when needed
-their slide rule is a few trusted reference books
The Slide Rule of Today
Whether they have two or 42 years of experience, engineers need trusted data to make sound decisions, faster. Trusting the facts—this is how engineers have always worked. How that trusted data is found, though, is evolving every day. We understand that Google is the first stop for some engineers, while others tend to peruse their catalog of tried and true reference materials.
It’s important to understand the differing search patterns of these engineering users, so we can better serve both demographic groups. If the Holy Grail is to deliver trusted data that is beneath the “tip of the iceberg,” in a quick, efficient way, then superior search engine technologies are paramount. The outcomes, being sound engineering decisions, will remain the same, but it may be time to upgrade the slide rule.
Diana Bittern, Elsevier’s Director of Product Management – Platform, Knovel
A veteran in the field of digital information product management, Diana joined Knovel in 2008 as Director of Product Management. Knovel was acquired by Elsevier in 2013. In this role she leads the management and ongoing evolution of the Knovel platform. Prior to Knovel, Diana held several senior product management roles in information management, including Ovid – Wolters Kluwer and others. Diana received her undergraduate degree at Barnard College, and holds her Masters from The New School in New York City.