The Pizza Paradigm

I was reading a newspaper article the other day about enhanced directory assistance services. The writer had conducted a bake-off between the various services to determine which one could most quickly, easily and dependably connect her with a pizza.

It seems the pizza paradigm is alive and well. Over the years it seems every time some new search technology is unveiled, its proof of concept is illustrated by using the example of ordering a pizza. Yellow pages conferences were particularly notorious for this. You could leave some of these conferences convinced that all of America spends its entire waking day in search of its next pizza.

Humorous? Yes. Harmless? Perhaps not. What has always bothered me about the pizza paradigm is that it's a very poor example, and when your thinking is shaped by a poor example, you overlook a lot of potential issues.The reason many cling to the pizza paradigm is because pizza is ubiquitous and commoditized. Everyone knows what a pizza is, thus freeing the new technology from the complexities of illustrating it (a real issue for mobile devices). As a commoditized product, its price doesn't vary too much, freeing the new technology from having to offer price comparisons, or worse, having to gather price information from thousands of pizzerias. As a product that isn't as heavily branded as many others, the technology is free to assume that proximity to a pizzeria matters most to consumers. This allows developers to showcase gee-whiz location technology using the dubious assumption that all consumers view all pizzerias as equally good. Pizza is also largely free of value-added content opportunities. Not too many pizzerias are rated or reviewed, so there's no need to offer this information. In short, pizza is easy.

As you can see, the pizza paradigm allows technologists and yellow pages publishers to convince themselves that cool new software can improve a poor underlying dataset. I pick on technologists and yellow pages publishers because both groups have a long history of viewing databases as a necessary evil rather than an asset. One great example of this is the many online yellow pages that offer interactive maps and detailed driving instructions. Nine times out of ten they can't tell you if the business in question has what you need, but boy can they tell you everything about how to get there!

My point is simple: always push past lowest-common-denominator, simple illustrations to determine if there is a real value-add being discussed. More times than not, you'll find you are looking at a technology in search of an application, or great technology being driven by a thin dataset. Technology by itself is rarely the whole solution to a problem in the wonderful world of content.