Empowering Discovery


I’ve just fallen in love with “The Flavor Thesaurus” by Niki Segnit. The book takes 99 basic flavors and examines how each pairs with the remanding 98. The author acknowledges that the list of 99 and the pairings were only semi-scientific — instead it’s more a way of exploring pairings, categorizing recipes, and sharing personal anecdotes. It’s really about the emotions that different foods generate. And as a result, it gives the reader a new appreciation of food pairings, and the encouragement to be more adventurous and experimental in the kitchen. I can’t put the book down.

From: The Flavor Connection (crop)
From: The Flavor Connection (crop)

It’s interesting comparing it to “The Flavor Connection” — an interactive flavor map based on the research report “Flavor network and the principles of food pairing.” The flavor map is the result of analyzing over 50,000 recipes to see which foods have common flavor components and chemical components. It’s a brand new way to see how pairings differ in different cultures — for example, “dishes from a database of recipes from East Asia tend to combine ingredients with few overlapping flavors.” And it suggests areas of potential culinary exploration.

From: Flavor network and the principles of food pairing
From: Flavor network and the principles of food pairing

They’re both really fun new ways to think about food — something that is so fundamental to our lives, but to which we tend to have fairly narrow thinking. We buy cookbooks, but unless the narrative that describes a recipe is really compelling, the books end up more read than used. Niki Segnit suggests that cookbooks may actually be a symptom and cause for our kitchen discomfort. We know what we like, but have a hard time straying from it.

But this behavior isn’t only with food. We don’t stray very far in our daily experience of our cities, the news we consume, or the music we listen to. We create bubbles for ourselves — which limit our world view. (And which can cause us, each seeing the same thing, to perceive it differently from one other.) It got me thinking about what can be done so that we can each broaden not just our experiences, but our interests, knowledge, and skills.

A lot of  current discovery and recommendation tools are based on our social networks. Google is about to introduce a new ad format that will show us which of our friends like the product being advertised. And there are countless apps and online tools that make recommendations based on what others, who may be somewhat like us, like. But the problem with these social tools is they’re limited by the bubble we’re all in together. Glenn McDonald of The Echo Nest describes the problem like this:

Most music “discovery” tools are only designed to discover the most familiar thing you don’t already know. Do you like the Dave Matthews Band? You might like O.A.R.! Want to know what your friends are listening to? They’re listening to Daft Punk, because they don’t know any more than you. Want to know what’s hot? It’s yet another Imagine Dragons song that actually came out in 2012.

There are ways to gently break the bubble and let surprises in. Pandora has an “add variety” button to broaden a station; the Serendipitor map gives you a slightly disturbed path to your destination; the Accidental News Explorer broadens your news… Using serendipity to expand options is great, but the user is still passive — not actively shaping what they’re doing, and so not learning how to create future discovery on their own.

I recently read David Byrne’s “How Music Works” and really enjoyed the discussion on how changes in architecture and technology have influenced what music gets created and what we expect music to be. He has a great chapter on how the introduction of recorded resulted in much less “music making” by most people, as well as how recording techniques introduced sounds and singing styles that were never before possible. It’s only now, with the decline of the record industry and rise of the internet and PC-based recording & mixing software, that self-made music is getting democratized again.

Likewise, with interactive media, we’re at a breaking point — the current tools don’t work, and we need something new. We don’t want to just be presented with choices — we want to be able to discover, create, and learn. The new approaches must let us be active and creative — not passive.

And that’s back to where this post started. Niki’s book, as simple an idea as it is, encourages the reader to learn and discover. It makes me want to see how it could be made interactive and empower the reader/user even more. What if I could jump between the sections and follow links more easily. Or overlay the content on a map, or a timeline. Maybe connect it to the flavor map and see what new patterns or gaps emerge — each areas to explore or in which to create. What if there could be other layers of information from other contributors or users? Experts vs laypeople? Could I filter it by my dietary needs or restrictions? And could we extend it into the restaurant world — to help people learn how to make better choices when dining out? A kind-of “you might not think you’ll like this, but here’s why you might…” sort of encouragement.

But that’s the next step… to invent new ways to allow this information, and creative discovery fun, into all parts of our lives.