October 15, 2015 | Matthew B. Boyd

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Explore materials, technologies, design, and manufacturing in the life sciences.



How to Successfully Search Online for Advanced Flexible Materials


The process of online search and discovery has become a daily part of our lives. The days of walking blindly into a shop, picking through some things, and making a purchase are long gone.  Everyone is an educated consumer now - we like to read reviews, compare items, and review price points before committing to a purchase.

Over time, consumer behavior bleeds into our professional lives and begins to shape the way we work. This is entirely true, even in the most advanced technical markets like medical device manufacturing and bioprocessing. The result of this is that businesses and individuals need to become fluent in online search and discovery and make it part of their process. 

In advanced flexible materials markets, online search and discovery is more difficult than say finding a pair of shoes online, but it is possible and important. These are five guidelines to follow to make online search and discovery an effective part of your material sourcing process.


Set a Time Limit

Set a time limit each time you go online and do a search, and set an overall timeframe for the combined series of online searches you will do.  For instance, search online for 45 minutes each session, and set aside time to do one 45 minute session a day for two weeks.  This depends entirely on the scope of your project, but establishing time limits will be critical to staying on task, being efficient, and spending enough time on this effort.  

A lot of us characterize "surfing the web" as though we are actually surfing. It is a mistake to do this because a purposeful and coordinated online searching effort can be an effective way to search and discover advanced flexible materials. Set an alarm on your phone, or put an appointment in your calendar to help. Try to stick to your time limit and be careful not to stop your efforts too quickly. 


Stay Focused

Staying on task is one of the most difficult aspects of online search, and also the most common pitfall.  There is a tremendous amount of useful and relevant information online for all of us, the trick is accessing the right information at the right moment, and avoiding distracting clickbait. It is surprisingly easy to go from searching "foam dressing wound care" to reading reviews about different types of salad dressing!

Finding a balance to your focus online is tricky but not impossible. It is not productive to be overly rigid with yourself because you will miss some of the most interesting parts of the online community, which unfortunately are a few clicks away from a normal search result. Knowing when you are clicking into a useful area of subject matter, and when you've gone too far outside of your own scope is an important muscle to develop. 

Physical reminders are a great way to pull your eyes off the screen so you can gut-check what you are doing.  I frequently put a post-it note on the bottom of my device that reminds me of what I am doing.  "Searching for dual source of PP film". You can also set an alarm clock or calendar appointment that reminds you periodically, like every 10 minutes, to take notes and reset back to a search engine. 


Identify Your Key Search Terms, Then Iterate

The good news is that there is tons of data online, the bad news is that there is tons of data online.  As a result, the identification of key search terms is critical in order to cut through the clutter and get to a meaningful search result.  The use of long-tail search terms is a great way to do this, but it is an iterative process that takes some getting used to. 

Searching for a term like "film" is going to have just as much likelihood of returning search results about the Tribecca Film Festival as it is about a flexible film material. So, the use of longer search terms, or long-tail search, is necessary.  Searching instead for "flexible films" or "adhesive films" is going to yield a more valuable search result. Taking it a step further to "adhesive films wound care" will greatly reduce the amount of irrelevant information you receive in your search result. 

Iteration is an important tool to use while you are refining your search, especially if you don't have a great deal of expertise in the particular field you are searching within.  Assess your search results and then try changing the order of words in a string, making words plural or singular, and using synonyms of words, which will all change the search results and give you new areas to explore. The good news is that as we all use the internet more it is becoming more accurate and reliable and less iteration like this is needed.   



Take Notes Not Action

Taking action during a particular online searching session is a momentum killer. An example of this is when you find a supplier you think is worth reaching out to and you immediately switch over to another program to draft and send them an email.  More often than not, this leads us into a pattern of reading other emails or finishing other tasks we have on our to-do list.

A great way to stay on track is to take notes and come back to them after the searching session is over.  This can be as simple as opening up an email draft when you start your search and pasting names or links into the body of the email.  When you are done, send it to yourself, and then start your follow-up. 

Notes are also important reminders of the information we consume during each searching session.  Information overload can lead us to forget where we found something, but also why we thought it was interesting. Taking notes is a great way to record your thoughts on a particular search result so you can come back to them at another point in time.  This is also particularly helpful if you are responsible for educating or reporting your search results to others. 


Create a Follow-Up Plan

If you have done your job by staying focused and taking copious notes, your follow-up activities should be very obvious. Before you begin you should step back and try to understand how long you think all of this will take.  Once you have, you can set expectations upfront with the people you connect with.

In addition to setting expectations, it is smart to provide as much information as you can so that you empower suppliers with the knowledge to field your request.  I like to use emails that I can standardize and send to multiple groups of people - there is no reason to re-write the same request to five different people.  This is especially true if you are sharing technical information that is difficult to write out and easy to input incorrectly.

Your follow-up plan is also a good time to evaluate the responsiveness of your suppliers. If you have provided enough information, that is accurate, and you have set clear expectations it should be easy for a supplier to respond.  If not, you should try to understand why and use this as an opportunity to evaluate the supplier's ability to meet your needs.  



In advanced flexible materials markets, online search and discovery may be more difficult than finding a pair of shoes, but it is possible and important. These five guidelines are a great start to making online search and discovery an effective part of your material sourcing process. 

  • set a time limit
  • stay focused
  • identify your key search terms, then iterate
  • take notes, not action
  • create a follow-up plan


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