When we talk about people's strategies for finding digital information, we typically refer to browsing and searching as the main information seeking behaviours. I've always found the distinctions between these two a bit fuzzy, especially because you often see people mixing them freely.
I just read an interesting CHI paper on personal search strategies (PDF) that introduces two slightly better metaphors: orienteering and teleporting.
Teleporting means trying to get to the desired item in a single jump. In this study it almost always involves a keyword search. Orienteering means taking many small steps--and making local, situated decisions--to reach the desired item.
The study examined how people approach directed search tasks--when they are looking for information and they know what it is in advance (like a phone number, or the price of a product)--and it had some surprising results.
For example, even though search engines are ideal for directed search tasks, just 42% of searches involved a keyword search. Most people orienteered to their information by browsing folders or websites, URL hacking (trimming URLs to move to a "bigger" area), and filtering results and documents. When they use keyword searches it's to take a big first step to get into the right domain.
Benefits of Orienteering
According to the researchers, orienteering offers several advantages over teleporting:
- Cognitive ease. Orienteering lets people rely on recognition and contextual cues to guide their search process. In one case a participant navigated to a document even though "she could not describe the document, its contents, or its location in advance."
- Sense of location. "The relatively small steps taken in orienteering also appeared to allow participants to maintain a sense of where they were, helping them to feel in control, to know they were travelling in the right direction with the ability to backtrack, and to feel certain they had explored the space when unable to find what they were looking for."
- Understanding the answer. "We saw our participants use the context of the information they found to understand the results and to get a sense of how trustworthy those results were... it allowed participants to arrive at their result along a path they could plan. This process enabled them to understand exactly how a search was performed, and consequently to accept negative results."
The last two points highlight an interesting, but hardly mentioned, aspect of search: knowing when something really doesn't exist.
Our conventional wisdom suggests that sophisticated users understand technology and know how to construct a query, so they would be more likely to teleport. Inexperienced users, on the other hand, need the support (the handrails, if you will) of an orienteering strategy.
However, the participants in the study were far from newbies: they were all computer science graduate students at MIT. So why don't they teleport?
The study suggests that our search tasks are often about more than locating a specific piece of information--they are a combination of exploring, understanding, finding and reminding. What you don't find, and what you see on the journey, can be as important as the goal itself.
Posted in Opinions on May 22, 2007blog comments powered by Disqus