Different Faces of Search

I am confident that, over the last few weeks, we have all made numerous on-line searches.  For most of us, this is an unexamined activity. But as an information architect with a keen interest in user experience, I have become aware that I use several different search modes, and hope that by identifying useful distinctions, I can help build more useful search solutions.

Here are some of the search tasks that I have performed:

  • what will the weather be in Calgary this weekend?
  • how can I fix the laser printer in my home office, which is blinking with a certain sequence of lights?
  • what do I have to do to make my concrete path less slippery in winter?
  • how can I get up to speed on SharePoint 2013 Information Architecture?

From these, it is clear that there are different types of search task. But how do we describe the differences?  Some commentators talk about search modes, or seek to provide taxonomies of search activity.  While these recognize the variety inherent in the search task, and our roles as active participants as our query activities move us closer to our goals (or not), I find them unfulfilling in some ways.

Let me give a couple of examples. One popular framework has top levels Lookup, Learn, Investigate, which include activities such as Verification, Comparison, Analysis, Discovery, Synthesis Another talks about Moves, Stratagems, Tactics, and Strategies.

Why didn’t I warm to these? When working as a solutions consultant, I look for practical distinctions that I can use when talking to clients and thinking about solutions. I’ve nailed this in a number of domains.  In document management, I can differentiate between static reference materials (such as policies), and operational documents (such as meeting minutes), and use these to focus discussion and shape solutions.  But the frameworks mentioned above didn’t do the same thing for search.  First, I would find it very awkward to talk to a client in such abstract terms.  Second, the frameworks are too broad to help me shape solutions.  And finally, I simply cannot apply them.  When I tried to apply them to my sample searches, it was a struggle, inconclusive and not insightful.

The problem is perhaps a mismatch between what I need and what the researchers were trying to provide.  I was looking for entry points for solutions design; they were trying to provide a cognitive-behavioural framework, and in an information free context.

In my world, user research provides definite context.  Stimulated by other reading, and deconstructing my search examples, I came up with the following dimensions of the search task that I felt might be helpful.

  • how well is the goal defined
  • are the information resources and authorities well known
  • do we know what success looks like
  • can we tell when we are making progress toward our goal
  • are we time limited
  • does the goal results in creation of an information artefact, or doing something in the real world, or retrieving a data value
  • do we expect the goal will be accomplished easily and directly, or will there be fumbling around.

This is starting to feel better for me for a number of reasons.

  • I was able to create facets that I can shape and refine and explore, rather than being forced into wholesale design of a taxonomy or framework (which of course are two different ways that IAs approach information)
  • I can look at my sample searches, and easily see how they line up along these dimensions
  • I can glimpse some ways in which I can help end users and information providers improve their worlds.

In the next few posts, I will explore some of these dimensions.  Comments welcome.  Stay tuned.


For the Lookup, Learn, Investigate framework and critiques, search online for “Marchionini exploratory search”, especially  http://www.inf.unibz.it/~ricci/ISR/papers/p41-marchionini.pdf

For the Moves, Stratagems, Tactics, and Strategies, search online for “Marcia Bates Moves, Stratagems, Tactics, and Strategies”, especially http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

For descriptions of these and others, see the book “Designing The Search Experience” by Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate.  See the book review for Designing The Search Experience in this blog.

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