Designing the Search Experience
The Information Architecture of Discovery
By Tony Russell-Rose Tyler Tate
ELSEVIER Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-12-397288-0
Chapter One The User
"Man is a being in search of meaning." Plato
We begin where every discussion of design should: with the user. Although the entire book is about crafting user-centered search solutions, Chapter 1 homes in on the human mind itself. We want to know what makes people tick. What are the cognitive processes that govern how information is perceived, stored, and retrieved? What are the individual differences between how people learn, analyze information, and approach problems? By applying insights from cognitive psychology, we'll be able to better understand how users approach the tricky problem that is search.
The rest of Part 1 deals with situated users: their goals (Chapter 2), context (Chapter 3), and modes of interaction (Chapter 4). Here, however, we look at users in isolation and focus on their intrinsic characteristics. We begin by looking at behavioral differences between novices and experts, continue by contrasting cognitive styles, and end by considering modes of learning.
NOVICES AND EXPERTS
Are you more comfortable taking a photograph using your mobile phone, a point-and-shoot camera, or an SLR brimming with buttons and dials? How you answer that question is probably a good indicator of your photographic expertise. If you primarily take quick, off-the-cuff snapshots, your phone or point-and-shoot camera will probably suffice. If you're a professional photographer (or a serious amateur), on the other hand, you probably prefer using an SLR that gives you full control over the focus, aperture, exposure, and other variables of the image. In other words, both novices and experts gravitate toward the tools that best match their abilities.
Expertise plays a significant role in how people seek information. Understanding the differences between novices and experts will enable us to design better search experiences for everyone. But first, it's worth distinguishing between two dimensions of expertise.
Domain expertise versus technical expertise
Expertise is frequently lumped into a single category, but there are in fact two types of expertise that affect information seeking: domain and technical expertise. Domain expertise defines one's familiarity with a given subject matter; a professional photographer, for instance, has substantial domain expertise in the field of photography. Technical expertise, on the other hand, indicates one's proficiency at using computers, the Internet, search engines, and the like.
Each dimension of expertise is valuable, but users are most likely to succeed when both are present. Jenkins et al. (2003) observed that domain novices have difficulty discerning the relevance of information or the reliability of its source, whereas domain experts make these judgments much more naturally. They also found that technical novices tend to practice a breadth-first strategy to information seeking that helps them avoid the disorientation caused by venturing too far away from the their starting point. Technical experts, on the other hand, apply a depth-first approach by following a number of links deeper into the information space. In other words, novices orienteer by slowly scouting out the territory (O'Day and Jeffries, 1993), and experts teleport, quickly jumping to their destination (Teevan et al., 2004).
In combination, the domain and technical dimensions of expertise describe four types of users (Figure 1.1):
Domain expert/technical novices
Domain novice/technical experts
Double novices orienteer
The discipline of orienteering originated in the Swedish military in the 1800s and is now a sport practiced throughout Scandinavia. Equipped with a map and compass, participants navigate between control points spread over miles of unfamiliar terrain as they strive to complete the course. But the journey is anything but direct. If an orienteerer loses his bearings along the way, heading back to the previous control point may be the only option to avoid becoming lost in the wilderness.
The information seeking of novices shares similarities with the practice of orienteering. Although both domain and technical novices face resistance along the way, the journey is most treacherous for double novices.
Double novices share three main characteristics (Hölscher and Strube, 2000):
1. Frequent query reformulation. Novices perform more queries than experts but look at fewer pages. Although they frequently reformulate their query, double novices often make only small, inconsequential changes to their search phrase.
2. Going back. When novices do click on a search result, they are much more likely than experts to then navigate back to the search page. With a fear of venturing too far from safety, double novices practice a hub-and-spoke pattern of information seeking with the search page firmly at the center.
3. More time spent. The many queries and frequent backward-oriented behavior of double novices causes them to spend more time on a given search task than would an expert.
The cautious, uncertain orienteering of double novices is fraught with challenges. Search user interfaces designed with double novices in mind should help users reformulate their query, back out of trouble, andthrough adequate signpostingavoid disorientation.
Because novices frequently refine their original query but often don't make radical enough changes, showing a list of related searches (as demonstrated by Foodily in Figure 1.2) can help users make more successful query reformulations. In addition, breadcrumbs accomplish the dual purpose of communicating the user's current location, while also providing a path to go back (Figure 1.3).
Double experts teleport
Whereas double novices begin by slowly scouting out the territory, experts often dive straight in. Like being teleported to a precise but distant location, users with high domain and technical expertise often take a depth-first approach and attempt to jump directly to their destination. Double experts are characterized by three tendencies (Hölscher and Strube, 2000):
1. More pages examined. Double experts click on more search results than do novices.
2. Going deeper. Double novices tend to retreat from the pages they examine; double experts rarely go back. Instead, experts follow links from one page to the next, progressing deeper into the information space with each step.
3. Less time spent. Double experts are time-efficient in their search tasks. Not only do they reformulate their queries less often, but they can also determine the relevancy of a given page more rapidly than novices.
In essence, experts are more likely to construct specific queries that quickly and directly teleport them to their destination, often avoiding the chronic, orienteering-like query reformulation practiced by novices.
Expert-friendly search user interfaces should support advanced syntax and filtering to help users quickly narrow their search. Although the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT are certainly worth supporting, Wolfram Alpha (shown in Figure 1.4) goes a step further and allows users to input domain-specific terminology and retrieve computed answers. Similarly, a faceted search interface for filtering by format, selecting ranges, or excluding certain categoriessuch as Getty's Moodstream, shown in Figure 1.5can help users pinpoint content that's relevant to their information needs.
So far we've looked at the characteristics of double novices and double experts. Although these two groups of users provide the starkest contrast, we shouldn't forget about the other two groups: those with high expertise in one dimension but low expertise in the other. Not surprisingly, these hybrid users share some aspects with both double novices and double experts.
Domain expert/technical novices, for instance, use their knowledge to enter effective queries and quickly evaluate pages, but they lack the technical confidence to explore unknown territory (Jenkins et al., 2003). Their traits include:
1. Advanced terminology. Domain experts are able to rely on their extensive vocabulary to construct more topical queries than are domain novices.
2. Effective evaluation. Similarly, high domain knowledge makes the process of evaluating a page more meaningful and timely.
3. Going back. A lack of technical expertise, however, contributes to a sense of disorientation, preventing users from venturing too far away from the search page.
Domain novice/technical experts, on the other hand, brim with confidence, but have trouble discerning relevant content (Hölscher and Strube, 2000). They are characterized by:
1. Advanced formatting. Technical experts are much more likely to use query formatting techniquessuch as double quotes and Boolean operatorsthan are technical novices.
2. Confident exploration. Despite their lack of domain expertise, technical experts exude confidence and never worry about becoming disoriented.
3. Difficulty with evaluation. Technical expertise doesn't compensate for a lack of domain knowledge when it comes to evaluating the relevance of a page.
Although novices and experts along both the domain and technical dimensions exhibit unique approaches to information seeking, it's important not to unduly prioritize one group at the expense of another. Understanding the target audience's particular levels of expertise is invaluable; in most scenarios, however, we must design for both novices and experts alike.
Serial and holistic thinkers
Expertise is fickle: experience can turn any novice into an expert over time. There are, however, deeper, more unchanging differences in the way our brains deal with information. Psychologists call these cognitive stylesthe stable attitudes, preferences, and habits that determine how an individual processes and represents information. We'll begin by looking at the serial-holistic style of information processing and then, in the following section, investigate the verbal-visual style of representing information (Riding and Cheema, 1991).
The rod-and-frame test
The rod-and-frame test was one of the first exercises developed by Herman Witken and Solomon Asch, pioneers of cognitive style research in the 1950s (Kozhevnikov, 2007). To complete a simplified version of the test for yourself, sketch a slightly askew rectangle on a sheet of paper (or use your imagination and form a mental picture of Figure 1.6). There is only one, very simple instruction involved. Ready? Here it is: draw a vertical line inside the rectangle.
Witken and Asch found that not everyone completed this exercise in the same way (Figure 1.7). Some drew a line parallel to the edges of the rectangle; these people Witken and Asch classified as field-dependent, also known as serialists. Others, labeled as field-independent or holists, drew the line along the northsouth axis of the paper rather than the rectangle. Despite this rendition of the rod-and-frame test being more anecdotal than scientific, the serial versus holistic dimension of cognitive style has nevertheless been thoroughly researched over the past several decades. Serialists, it's been found, demonstrate brick-by-brick craftsmanship; holists tend towards divergent, big-picture thinking.
Serialists: brick-by-brick craftsmen
Serialists are characterized by an external frame of reference. They depend on their environment for structure, function best when rules and expectations are clearly communicated, and find their motivation in external sources. Like skilled craftsmen, serialists are highly attuned to the details. When learning, serialists tend to drill down to narrow subtopics and follow a logical progression from one to the next. Despite being skilled at analyzing the component parts (Figure 1.8), serialists have greater difficulty combining the parts into a whole (Kim, 2001).
Holists: big-picture visionaries
Holists are visionaries with a bird's-eye view (Figure 1.9). Operating with an intrinsic motivation that is independent of their surroundings, holists flourish in flexible environments where they are free to pursue their own interests at the pace of their choice. When approaching a topic, they immediately set out to comprehend the big picture, giving holists a more balanced view and helping them put situations into context. However, holists are also prone to oversimplification, sometimes glossing over important details (Ford et al., 2002).
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