Appendix 6: Summary of an MSc thesis: "A study of user-intermediary computer interactions during the information search process."

Rachel Burton

(Supervisor, Dr. David Ellis)

Information searching behaviour is associated with a diverse range of disciplines and problem areas. The process begins in some perceived need for information which is followed by information searching either alone or with help from an intermediary. This study focuses on the interactions which take place between the information searcher, human intermediary and information retrieval system during three stages of the search process. The pre-search interview, on-line search, and post search review of results. The study involved qualitative analysis of interview transcripts and on-line search results together with a quantitative analysis of questionnaire results.

The study carried out an analysis of the search process and categorised the interactions which took place. A number of different types of interactions were identified. The pre-information searching stage involved interactions between the user and the intermediary to define a concise problem statement and problem stage category. The pre-search interview helped the user to define their ideas more precisely. Half of the users in the study were at the problem resolution stage and hence had a well defined search problem. All the user problems were well defined before the on-line searches were carried out.

During the on-line search the problem statement was developed by suggestions from both the user and the intermediary both for deciding on keywords and for relevance judgements. The main utterances that occurred between the user and the intermediary were characterised into interaction types. Predominantly the utterances focused on search tactics and relevance review.

It is clear that the interactions with the intermediary did affect the search process. Although the users studied declared that not many changes were made to their search problem during the interaction process some stated that the intermediary helped them to define their search terms more precisely and help focus the search. Most considered the communication process to be very effective. Overall the interactions that took place during the on-line search were found to have effects on the users perceptions of the problem, question, personal knowledge and relevance judgement. Relevance judgement did affect the search results because only the most appropriate results were downloaded for future reference.

Follow up interviews allowed the users to reassess their problem solving stage and to comment on the search process as a whole. The interaction process helped the users to obtained useful results because of the intermediary’s experience in defining search statement and reducing and refining output, this specific interaction aided the users significantly. Overall the user gave a positive evaluation of the retrieved answers in terms of focus, degree of relevance and non-relevance, completeness and novelty. All were highly satisfied with the results of the search process. In some cases problem-solving stages did change due to the interactions and results retrieved.

Interactions with the intermediary were considered important and a large factor in determining overall satisfaction with the search process. In particular in relation to the intermediary explaining the processes, databases used and formulation of the search sets.

Deciding on key works, search strategies and reviews of relevance were found to be the driving force behind the on-line search interaction. The explanation given by the intermediary as to how he carried out the search strategy and his explanation of the search process were useful and improved the results of the search process. Search set development and relevance judgements were identified to be important topics of interaction. All the users studied were highly satisfied with the results obtained and felt that the search process was worth more than the time taken.

The information search process was observed to be dynamic and interactive. this feature should be considered in designing new systems. The systems should be able to support the user in obtaining information which may improve the quality of the search results. This should include providing opportunities to interact with the system as the search progresses. Interactions with information systems during information searching are important and complex process that require further real-life observation in order to understand them and integrate their features into system design.

Front PageReport

Uncertainty in information seeking, by Professor Tom Wilson, Dr. David Ellis, Nigel Ford, and Allen Foster
Library and Information Commission Research Report 59
ISBN 1 902394 31 3      ISSN 1466-2949
Grant number LIC/RE/019