Ptolomey’s Takeaways: The dilemma of information seeking

atg_JPphoto (2)by Joanna Ptolomey

Seek and ye shall find the saying goes – but in a world with no shortage of content it is I believe rather an oversimplification to a very complex problem.

I am user of search and much of my work life has depended on me being very good at finding the right content. I teach people how to search, I test and review search products, and in recent years I have been involved in the design of search products. Good search products and great user experiences and outcomes can still a wee bit of a Pandora’s box.

In the library with a thousand databases the sobering insight could be that the information profession has spent too long shoehorning users into what makes for their best management of resources, rather than what works for the user. Lets’ get one thing straight – no one hangs out in your service (physically or digitally) for no particular reason. They are the folks with a need and a context.

In recent years the single search box has attained mythical status due to the Google generation. Institutions like the University of Huddersfield developed new measurable services around this preferred user need. Many other institutions followed suit and the 2013 article How users search from a single search box offers up a great insight into institution unified search pros and cons. The UK government digital service is also on the case and is soon to launch a new unified search with expectations of improved user experience and outcomes.

The single search box certainly attracts the user. In my experience the sometimes over simplistic setup belies the complexity behind the single box. Users are often surprised that their single word keyword failed to find anything of worth to them. It is often not just the search process to blame, but the user lack of user awareness of the volume and type of content they are searching.

This leads me to browsing. I believe a much under-valued way to find content. For those that may be interested in reading more Toby Burrow’s article A machine for browsing: beyond the single search box is worth a look. He investigates reviving browsing as a framework in the midst of the single search box phenomena.

You know the saying – you don’t know what you don’t know – well that sums up search versus browsing for me. When users search they believe they are looking for a very particular thing – they may use keywords that they think will help them locate that magic piece of information. When browsing it is more of a discovery process – users may find an article, a news item, book etc that may inform the knowledge and insight into more focused or precise searching. For me they go hand in hand and I mourn the general lack of browsing by users these days.

Browsing can involve a wee bit more work from the user. Users in my experience don’t often jump for joy at indexes or taxonomy scope notes to aid their search. Too time consuming I often hear. But trawling through hundreds or thousands of search results is a bore too. I believe browsing has a place and should be encouraged in design and teaching. It is my experience that browsing helps to build up a search string or a picture of a topic or niche. It helps illuminate specific keywords, either expanding of narrowing a search.

My own endeavours in developing search platforms/services have been mixed. But I have been learning a lot. Search is complex and user experience service design processes have shown me that browsing is useful too when building product requirements and specifications. Oh and I should mention information architecture, content strategy and knowledge management are important too.

Finding information is complex whether you are using single box, advanced search or browsing. This short article would not be complete if I didn’t also mention information seeking behaviour and the ability of the user to turn their need and context into a search strategy – but that is for another post. I hope to come back to many of the points I have casually mentioned – let me know if any of them strike a chord with you.

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