User Needs during Social Search
- Where are social interactions useful in the search process?
- Why are social interactions useful when they occur?
To answer these questions, Ed Chi & I ran a survey on Mechanical Turk asking 150 users to recount their most recent search experience (also briefly described here and here). We didn’t provide grand incentives for completing our survey (merely 20-35 cents), but we structured the survey in a narrative format and figured that most people completed it because it was fun or interesting. (This is a major reason for Turker participation.)
There were two classes of “users” in our sample who we named according to their inherent search motivations. The majority of searchers were self-motivated (69%), meaning that their searches were self-initiated, done for their own personal benefit, or because they had a personal interest in finding the answer to a question. The remaining 31% of users were “externally-motivated”—or were performing searches because of a specific request by a boss, customer, or client.
Next, we identified three types of search acts: navigational, transactional, and informational. These classifications were based on Broder’s (2002) taxonomy of information needs in web search, and I’m only going to review our users’ informational searchpatterns (searching for information assumed to be present, but otherwise unknown) since it proved to be the most interesting. Informational search is typically an exploratory process, combining foraging and sensemaking. As an example:
An environmental engineer began searching online for a digital schematic of a storm-water pump while simultaneously browsing through printed materials to get “a better idea of what the tool is called.” This search was iteratively refined as the engineer encountered new information, first on metacrawler.com and then on Google, that allowed him to update his representation of the search space, or what might be called a “search schema.” He finally discovered a keyword combination that provided the desired results.
Over half of search experiences in our sample were informational in nature (59.3%), and their associated search behaviors (foraging and sensemaking) led to interactions with others nearly half the time. Furthermore, 61.1% of information searchers were self-motivated. It appears there is a demand and a desire for social inputs where the search query is undeveloped or poorly specified, and personally relevant.
Finally, we noticed that, again, nearly half our users (47.3%) shared information with others following their search. This is not wholly unexpected, but points to the need for better online organizational and sharing tools, especially ones that could be built into the web browser or search engine itself. Instead, an interesting finding is why people chose to share information.
In summary, we classified two types of users in our study: externally-prompted searchers and self-motivated searchers. The self-motivated were the most interesting because of their search habits, propensity to seek help from others, and the reasons behind their social exchanges. For this class of users, a majority performed informational, exploratory searches where the search query was ambiguous, unclear, or poorly specified, leading to a need for guidance from others. Their social interactions, therefore, were primarily used to brainstorm, get more information, and further develop their search schema before embarking on their search. Finally, the search process didn’t end after these users identified preliminary search results—they often shared their findings out of interest to others, but also to get feedback, validate their results, and contemplate refining and repeating their search.
Before, during, and after a “search act”! Over 2/3 of our sample interacted with others at some point during the course of searching. However, social interactions may not benefit everyone equally—they appear to provide the best support for self-motivated users and users performing informational searches.
It depends! The reasons for engaging with others ranged from a need to establish search guidelines to a need for brainstorming, collecting search tips, seeking advice, getting feedback, and validating search results. Social support during search may be best appreciated and adopted if it directly addresses these types of user needs.
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