Information Seeking

Information seeking is an example of an information behaviour. To quote from NIgel Ford’s book ‘An Introduction to Information Behaviour‘ people may seek information in many different ways, using very different strategies, and the choice of strategy made by people and groups may be influenced by many factors. These can relate to their psychological make-up, the nature of their goals, their attitudes and perceptions, and the context in which they are operating. There is a very significant corpus of research around information seeking as the issues relate directly to the performance of search applications, much of which has been expertly summarised by Marti Hearst in Chapter 3 of her book on Search User Interfaces. This is especially appropriate as designing and then evaluating a search user interface without understanding the range of approaches to information seeking is never going to be effective. There is another good overview paper by Kalervo Jarvelin and Tom Wilson. Even though this paper dates from 2003 it covers virtually all of the established models, an indication of how long research into information seeking has been on the agenda of information retrieval research groups. Information seeking is also a core element of the book ‘The Inquiring Organisation‘ by Chun Wei Choo and there is a substantial section on information seeking models in ‘Interactions with Search Systems‘ by Ryen White.

One of the most widely accepted models of information seeking was developed by Carol Kuhlthau in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In a paper published in 2004 she looks back at her original model, which has stood the test of time quite well. The stages in this model are

  • Task initiation
  • Topic selection
  • Pre-focus exploration.
  • Focus formulation
  • Information collection
  • Presentation

This sequence shows that the presentation stage, the user interface, is only one of six stages of the process. It is all about a dialogue between the user and the search system, with implications for how well the search application supports the preliminary stages of the process. Information seeking is not about the technology but about appreciating the complexity of the cognitive processing being undertaken by the user before, and during the course of, the search process. There is currently a significant amount of interest in cognitive search and artificial intelligence. Both of these are underpinned by information seeking models, though these are never quoted in the marketing literature, which tend to have a focus on the advances in computation behind these applications.

From a search manager perspective the book that links research with good practice most effectively is ‘Designing the Search Experience‘ by Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate, which I reviewed in 2013. The first section of the book examines in detail into each of the most effective models and then adds a further element to information seeking on the basis of a large scale research project undertaken by the authors. The value of an appreciation of information seeking is that it helps significantly to understand what often seem to be contradictory outcomes of user research and testing. The temptation is either to average out the requirements or to put more weight on one requirement than others. In the end neither work. Enterprise search is a classic example of a  ‘wicked problem’. In my experience going back to the fundamentals of information seeking makes the problems seem a lot less wicked.

See also Information Architecture, Information Behaviour, Information Needs, Information Relevance

Martin White

October 2016

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