Building Better Search Interfaces: A Workshop About Exploratory Searches

When someone uses a search engine to try to locate information about a subject which they know very little about, a simple search interface isn’t very helpful. These types of endeavors have been referred to by information scientists as exploratory search activities, where the target of the search is mostly undefined.

Gary Price, at Resource Shelf, pointed earlier today to a paper from a University of Maryland workshop held last year, which brought together researchers from the “fields of Information Seeking (IS), Information Retrieval (IR), Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Information Visualization (IV)” to take a closer look at how to make it easier for searchers to perform exploratory searches.

The workshop, Exploratory Search Interfaces: Categorization, Clustering and Beyond, was part of The Human Computer Interaction Laboratory?s 22nd Annual Symposium, hosted at the School last June. The main issue explored at the workshop is nicely stated in the report:

Although the Semantic Web is making new richer and more flexible kinds of Web-based querying possible a burning question remains ?Are current search technologies enough to meet all user demands??. The answer of course is yes and no. Search engines, bibliographic databases and digital libraries provide adequate support for users whose information needs are well-defined. However, they do not work well in situations where users lack the knowledge or contextual awareness to formulate queries or navigate complex information spaces. For example, what if you want to find something from a domain where you have a general interest but not specific knowledge? How would you find classical music you might enjoy if you do not know what Beethoven or Berlioz sounds like? What a Sonata is? The difference between Baroque or Romantic? What do you type into Google?

Some experienced searchers have developed strategies to help them with these exploratory searches, but part of the impetus behind the workshop was to consider interfaces that may make such searches easier and more useful. One conclusion of the workshop participants was that interfaces that could aid searchers “are a vital (and missing) part of most current mainstream search technology.”

They offer a number of suggestions in their report on the workshop for future study on the subject and the development of user interfaces that could be created involving:

  • The context of searches,
  • The support of different searching strategies,
  • Testing methodologies for those interfaces, and;
  • The creation of workspaces for searchers – from simple note taking to collaborative authoring environments.

More information about the workshop is available on the workshop homepage, which includes some excellent slide presentations from participants, like the one by Abdur Chowdhury of AOL on How good is Web Search and Does Clustering Help?. (Some interesting numbers on one of his slides showing a breakdown of queries by category at AOL in 2004.)

The 23rd Annual Symposium of the University of Maryland’s Human Computer Interaction Laboratory will be held on June 1-2, with the Symposium itself on June 1, and workshops and tutorials on June 2. While today isn’t the last day that you can register, they note that they need registration and payment by today to “guarantee reservation of lunch and materials.” This year’s event doesn’t have a workshop on a search related topic, but there are some presentations during the first day that do involve search.

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