I started at U of T this week, and I’m trying to narrow down my thesis topic, so I’m basically doing a swan dive into a pile of papers related to personal information management. Today I’ve read a couple interesting ones about how we use keyword search, and why even the most perfect search engine probably won’t ever replace the use of browsing to find information.
In the first paper, Don’t Take My Folders Away!, the researchers surveyed a small group of people to see how they used folders to organize the files on their computer. When the users were asked why they created folders, the answer was generally “to get back my files”. But when they were asked if they would give up their folders and find their information exclusively using a search engine, the answer was a resounding “no”. The conclusion of the paper was that folders are not just a way to organize information — the folder structure itself actually contains information about a project. For example, a folder structure can indicate subprojects and subtasks of a project.
The second paper, “The Perfect Search Is Not Enough“, investigated how people performed searches both on the web and in their personal information. They found that people rarely searched for the specific item they were looking for; instead, they moved in small, local steps, using context to guide them. For example, rather than directly searching for a professor’s phone number (using a query like “david karger phone number”), they would search for the professor’s web page (maybe even by looking it up in a staff directory) and then try to find the information that way. The authors referred to this concept as “orienteering”:
Orienteering involves using both prior and contextual information to narrow in on the actual information need, often in a series of steps, without specifying the entire information need up front
Together, I think these papers demonstrate that while search is a useful way to find information, most people still need to use some kind of browsing to find the information they are looking for. The orienteering paper suggested that this kind of approach lessens the cognitive burden on the user. I think it really makes sense if you think of a real-life metaphor: you know how to find your way to a certain pub, but you don’t know the address and couldn’t give precise instructions about how to get there. Humans are naturally good at this kind of incremental way-finding, and browsing is a good way to take advantage of that.
(Photo by AlbeJTD on Flickr)