The Future of Information Discovery

I recently attended the third annual workshop on Human Computer Interaction and Information retrieval ( HCIR 2009) in Washington DC together with my colleague Lina. This is the first in a series of blog posts about what happened at the workshop. First up is the keynote about the Future of Information Discovery, by Ben Shneiderman.

Ben Shneiderman, professor at the University of Maryland and founding director of the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory held the workshop keynote. He started off by talking about what he called the elephant in the room, Google. Because whenever you talk about search these days you have to talk about Google. Google has become the baseline for search and the system that users relate other search experiences to. Almost all of our customers’ users has in one way or another asked “why can’t our intranet be more like Google?” (Read more about expectations to Googlify the company in a previous blog post by Mickel. You can also download the slides to Ben Shneidermans keynote presentation.)

As Ben Shneiderman said, Google does actually do the job, finding facts work. However searching for information can be dangerous. Google does well on handling simple fact-finding tasks but we need better tools to handle other types of searches such as:

  • Extended fact finding tasks where the queries are often vague
  • Tasks involving exploration of availability where the requested results can be vague
  • Open ended browsing and problem analysis where there can be hidden assumptions
  • Mismatch between the users information needs and the available metadata which will require exhaustive searching.

One of the points that I appreciated the most in this keynote was that systems that support searching for information not only need to support simple known-item searches, which Google does well. They also need to support other things:

  • Helping users enrich query formulation
  • Expanding result management
  • Enable long-term effort
  • Enhance collaboration

I am especially pleased by this statement since these are some of the important issues that we are working with in our customer projects. You will also learn more about query formulation in one of our upcoming blog posts from HCIR.

Supporting these cases are important for supporting users in their information seeking tasks and, according to Shneiderman, this should also be done while enabling users to deal with specific cases of search, concerning:

  • Completeness – Do I have all the information on a specific topic? This is especially important in for example legal or medical cases.
  • Absence of information – proving non-existence of information is very difficult but needed when applying for a patent or registering a trademark.
  • Outliers – making unexpected connections between information and finding and learning new  things that you would not have expected to find.
  • Bridging – Connecting different disciplines with each other.

This is very important because when users search the goal is not the information itself. No users go to a search interface just for the fun of searching for information. They need the information for a purpose. Search therefore needs to support things such as decision-making, collaboration, innovation and societal improvement. Search will only be of true value to users when it not only searches the simple fact-finding tasks but when it helps users solve the real problems in the real world. And good tools can force people to reframe their thinking and see things in a different light. That is the kind of tools that we should be designing.