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6.2. Understanding How Users Search

Assuming you've decided to implement a searching system for your web site, it's important to understand how users really search before designing it. We'll try to condense decades of research and experience generated by the field of information retrieval into the next few paragraphs. But it really boils down to this point: searching systems can and should vary as much as browsing systems or any other components of web sites do, because all users aren't alike, and information retrieval is much harder than most people realize.

6.2.1. Users Have Different Kinds of Information Needs

Information scientists and librarians have been studying users' information finding habits for decades. Until recently, these studies usually pertained to traditional information systems, such as how to ask a library patron the right questions to learn their information needs, or how to make it easier to search for information in online library card catalogs or other databases.

Many studies indicated that users of information systems aren't members of a single-minded monolithic audience who want the same kinds of information delivered in the same ways. Some want just a little information, while others want detailed assessments of everything there is to know about a topic. Some want only the most accurate, highest quality information, while others don't care much about the reliability of the source. Some will wait for the results, while others need the information yesterday. Some are just plain happy to get any information at all, regardless of how much relevant stuff they're really missing. Users' needs and expectations vary widely, and so the information systems that serve them must recognize, distinguish, and accommodate these different needs.

To illustrate, let's look at one of these factors in greater detail: the variability in users' searching expectations.

6.2.4. The Moving Target: A Likely Scenario

A typical example of a search for information might go something like this:

Jan, a budding entrepreneur, wants to get business cards printed for her new company. She calls her pal Fred to see how he did it and what company he used. Unfortunately, Fred is not in, and, never one to dawdle, Jan leaves Fred voice mail and moves on to the yellow pages. She finds nothing under Business Cards, but does see a number of companies listed under Printers, and gets a few price quotes, which all seem to be in the same neighborhood. Not sure which to select, Jan contacts the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau for their recommendation. The BBB folks refer Jan to their web site, where she can search a database of companies with dubious histories. This provides Jan with useful information that helps whittle down her list of candidate printers. Meanwhile, Fred calls Jan back and tells her that she really shouldn't have just business cards printed, but that she should hire a graphic designer to create a full graphic identity package for Jan's new business, including letterhead, brochures, and so on. So, Jan realizes that she needs to find an affordable, reputable graphic design firm, and she returns to the yellow pages. She also goes to the library to do a catalog search to see if any books describe what it's like to work with a graphic design firm, and how much she ought to expect to pay. And so on...

As you can see, Jan's initially simple information need becomes a fully fledged associative learning process, changing at least twice (from a hunt for a printer to a hunt for a graphic design firm to information on negotiating and working with a graphic designer), and for all we know, it's not over yet. It also involves multiple information sources (Fred, the yellow pages, the library catalog, the bookstore), and utilizes browsing (the yellow pages directory), searching (the Web database, the library catalog), and even asking (Fred, the Better Business Bureau). Things aren't always as simple as they seem! Your challenge, of course, is to design your site's architecture to support the most common searching and browsing approaches in a smooth and integrated way.

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