For quite a while now Jeremy and I have been characterizing collaborative exploratory search, and distinguishing it from other kinds of searches. While so far the exercise has been largely theoretical, and sometimes has been met with skepticism. Well, in Tuesday’s Washington Post, I found a passage that illustrates the kinds of activities we are talking about.
The article describes Sol Berkman, a man with a medical condition whose wife and son tried to determine whether the symptoms matched a particular disease.
She and Robert, who has written a book about research methods, conducted parallel Internet searches. Both agreed that Berkman seemed to display the classic triad of NPH symptoms: unsteady gait, progressive dementia and urinary incontinence. The problem is that each of these symptoms is commonly seen in patients with dozens of other disorders. Their hopes were buoyed when an MRI exam showed a buildup of fluid in the ventricles of Berkman’s brain, consistent with excess fluid.
It would have been great to observe and interview them as they performed their searches, as all detail of their activities is (rightly) omitted from the article. Well, almost all: we clearly see that they were working on the same problem (had a shared information need), that they were working in parallel (presumably because they did not have efficient tools to mediate the collaboration), and that their information need consisted of many aspects related to the various symptoms that Sol had. There were undoubtedly other symptoms associated with his condition that he did not exhibit. We also can assume that they had different degrees of experience with respect to online information seeking. We don’t know if they were working side-by-side, but my guess is that they worked independently and only shared their conclusions after the fact, or perhaps, at some intermediate stages during their search.
In all, it was a complex (but not atypical) information need shared by two people. In the end, they found enough evidence to pursue a course of action. Could they have done this better? How could their efficiency and effectiveness be improved?
Perhaps a system like SearchTogether might help them share results and avoid some duplication of effort. But a collaborative exploratory search system should help them do more: it should not only allow them to share results, but should use information found by one person to influence the results of the other. It should let the expert searcher guide the novice, but allow both to contribute relevance judgments equally.
In our study, we found that searchers working together found more useful documents, and were able to recognize useful documents better, than searchers working in parallel. This sort of cross-searcher relevance feedback is just one way that deeply-mediated search can improve search effectiveness; other methods remain to be evaluated.
We’re a long way from a comprehensive solution to this class of problem, but it is hearteneing to find that our efforts will address real needs of real people.