The Craft of Exploratory Search


There was a good crop of papers at CHI 2009 this year, and I didn’t get to see them all. I did see a few that were particularly interesting, including   “Learning How: The Search for Craft Knowledge on the Internet” by Torrey, Churchill, and McDonald. The paper describes and analyzes search activities by people involved in various crafts. This work is interesting to me because in a way it very clearly separates exploratory search from other kinds of online searching.

Why? People engaged in crafts often seek information about materials and processes they are trying to use and learn, for which they may not know the proper search terms. (There is a good example of someone being “completely stymied in searching for more examples, until he happened to overhear someone referring to them as rolling ball sculptures.“) Furthermore, people often want to search for latent facets that reflect aesthetic style, standards of quality, project quality, etc. These kinds of concepts are notoriously difficult to express in words with high recall.

Another issue worth contrasting with the “one-shot” model of information seeking is the notion of relevance: while in some cases the utility of a found document is obvious, in many cases the information has to be put to use to reveal its worth. And this act of internalizing leads to further queries, and further shifts and refinements in the information need.

It is interesting to contrast such information seeking with the kinds of searching that often accompanies programming. While there are broad similarities, in particular with respect to assessing the value of found information with respect to a constructive task, there are also significant differences. In particular, programmers are often blessed with cryptic class and method names, and even more cryptic error messages, that serve as high-recall keywords, making it relatively easy to identify promising candidate documents. In the craft world, on the other hand, there is a huge mismatch between the medium of the work and the terms used to describe it.

These kinds of difficult real-world conditions make exploratory search a challenge for both its practicioners and for researchers seeking to improve their lot. It’s a worthy goal!

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