I’m very pleased with the discussions sparked by my last post about designing a topology of search concepts. Several people have raised questions about the 2 dimensions I selected as a way of characterizing search concepts in terms of business goals, user needs and technological capabilities. The post was intended to solicit discussion, and perhaps to function as a framework for increasing our own awareness about the capabilities of search technology, and how they are best applied to solve particular information seeking problems. Such a framework can be a great asset for pre-sale engineers, user experience designers, information architects and interactions designers about to build a search solution.
Especially the comments by Gene Golovchinsky helped reveal some short-comings of the dimension I had named “Algorithm vs. User Powered”. Following our discussion, I have come to believe this dimension can be better described as “Algorithmically vs. User Mediated”. Let us find out by exploring what mediation means in the context of search and information retrieval.
The goal of searching is to resolve an information need, and that resolution process can be mediated (or facilitated/supported) by algorithms, users (alone or in groups), or a mix of both. Put into other words, the mediator (or facilitator) is the entity responsible for taking actions to retrieve information that will fulfill the user’s information need. If those actions are taken by an algorithm, like extracting latent structures from the data, or analysing query intent, the search approach can be thought of as “algorithmically mediated”. On the contrary, if the actions are taken by users, like navigating facets, or sharing search results with a partner, the approach can be thought of as “user mediated”.
It’s difficult to imagine information seeking that isn’t a symbiosis between algorithm and user. Almost every search starts with a user action, whether it’s to submit a few keywords, or to just produce something that can be the starting point of a query. And unless I’m asking a question directly to someone else, an algorithm has to pull up a set of possibly relevant documents for me to investigate further. But if we now accept this pre-condition, who plays the role as primary mediator for the information seeking process?
In an attempt to break it down, I have compiled a list of search concepts that I believe are primarily mediated by either algorithms or users. Whether you agree or disagree, please share your thoughts.
Algorithmically mediated (primarily):
- Keyword Search (best-first)
- PageRank (authority-base search)
- Related Searches
- Search Suggestions (type-ahead, auto-completion)
- Universal Search (structured results)
- Implicit Collaborative Search
- Questions Answering (natural language processing)
User mediated (primarily):