Lamenting the poor support of the expert user

Apr 01 2011 Published by under information retrieval

For some project I’m on at work, I had cause to look up “flow” and how to basically support/encourage that in information systems. Ben Bederson’s 2004 piece in Ubiquity seems to be one of the standard articles.* Being in the flow is

When we are fully engaged and in control of an activity, we sometimes sense that time passes more quickly and we feel immersed in that activity to the exclusion of all else.

Bederson emphasizes these characteristics of flow from Csikszentmihalyi:

  • Challenge and require skill
  • Concentrate and avoid interruption
  • Maintain control
  • Speed and feedback
  • Transformation of time

Flow doesn’t happen when it’s all easy and floating past you, it’s when you’re engaged and challenged. Bederson talks about Emacs and Adobe Photoshop- they’re difficult for newbies to learn, but once you’re an expert you can immerse yourself in your work and not interrupt your flow.

Taking this to the obvious next step (for me), how can/do/should interfaces support scientists, scholars, and librarians in the flow of literature-based discovery/analysis and writing?

I guess scientists think more of this flow when they’re doing the bench work or maybe designing a study (or do they?)… but there’s no reason that you can’t get into the flow when you’re searching and reading the literature or writing. I’ve had it happen where I’m reading an article and it gives me a million research ideas and it is really great and really useful. What about the actual search process?

Let’s look at those features with the current systems:

Challenge and require skill. For the most part current information retrieval systems advertise that they require no skill and that they aren’t challenging at all. Some that do pose a challenge are more like frustrating instead of powerful. Libraries and others who do a lot of online searching know that there is skill involved in getting the best results, even from the most simple Google interface.

Concentrate and avoid interruption. For the most part, this seems out of the system. Few of the information retrieval systems popup distracting windows. It would be nice, however, if systems didn’t time you out. That’s miserable: you go to follow a lead and look at an article, but when you come back you need to click to start a new session.

Maintain control. Well, this is something that few systems now really emphasize. You can do a fielded search on many of the different systems, but they don’t all have proximity operators or really advanced functions. Some do, but it’s hidden (if you’re an advanced searcher you’ll find it, but still). They also seem to hide the controlled vocabulary – if they have one. Some systems have added automatic stemming (generally a good thing) or even some mild automatic query expansion, but they have to let you turn this off. It’s easy to turn off in EngineeringVillage2, but I’m not sure about other tools.

Speed and feedback. Most are pretty fast – except for Leadership Directories (why on earth is that thing sooo sloooow?). Feedback varies. Certainly faceted presentation of search results is a great addition that really provides a ton of feedback of how your query was interpreted in the system. Spelling suggestions from EbscoHost have been hilarious (did you mean caber warfare? um no)  - that’s feedback, but meh.

Transformation of time. The one system that has all the power and control, is a challenge and requires skill, doesn’t let me forget the time at all! Dialog classic, I’m lookin’ at you! What about other systems? When I’m on the hunt and I’m finding great stuff I can get pretty immersed – I have to remember to write down my steps so I don’t wander too far from my path.


In blog posts about the design of a new overlay for the library catalog for the larger institution of which MPOW is a division, Jonathan Rochkind talks about design of system he believes provides the magical combination of utility for the newbie or casual searcher as well as powerful features for the advanced searcher. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the library catalog could ever really be an immersive place, but it is heartening that the team paid such careful attention to what the users said more than the tripe we’re fed about the simplistic search box.

I think the system that will do the best for the advanced searcher will offer the power and precision of an expert search- not just dropdown fields, but the ability to use au= AND ti= AND su= ( OR ), etc., within a box. Stemming is fine but you need to be able to turn it off. It’s fine to expand on a term (like a system that OR’s on the alternate spellings of Qadaffi would be most useful) but you need to be able to turn that on and off within a search, term by term ( used a system that literally used metaphone for every term in the query and *you couldn’t turn it off*). I think the underlying data has to be very high quality: accurate citations, a tight thesaurus that is consistently applied, coverage of the appropriate resources… while I’m dreaming, authority control on the author names.  There has to be support for using the subject indexing (locating the right term). Once the search has been retrieved, there should be some visualization and analysis tools. Faceted presentation of search results is a start, and visualization of the citation network is good, but there could be some other analysis tools. Jumping off from linked authors or subject terms or citations is useful, too.

Will all this lead to flow? Not sure. It’s still very separate from the writing process and the synthesis of information. A project at MPOW is looking at how to integrate search into the report writing process (hints of what they did in this paper, pdf). I’m not convinced this is going to work but it’s worth some thought. Others have integrated sense making with information retrieval, not sure how this goes with flow either.

The perfect system (of course varies by user, by task, etc.) may very well integrate the query formulation (reference interview-like support), retrieval, sense making, writing, fact checking, visualization….

Back to the title of the piece. The primary users of research databases in the science really aren’t the 18 year old undergrads. Why do we keep hearing from proud database vendors that their products are optimized for such users? As in the flow article, as well as some of my favorite articles by Soergel and Bates (individually – no co-authorships), it’s ok to require the user to learn, to adapt to the system. Don’t feed me a line about the benefit of no information on the screen and an empty box while you take away the features that work for me, one of your heaviest users.


* clearly there was a ton of stuff before this – enough to be summarized in a popular book by Csikszentmihalyi , but this article pops up when you apply the idea to interfaces


Bederson, B.B. (2004) Interfaces for staying in the flow. Ubiquity 5, 27. DOI: 10.1145/1074068.1074069 (goofy citation, but this is all I can get from the ACM DL and his website)

2 responses so far

  • "Stemming is fine but you need to be able to turn it off. " -- Hear, hear!

    In search systems, I always want to go through results and open new tabs for a closer look. Systems where I can't do this (usually because of crappy JavaScript) drive me to distraction!

    • Christina Pikas says:

      oh yeah, or even worse, when things open in a new window or tab and they hijack a window/tab you were using for something else... and to add insult to injury, change the window size and/or remove toolbars.