Definitions of Variables Identified in the Survey

Types of Variables

  1. The Search Process
    1. Search topics/tasks
    2. Search behaviors
    3. Search outcomes

  2. The Database and Search System
    1. Database coverage and structure
    2. System support of searching
    3. System support for display

  3. The Person/User
    1. Understanding/knowledge
    2. Psychological/personality characteristics
    3. Demographics

I. The Search Process

A. Search topics/tasks

Purpose for conducting the search (for user-generated search topics). The tasks in which information seeking is embedded (Pirolli & Card, 1999), such as completing a specific school assignment or planning a vacation.

The situational context of the search (for user-generated search topics). The set of organizational/social settings and cognitive structures of individuals and groups that have information needs (Allen, 1996). For example, an individual may be a member of a particular research team and within a particular phase of her doctoral work; these aspects of her context will affect her definition of her information need and how she goes about addressing that need.

Topic source (user-generated vs. assigned by the researcher). The way the search topics are administered (i.e., fully assigned, semiassigned, fully self-generated) (Bilal, 2002).

Specificity. The degree of specificity of the subject of search topics. Specificity ranges from very general or broad to very specific or narrow (Saracevic, et al., 1988).

Topic/search complexity. The number of facets involved in the query (Bilal, 2002).

Task complexity. The degree of predeterminability of task performance, including the predeterminability of its information requirements, process, and outcome (Vakkari, 1999).

Difficulty. The level of difficulty of the objective elements of a search task, which can be defined as the“hardness to be done or accomplished” (White & Iivonen, 2002).

Subject domain. The general subject or topic area in which the search topic falls (Saracevic, et al., 1988).

Time frame of information need. The period of time within which the user needs to resolve an information need.

Stage of information search process. The stage of the process in which the user is currently engaged, based on the theory that users will go through multiple stages in completing a search, evolving from vague to clear in their understanding of a topic or task and involving changing feelings and actions at each stage (Kuhlthau, 1992).

B. Search behaviors

Search terms used. Search terms that users enter into the system/database.

Types of search statements. A variety of researchers (e.g., Bates, 1979; Fidel, 1985; Wildemuth & Moore, 1995) have identified typologies for classifying search statements. They usually include specific moves for reducing the size of the set retrieved (e.g., adding another term/concept with an AND operator or limiting it to publications in English) or increasing the size of the set retrieved (e.g., adding synonyms with an OR operator or truncating a term), and may also include beginning, ending, and error moves.

Sequential sets of search statements, i.e., tactics. “A search tactic is a set of search [statements] that are temporally and semantically related” (Wildemuth, 2004, 246).

Search mediation. Whether the search was completed with the assistance of an information professional or librarian, or completed by the end user without assistance.

Types of errors. Types of errors made by users in searching information for a task, such as typographical or spelling errors, misuse of Boolean operators, or other actions that result in zero-hit retrieval sets (Connaway, Budd, & Kochtanek, 1995).

Stopping behavior. The user's rationale for terminating the search at a certain point in time (Kantor, 1987).

Number of sessions. A count of the total number of search sessions conducted by users over time when seeking information related to a particular information problem/need (Spink, 1996).

Use of help. Users' use of a 'help' command in the system/database.

Session/search length. The time or number of cycles used in a single session. A session is all the search-related actions involved in one sitting for one information problem/need.

Number of search statements per session. A search statement is an individual search command or query.

Number of pages/records displayed. A count of the total number of pages/records retrieved from the system/database, that are displayed in some way.

C. Search outcomes

Users' criteria for evaluating the items retrieved. Criteria (related to the users' information need situation) mentioned by users evaluating the information within documents (Barry, 1994).

Satisfaction with search results/outcomes. Satisfaction, in a general sense, is defined as “the fulfillment or gratification of a desire, need, or appetite, [and the] pleasure or contentment derived from such gratification” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000). It may be experienced as part of a user's responses to the search results/outcomes (Sandore, 1990; Bruce, 1998).

Utility/value of search results. The overall value of the search results in fulfilling the user's information need (Boyce, Meadow, & Kraft, 1994), or the user's perceptions of overall system success in providing help for the user's purpose or information problem (Su, 1992).

Whether/how the search results are used. Whether and how users employ the information they have retrieved in their own lives. For example, they might cite the retrieved item in a paper or make a decision based on it.

Satisfaction with the search system/database. Satisfaction (see above) may be experienced in response to the user's interactions with the search system or the user's perceptions of the functionality of the system.

Satisfaction with search precision. Satisfaction (see above) may be experienced in response to the precision of the search results.

Precision of retrieved set(s). The ratio of the number of relevant records retrieved to the total number retrieved (Boyce, Meadow, & Kraft, 1994).

Satisfaction with search recall. Satisfaction (see above) may be experienced in response to recall, or the completeness of the search results retrieved.

II. The Database and Search System

A. Database coverage and structure

Subject/domain coverage. A description of the materials indexed or included in a database, in terms of the topics covered.

Types of documents included. A description of the materials indexed or included in a database, in terms of genre, e.g., articles, books, conference papers, photographs.

Controlled vocabulary for indexing. The amount and type of control exerted over the subject terms or descriptors assigned to items in a database. A database's indexing may be controlled by a thesaurus or by an authority list of terms that may be assigned.

Data elements/fields included. The fields or data elements recorded in the database being searched. "A field is an individual piece of information" about an item in the database (Walker & Janes, 1993, p.27)

Database structure , e.g., relational vs. hypertext. The methods or tools with which an index is created. The index terms may be assigned by a person or by a computer system or by some combination of the two (Tenopir, 1999). An index is "a tool that is used to locate information within a document" or a collection (Dalrymple, 1995, p.60).

Depth of indexing. "The degree of specificity with which the collection is 'broken down' into its components, the number of terms with which each item is tagged, and the degree of specificity of these terms" (Rothman, 1974, p.297).

Time aspects (i.e., dates) of coverage. The time period in which database materials were published/created, or were indexed,included or updated in the database.

Source of indexing (person vs. automatic indexing). The way that the materials are indexed in a database (e.g., by humans assigning subject terms, the system generating an index from the full text of a document, or some combination of human and automatic indexing).

B. System support of searching

User can provide relevance feedback. The availability of any of a variety of methods for improving "a user's query by using documents that have been assessed relevant by the user" (Ruthven et al., 2003, p.529).

Natural language queries. Natural language queries: "Natural language query creation permits entry of a prose statement or question that describes the information the user wants to find" (Hahn, 1998, p.7-8).

Query expansion (automatic or with user input). "The process of supplementing [a] query with additional terms" for the purpose of improving retrieval performance (Efthimiadis, 1996, p.122).

Specification of a particular field in which to search. "The capability of limiting a search to a specific field" (Hahn, 1998, p.8), e.g., title, author, or descriptor.

Access to online thesaurus. Whether the user has access to the database's controlled vocabulary (descriptors) or other online indexes of particular fields (e.g., the author field) to support the development of a search strategy (Hsieh-Yee, 1993).

Word proximity operators. Proximity operators "allow two or more words to be searched for as a single unit or phrase" (Hahn, 1998, p.7), or in some other way "allow a user to restrict the distance allowed between two search terms within a record" (Hahn, 1998, p.7).

Boolean operators. Database operators that "enable set intersection, set union or set differences" (Hahn, 1998, p.7). If available, they are usually expressed, respectively, as AND, OR, and NOT.

Truncation. "The masking of characters in suffixes or prefixes" to allow "searching and retrieval on part of a word" (Hahn, 1998, p.7).

History of search strategy can be displayed. The search statements previously entered by the user can be displayed for review and/or re-execution.

Help facility is available. The quality and availability of "Help" facilities in a search system.

C. System support for display

Sorting of results. The capability for the user "to alter the order in which records are output" (Walker & Janes, 1993, p.123), e.g., to sort by author, by date, or by relevance.

Specific fields can be selected for display. The capability for the user to specify which database fields will be included in the display.

Display can be customized or personalized. The capability for the system to change for individual users or groups of users. Customization usually includes changes that are at the explicit request of the user (Jørgensen & Sauer, 1990). Personalization usually includes changes that are based on the system's record of past user behaviors (Kramer, Noronha, & Vergo, 2000).

Display form can be selected: printing, filing, downloading, e-mailing, bookmarking. The user may select the form/medium in which the display is received.

Ranking of results by relevance. Search results are sorted according to the criterion of relevance, where the results that the system thinks are best in terms of topic, task and context appear toward the top of result list. (Mizzaro, 1997)

III. The Person/User

A. Understanding/knowledge

Of the search topic/domain. “A body of knowledge (e.g., history or chemistry) composed of entities and relationships” (Marchionini, 1995, 45), or "factual knowledge of a topic" (Allen, 1991, 188).

Of search strategy development. The process of “matching understanding of the task with the system selected” (Marchionini, 1995, 53). The user maps strategies and tactics onto the rules and features provided by the system interface, so as to complete the search.

Of databases/resources available. Described by Taylor (1968) as knowledge of the "rules of the game," including "the organization, structure, associations, and specific peculiarities" of the availalbe information resources (p.186).

Of system/database commands. The interaction styles (e.g., command vs. direct manipulation) and functionality supported by the search system (Marchionini, 1995), including specific command names or abbreviations.

Of database structure. How information is organized and represented within the database (Marchionini, 1995).

Of information seeking skills, i.e., information literacy. Information seeking/searching skills can be broken down to three levels: affective skills, such as "a searcher's persistent attraction to learning the information searching process and striving to improve"; cognitive skills, such as "a searcher's abilities to develop effective plans and make valid decisions"; sensorimotor skills, such as "a searcher's acuity in visual identification and prowess in maneuvering in dynamic information environments". (Jakobovits; Nahl, 1990)

B. Psychological/personality characteristics

Motivation. One's drive to carry out an activity (Davis & Wiedenbeck, 2001).

Persistence. The ability and tendency to continue to pursue a search strategy (Wiberley, Daugherty, & Danowski, 1995).

Flexibility. “[T]he quality of being adaptable or variable” (Princeton WordNet 2.0).

Cognitive style. “[T]endencies displayed by individuals consistently to adopt a particular type of information processing strategy” (Ford et al., 2002, 728). Some cognitive styles that have been included in past studies are: global versus analytic styles, field dependence versus field independence, and holist versus serialist styles.

Resourcefulness. “[T]he quality of being able to cope with a difficult situation; the ability to deal resourcefully with unusual problems” (Princeton WordNet 2.0).

Self efficacy. "The belief that one has the capability to perform a particular behavior" (Compeau & Higgins, 1995, 189).

Need for cognition. An individual's tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive tasks (Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996).

C. Demographics

Experience with the internet. Nature and scope of users' interactions with the internet (Lazonder, Biemans, & Wopereis, 2000).

Experience with computers. Nature and scope of users' interactions with computers.

Educational level. The amount of schooling the person has completed.

Domain, field or discipline. The discipline or field in which the user works. Examples: civil engineering, investment banking.

Age. The period of time the person has lived.

Occupation/job title. The specialty or nature of work performed by the user. Examples: biological researcher, intelligence analyst, clerical worker, administrative assistant, student.

Sex. Either male or female.

Experience with searching. The nature and scope of a user's interactions with search systems, including library catalogs, databases (bibliographic, statistical, etc.), the Web and other online sources.

Native language. The language that a person has spoken from earliest childhood. (WorldNet Dictionary)


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© Barbara M. Wildemuth & Carol L. Barry, 2004.
Created with the assistance of Abe Crystal and Lili Luo.
Last updated July 20, 2004.