Information Seeking from Web-based Resources:
Sensemaking in Web-based environments: Implications for
Supervisors Professor Marian Petre
Professor Helen Sharp
Status Full Time /Part-time transition during write-up
Probation viva After
Starting date April 2005
End-users are more and more turning to the World Wide Web (WWW) for
information to help them complete work, leisure or formal learning related everyday
tasks; indeed the majority of search tasks currently undertaken in web contexts are
‘informational’ (e.g., Kobayashi and Takeda, 2000, Morrison et al, 2001). Typically
such searches result in large volumes of information, presented in a variety of
different formats from many different web-sites; making sense of and using the found
information is often a non-trivial task.
This research explores
‘How users make sense of and use or represent their sensemaking whilst
seeking information in web-based environments’
To this end, the research investigates user behaviours and strategies as they interact
with information sources in web-based contexts; its aims are to identify examples
evident when users collect, evaluate, understand, interpret, and integrate new
information for their own specific problem/task needs. The relationship between their
sensemaking and information seeking is examined. From the ensuing understanding
of sensemaking, implications for interaction design are inferred.
The project is informed from information behaviour and sensemaking research:
Information behaviour research is mature; hundreds of empirical studies are reported
in the literature and many of the seminal behaviour models were informed from
earlier studies of specialist user groups deploying customised or bibliographic
database search engines. As a direct response to the impact of the World Wide Web
(WWW) and the common use of general search engines, a few of these models have
been re-examined in recent years to determine to what extent they continue to
represent user’s information behaviour; for example, Choo et al (2000) re-evaluated
Ellis’ earlier model(s) (1989, 1993) and Vakkari (2001) re-examined Kuhlthau’s
earlier Information seeking Process model (ISP).
Despite over 50 years of research and this recent resurgence of interest, the use aspect
of information behaviour has been largely overlooked or at best notionally mentioned
in the models, e.g. Wilson (1999) and Vakkari (2001), explicitly identify a use
component but do not explore it. This ongoing lack of attention to the use of the
located information has been criticized by many, e.g., Wilson, 1999; Kuhlthau, 2005,
(pg 5). Information use is fundamental to sensemaking activities. This project is
particularly interested in the information behaviour which encompasses the purposive
evaluation and ‘use’ made of located information sources: information searching is
reserved for discussions which focus on interactions with the search query interface.
There is a smaller body of reported empirical sensemaking research representing at
least four different perspectives; one of these, i.e., Russell et al’ empirical work is
particularly pertinent to this research. Their early, well cited model (1993) was
derived from studies of professional workers using specialist equipment, but like other
models it is a high-level description; as yet, little is known about the micro-level
sensemaking. However, as with information behaviour, there is a resurgent interest in
sensemaking, particularly micro-level everyday sensemaking in web-based contexts.
Further, although a relationship between information seeking and sensemaking has
been acknowledged, e.g. Dervin (1983) and Kuhlthau (1991), there are renewed calls
to investigate and better understand this relationship (e.g. Qu and Furnas 2005).
Design and methods
In order to answer the broad research question (stated above), five sub questions were
generated and three main empirical studies were designed to specifically address one
or more of these sub-questions:
• the first study was designed to identify a range of typical broad information
strategies and associated sensemaking activities deployed by users during a
research related information seeking task; nine PhD students were observed and
interviewed as they undertook their own research related activities;
• the second study was set-up to examine, in more detail, particular strategies
emergent from study 1; eight experienced information processors ‘talked aloud’ as
they were observed undertaking a time-constrained web-based topic
• the third study was designed to be compared with and probe the results from the
second study; eight experienced information processors ‘talked aloud’ as they
were observed undertaking a time-constrained purchase-based task in a web
A range of data collection tools were deployed across the three studies; these included
− questionnaires applied pre and/or post observations;
− think aloud protocol with audio or audio+video recording
− evidence gathered post observations
Throughout the studies, analysis was qualitative and inductive, providing
opportunities to iteratively examine and explore different facets of the emergent
The significant outcome from study 1 was an emergent empirical framework which
highlighted four broad categories of user information-interaction strategies. These
results corroborated and extended some of the published information behaviour
literature, for example, by distinguishing (notionally) different phases within user’s
evaluation of information sources, and offering some further insight into the little
reported usage strategies. Examples of implicit and explicit sensemaking activities
during the task cycle were identified for further scrutiny. These broad indicative
results provided a baseline for the second study.
Study 2 produced several different visual representations as outcomes of the inductive
analysis. For example individual participant timelines which highlight the multiples of
resources in-play (visible and in use) and other characteristics of their resource
interactions throughout the comprehension task. Along with the empirical framework
from study 1, these timelines were used as a baseline for further investigation into
participant interaction behaviours.
Participants deployed a combination of five different interaction behaviours to solve
the topic comprehension task; four of these broadly reflected the behaviour classes as
identified in the empirical framework (study-1). The fifth, i.e. plan, was an emergent
behaviour which helped relate the other behaviours to the task-in-hand. Typically,
participant’s behaviours were complex and varied; frequently two or more resources
were in-play as they switched between resources, extracting and compiling
information. Each user session is captured as a unique sequence of conceptual
episodes of behaviour; these algebraically expressed sequences indicate how
participants collected and made sense of located information for the task-in-hand.
Instances of broad sensemaking strategies set in the context of the empirical
framework (study 1) are inferred from these individual ‘episode sequences’. Whilst
each instance of broad sensemaking strategy’ was unique, some patterns and
commonalities were evident. For example,
− Each participant’s problem solving style can be classified with reference to
their underlying planning strategies; top down, bottom-up or a mixed
− Planning is a dominant activity across most participants;
− Seek is integral to sensemaking;
− Almost all adopt a sequential approach to source processing;
− There was a strong preference for pen&paper used as an intermediate
workspace for representation and organisation purposes;
Each instance of ‘broad sensemaking strategy’ visually indicates the relationship
between sensemaking and information seeking; this is to be explored. A collection of
instances of broad sensemaking strategies is offered as one model of sensemaking.
Instances of this model can be compared from two or more comparative studies.
These results are of interest to information behaviour generally and in particular
information interaction and exploratory search communities, and sensemaking
Indicative Implications for interaction design of sensemaking technologies
Current everyday systems do not fully support sensemaking tasks; for example
navigation errors & representation failures were evident, there was a notable
preference for pen & paper for representation (storage & organisation), resources
were often deployed in alternative roles, i.e., not default roles.
Whilst it is clear that each interaction behaviour strategy has own design needs, there
appears to be three groups of implications, namely
• Improved Navigation support needed to address the high level of switching and
navigation errors; interestingly apart from one case, no-one made use of multiple
• More robust solutions for representation are needed to support the range of
representations emergent from usage, planning activities. An intermediate
workspace reflecting the properties of pen&paper is needed. Further, an integrated
solution would help reduce/address the switching errors from the iterative
switching between source and target representation;
• Management support would enhance the planning activities which occur regularly
and throughout the session.
These implications are of interest to designers of sensemaking support technologies.
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Information Seeking on the Web -- Preliminary Results of a Study of How
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