Users search for information on the internet in different ways. User interfaces strive to be intuitive in nature, wanting to make the search process easy and efficient for users. If a particular interface doesn’t work for a user, they are typically going to turn to a different interface they find more “user-friendly”.
There are several theoretical models of how users search. The classic model consists of four main activities:
1 – identify a problem
2 – articulate what information is needed
3 – formulate a query
4 – evaluate the results
This model is based on the assumption that a user’s information needs are static. The dynamic model assumes a user’s information needs change as they learn during their search experience.
The searches I used in my job for the first 17 years were definitely dynamic in nature. I work for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and was initially an investigator. The Inspection Service is the federal law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service. Postal Inspectors investigate any criminal activity with a nexus to the U.S. mail, from mail theft and mail fraud, to illegal items being sent through the mail such as drugs, child pornography, or bombs, to assaults of postal employees, and robberies and burglaries of postal facilities and vehicles. When conducting investigations, many pieces of information you discover lead to new searches. Some pieces of information turn out to be irrelevant, but until the pieces of the entire puzzle are put together, it can be hard to know what is relevant. Interpretation of information can change based on additional information found and may lead to new paths of inquiry.
One of the intelligence tools we use is an interface that allows us to search public and, in some cases, proprietary records. Until March of this year, my agency used LexisNexis Accurint as our primary platform to access this type of information. In March, we switched to Thomson Reuter’s CLEAR service.
Several sections of our assigned textbook reading this week reminded me of our switch from Accurint to CLEAR. Orienteering is the process of starting broad, then narrowing a search. Some users are having a difficult time with the switch because with CLEAR, less information is more. Users of Accurint had become accustomed to entering as much data as they had on a particular individual or address and receiving results to their query. CLEAR uses different search interfaces, and the more information you enter, the more you narrow your field of search. Accurint would return results that contained any individual portion of the data you entered; whereas CLEAR returns only results that contain ALL the data you entered.
Our text also discussed various user interfaces and the importance of subjective evaluations by users. Many factors influence user evaluations including familiarity, speed, and types of features offered. Some Postal Inspectors have embraced CLEAR and find it a more effective platform. Others are resistant to the change and have voiced problems they are having. However, I often learn when I query those who indicate they prefer Accurint, that they haven’t taken advantage of the training (both in person and via the internet) being offered for CLEAR. I think some users will always be resistant to any type of change, even if in the long run it makes a task easier and more efficient.
I also thought of my agency’s switch to CLEAR when reading about information visualization. One of the reasons we switched to CLEAR was because data in CLEAR can be exported directly to i2, link-analysis software we use to provide just such visualization. It can paint a picture of connections between people, addresses, and telephone numbers. Another type of information visualization software we use is ArcGIS, mapping software. Using visualization of data to tell a picture can be very powerful and much easier to interpret than to see a spreadsheet of the exact same data in text form.