Have you ever noticed a honeybee fly in a tight loop? Individually a bee will set out on its in own in search for food. But rather than hoard an abundant source of nectar for itself, the honeybee will return to his swarm and dance in a figure-eight pattern to alert the others of the new food source.
Similarly, our information seeking is situated within a backdrop of social activity. While your fingers alone may type a query into the search box, our need for declarative (know-what) and procedural (know-how) knowledge — as well as the means by which we acquire it — is inseparably intertwined with other people.
In The UX of Learning I recently outlined six stages of learning — initiation, selection, exploration, formulation, collection, and action — which can also be thought of as stages of information seeking. Here I’d like to look at the two directions of social activity which occur throughout that six-stage process: pull and push. Understanding the social context of search will better position us to design the collaborative search applications of the future.
I’ve been having bicycle trouble recently. My pedal fell off, I had to replace a crank, and most recently, the chain snapped in two (not all at once, fortunately!). At some point I’ll have to sit down at my computer, do a bit of research, and order a replacement part. In the meantime, I’ve received several words of advice from friends, including things like:
“You should get the KMC X10 SL 10 Speed Chain Gold, it’s amazing!”
“Just ask the guys at Evans Cycles, they’re really knowledgable.”
“Hmm, you’ve been having so many problems lately I’d replace the entire crankset.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right: If I were you I’d save money and only replace the chain.”
“I talked to the guy at my local cycle shop and he strongly recommended the KMC double durability chain.”
Researches Rob Cross and Lee Sproull interviewed 40 managers from a major accounting firm to analyze the types of “actionable knowledge” that are shared through personal interactions. The feedback I received about bicycle chains fits into the five categories they identified:
- Solutions. Direct answers to a specific questions.
- Referrals. References to a person or information source.
- Problem reformulations. Altering the question that is being asked.
- Validation of plans. Confirmation of the approach.
- Legitimization. Consulting an authority figure in order to expropriate their authority.
Pulling occurs when you interact with other individuals in order to satisfy your own information need.
Pushing, on the other hand, is not associated with furthering your current information need, but revolves around sharing ideas with others.
In 1993 Vicki O’Day and and Robin Jeffries interviewed clients of professional intermediaries to discover how search findings were shared within the organization, while Preben Hansen and Kalervo Jarvelin conducted a similar study in 2005 with patent researchers. When combined, the two studies reveal a number of self-initiated push actions, including:
- Sharing documents. Such as articles, reports, and presentations.
- Sharing information about documents. Including annotations, references, citations.
- Self-initiated broadcast. A tweet, status update, mass email, or blog post.
- Archiving. Recording information for future retrieval.
Social networks have come to define how we interact with our friends. Yet the enterprise — which stands to gain enormously through better collaboration amongst its employees — has yet to figure out how to use technology to best facilitate collaboration. Push and pull are certain to play a big role in the future of enterprise search.