Mobile is the new desktop. The adoption of mobile Internet makes the introduction of the World Wide Web seeming glacial by comparison; Morgan Stanley predicts that mobile Internet usage will outpace desktop-based access in just three years.
Search—or information seeking more broadly—is pivotal to circumnavigating this convergence of the digital and physical worlds. But before designing experiences for the new frontier, we must first grasp the needs of users. Specifically, we must understand the information needs of mobile users.
“Information need is an individual or group’s desire to locate and obtain information to satisfy a conscious or unconscious need.” — Wikipedia
Two dimensions: scope and type
Mobile information needs can be assed by two criteria: scope and type. Scope describes the sophistication of the information need, the degree of higher-level thinking it involves, and the time commitment required to satisfy it. The lookup, learn, and investigate elements of scope are derived from Gary Marchionini’s work on exploratory search, while the casual component has been more recently advocated by Max Wilson and others.
Type, on the other hand, is concerned with the genre of the information being sought. Broder is often cited for recognizing the informational and transactional nature of many needs, while the geographic and personal information management goals identified by Church & Smyth are especially prominent for mobile users.
- Casual. Undirected/semi-directed with a hedonistic rather than task-driven purpose.
- Lookup. “Known item” searching for a concrete fact. Most common form of search.
- Learn. Iterative information gathering requiring greater interpretation and judgement.
- Investigate. Long-term research and planning demanding high-level of thinking.
- Informational. Any search for information about a topic.
- Geographic. Points of interest searching or retrieving directions between locations.
- Personal Information Management. Private information not publicly available.
- Transactional. Goals which are action-oriented rather than informational.
A matrix of information needs
While the scope and type provide a framework, they don’t actually tell us about the information needs themselves. That’s where ethnography comes in. Sohn et al. and Church & Smyth have each conducted diary studies in which smartphone-toting adults spread across the globe were instructed to record any information need that arose over a period of weeks. This research enables us to construct a matrix of mobile information needs:
Below are quotes of information needs recorded by participants in the two studies mentioned above. Those without quotations indicate my own additions.
- Checking Notifications. I’ll glance over status updates to kill time while waiting.
- Trivia. “What did Bob Marley die of, and when?”
- Information Gathering. “How to tie correct knots in rope?”
- Research. What is Keynesian economics and is it a good idea?
- Friend Check-ins. “Where are Sam and Trevor?”
- Directions. “Directions to Sammy’s Pizza”
- Local Points of Interest. “Where is the nearest library or bookstore?”
- Travel Planning. Flights, accommodations, and sights for my trip to Italy.
Personal Information Management
- Checking Messages. “Email update for work”
- Checking Calendar. “Is there an open date on my family calendar?”
- Situation Analysis. “What is my insurance coverage for CAT scans?”
- Personal Planning. What should my New Year’s resolutions be this year?
- ‘Window’ Shopping. I don’t know what I want. Show me stuff.
- Price Comparison. “How much does the Pantech phone cost on AT&T.com?”
- Online Shopping. I want to buy a watch as a gift. But which one?
- Product Monitoring. I know the make and model of used car I want. Alert me when new ones are listed.
A penny for your thoughts?
Though this matrix does accommodate the most common information needs identified by Sohn et al. and Church & Smyth, it is still a work in progress. As such, I would very much appreciate your feedback.