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Theme: Beyond search
Theme: Beyond search

It is well recognised that search engines are not only used for search.

A Different Perspective on Search…

When we think of the experiences that search engines are designed to support, criteria such as speed and efficiency instantly come to mind. However, one of our main interests is in how web use is intertwined with daily life, and understanding the activities in which search engines play a role. Within this larger, human-centred context, we find that the richness of web use, and the activities in which search features, point to many other human values to design for in addition to fast, relevant search. These include systems that support:

  • Spending rather than saving time on the Web
  • Enjoying the journey as much as the destination
  • The pleasure of discovering something new versus finding the “right answer”
  • Subtly pushing things of interest rather than requiring users to pull information from the Web

These aspects of search then suggest we can develop new kinds of search experience or tools that complement more goal-oriented search behaviour.


Five Modes of Web Use

Most tools for searching the web are built around the idea of purposeful or task-driven web use, where people seek out the answers to questions they have, or gather information for a particular information need. Our fieldwork suggests that while this is obviously an important aspect of web use, there are four other modes in which people engage with the web. In summary, these are:

  • Purposeful Use. When users wish to accomplish a task quickly and efficiently. They may fire up a laptop or turn on their mobile phone in order to do so.
  • Opportunistic Use. Using the web as a form of past time. Rather than going online to accomplish some task, users look for things to do ‘while they are there’, calling to mind curiosities and interests.
  • Orienting. When users browse a routine set of sites to ‘warm up’ for the day or settle in at work, for example. This tends to involve looking through roughly the same sites in the same order at the same times during the day.
  • Respite. When users look to a core set of sites, such as the news, webmail or social networks, for a short period of time (maybe only seconds), as a way of breaking from other activities.
  • Lean-Back Internet. Using the Web as a conduit to stream media, such as radio, video or games.

You can read about these five modes in detail in a WWW 2012 paper.

The Web as a Personal Archive

In recent years the web has evolved substantially, transforming from a place where we primarily find information to a place where we also leave, share and keep it. This presents a fresh set of challenges for the management of personal information, which include how to underpin greater awareness and more control over digital belongings and other personally meaningful content that is hosted online. In a recent study, we asked participants to give us a tour of their online content, to search for 'themselves' online, and to respond to a series of design envisionments. Our analysis leads us to present a framework of five different types of online content, each of which has separate implications for personal information management. These are:

  • High Value Collections. Examples include archives of content that users are proud of enough to want to share, or that they simply want to back up, e.g. via sites like Flickr.
  • Collections that are Curated Online. Examples include collections that are hosted online and largely comprise other-generated content, e.g. Pinterest boards.
  • Collections that Emerge through Use. Examples include folders of webmail that evolve over time, and the social graphs that emerge via social network services.
  • Content for Consumption in the Moment. Examples include user generated content posted to social network sites, often viewed as fleeting but potentially valuable long-term.
  • Dynamic Content: Profiles and Personal Pages. Examples include social network profiles, where changes are destructive (edits cannot be undone) and commonplace.

A paper detailing the study and implications for each type of content will be published at WWW 2013. Email for a pre-print.

Domesticating Search

One of the strengths of the web is its ubiquity. The proliferation of mobile devices and cloud-based data means that the web can increasingly be accessed anywhere and at any time. But different locations have different qualities, and it is worth considering how the web might be designed to fit a specific place. Designing web-connected technologies for home life, for example, raises a number of questions regarding the material landscape of the home, the relationships between household members, and the links between home and other spheres, such as work. As part of a design exploration of how to design web-connected artefacts specifically for the home, we have developed a number of concepts in collaboration with the Aalto University's School of Arts, Design and Architecture.

Manhattan: Tangible Location-Based Search

Tokens: Embodying Web Content

You can read more about these in an upcoming CHI paper. Email for a pre-print.

New Ways of Interacting with the Web

We have been working on a number of prototypes to explore how search engine technologies can underpin experiences other than a quick question-and-answer approach to interacting with web content. relating to designing search from a different perspective, often looking at how search can be used for opportunistic use, serendipity, self-expression and creativity. Three of these prototypes are:

Growing Slow Searches

An organic kind of search that presents results that grow over time, drawing attention to the things about which you are most passionate.

Search Journey Stepping Stones

A way of picturing and encapsulating search journeys so you can get pleasure from the voyage, as well as the destination.

Collectable Search Results

A way of packaging search results so that you can keep them and they can be given to others.


Other Related Projects

  • SketchStorm
    This project explores how we might develop new digital tools to facilitate designers in an early ideation stage of the design process. In order to do so we created a technology probe called SketchStorm, a prototype application that supports some common ideation practices including sketching, image search and image collection.

  • Project Greenwich
    Project Greenwich is a website that allows people to create timelines of any subject they want to present chronologically. Using the site they could show the lifespan of an individual, how a historical event evolved, or how a place changed, for example. With Greenwich we are interested in researching how people think about time, how they go about the process of telling a story through time, and what it means to reflect on chronological content to think about the past.

  • Children's Book Visualisations
    Anyone with an interest in books, be they authors, readers, publishers, agents, critics, academics, etc may find such tools useful, but we have designed our visualizations with fans and academic readers in mind. These readers form theories about the books that stand alongside the author's own understanding and we hope that the abstract visualizations provided may help such an endeavour.

  • Meerkat and Tuba
    Over the years, as digital technologies have become more and more embedded into our everyday lives, people are beginning to accumulate vast amounts of personal digital content through their interactions with digital capturing technologies, social networking sites, their continuous endeavors with the web and simple things, new content such as music, photos, videos, Tweets, and Facebook posts, is being generated and collected. With this, these collections often become more unwieldy. With the design of the serendipitous display prototypes, Meerkat and Tuba, it was our intention to engage people in novel ways with their digital content by further exploring the devices’ material qualities and interaction mechanisms.

  • Live Performance
    Drawing on Web imagery to support live performance.

  • SPIBs
    SPIBS enables people to serendipitously browse their digital photo collection by moving SPIBs with different search properties into a circular target area. The closer the SPIB is moved towards the centre, the higher the importance of the property it contains to the search result. As the SPIBs are dragged into the circular area, the instantaneous ‘search’ results are displayed in the centre of the screen.


Bob Corish
Bob Corish

John Helmes
John Helmes