UBC Faculty Research and Publications

The Effects of Manipulating Task Determinability on Search Behaviors and Outcomes Capra, Robert; Arguello, Jamie; O'Brien, Heather, 1977-; Li, Yuan; Choi, Bogeum


An important area of IR research involves understanding how task characteristics influence search behaviors and outcomes. Task complexity is one characteristic that has received considerable attention. One view of task complexity is through the lens of a priori determinability—the level of uncertainty about task outcomes and processes experienced by the searcher. In this work, we manipulated the determinability of comparative tasks. Our task manipulation involved modifying the scope of the task by specifying exact items and/or exact (objective or subjective) dimensions to consider as part of the task. This paper reports on a within-subject study (N = 144) where we investigated how our task manipulation influenced participants’ perceptions, levels of engagement, search effort, and choice of search strategies. Our results suggest a complex relationship between task scope, determinability, and different outcome measures. Our most open-ended tasks were perceived to have low determinability (high uncertainty), but were the least challenging for participants due to satisficing. Furthermore, narrowing the scope of tasks by specifying items had a different effect than by specifying dimensions. Specifying items increased the task determinability (lower uncertainty) and made the task easier, while specifying dimensions did not increase the task determinability and made the task more challenging. A qualitative analysis of participants’ queries suggests that searching for dimensions is more challenging than for items. Finally, we observed subtle differences between objective and subjective dimensions. We discuss implications for the design of IIR studies and tools to support users.

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