User activity patterns during information search

Michael J. Cole, Chathra Hendahewa, Nicholas Belkin, Chirag Shah

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

27 Scopus citations


Personalization of support for information seeking depends crucially on the information retrieval system's knowledge of the task that led the person to engage in information seeking. Users work during information search sessions to satisfy their task goals, and their activity is not random. To what degree are there patterns in the user activity during information search sessions? Do activity patterns reflect the user's situation as the user moves through the search task under the influence of his or her task goal? Do these patterns reflect aspects of different types of information-seeking tasks? Could such activity patterns identify contexts within which information seeking takes place? To investigate these questions, we model sequences of user behaviors in two independent user studies of information search sessions (N = 32 users, 128 sessions, and N = 40 users, 160 sessions). Two representations of user activity patterns are used. One is based on the sequences of page use; the other is based on a cognitive representation of information acquisition derived from eye movement patterns in service of the reading process. One of the user studies considered journalism work tasks; the other concerned background research in genomics using search tasks taken from the TREC Genomics Track. The search tasks differed in basic dimensions of complexity, specificity, and the type of information product (intellectual or factual) needed to achieve the overall task goal. The results show that similar patterns of user activity are observed at both the cognitive and page use levels. The activity patterns at both representation layers are able to distinguish between task types in similar ways and, to some degree, between tasks of different levels of difficulty. We explore relationships between the results and task difficulty and discuss the use of activity patterns to explore events within a search session. User activity patterns can be at least partially observed in server-side search logs. A focus on patterns of user activity sequences may contribute to the development of information systems that better personalize the user's search experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1
JournalACM Transactions on Information Systems
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Information Systems
  • Business, Management and Accounting(all)
  • Computer Science Applications


  • Design
  • Human factors
  • Performance

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'User activity patterns during information search'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Cite this