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Social software is proliferating online, but many of the most common Internet tools, such as search engines, are still used in isolation. “These tools are designed for a single person, working alone by him or herself, but that’s not always the way that we work,” says Meredith Morris, a researcher in the Adaptive Systems and Interaction group at Microsoft Research. People planning travel with their spouses, she says, or students working on research projects with classmates all too often find themselves repeating work others have done or fail to find sites that others have identified. Morris is designing a tool that could begin to help with this problem.

Called SearchTogether, the tool is meant to help groups whose members are working on different computers, whether they’re all logged in simultaneously or one at a time. The tool is a plug-in for Internet Explorer 7 and requires a Windows Live ID to use. Once all the users have the tool installed, Morris explains, if one of them wants to initiate a Web search, she can invite the others to join her. The tool tracks the work done by the group, making it easier for the initiator to assign tasks and for group members to keep track of what they’ve done.

Before designing the tool, Morris conducted a survey to find out what problems plagued people trying to search as a group online. Among the problems she identified were redundant effort and inefficient communication about results.

SearchTogether is designed to reduce these problems by storing all the queries group members have entered, Morris says, and by tracking comments they make about the pages they find. The search initiator can also use the tool to divide work among group members. For example, the initiator could send half of the top 25 results of a query to one user and half to another. The users can then investigate the results without duplicating each other’s efforts. If the search becomes relevant to someone else in the future–for example, if a family member wants to take the same trip that a group previously planned–new users can be invited to the project, where they see the stored queries and comments.

If users are searching simultaneously, they can use SearchTogether’s “peek and follow” feature to view the pages others are looking at and to write each other instant messages as they explore the results of their queries.

Morris says that she’s interested in adding features that could give users more-sophisticated sorting capabilities. For example, if a doctor and a layperson are searching together for information about a health problem, the tool might automatically send all highly technical results to the doctor.

Madhu Reddy, an assistant professor of information services and technology at Pennsylvania State University, says that in his studies of collaborative information seeking, he’s observed that the search problems Morris has identified are very common. Many groups struggle to split up search tasks effectively, to keep all their members aware of what the others are doing, and to bring their results together at the end. A particular challenge, Reddy says, is that a lot of group interactions in the real world are gesture based. A good collaborative search tool, he says, would compensate for the loss of gesture–when, for example, a group member wanted to point out a single item on a Web page. Reddy also sees a need for tools that allow users to tap into others’ expertise in navigating different pockets of online information.

Reddy says that one factor to take into consideration is “that we really don’t know how people collaborate; we’re still starting to develop the empirical research.” He says that tools will need to be designed to support different types of searches. “You can envision anonymous users working together across continents,” he says, “which is very different from teams working together in organizations to solve problems.” Morris’s tool, Reddy says, seems well-suited to general users working together over a distance. Reddy’s own team is also developing a multiuser search engine.

Morris’s interest in collaborative search extends beyond SearchTogether. She has also worked on designing a tool that helps multiple users of the same computer search as a team. An early version of SearchTogether will be released this spring.

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Credit: Microsoft Research

Tagged: Web, search

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