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How Can IR Help Mechanisms be More Helpful to Users?

Colleen Cool Hong (Iris) Xie

Presented at ASIST 2004 Annual Meeting; "Managing and Enhancing Information: Cultures and Conflicts" (ASIST AM 04), Providence, Rhode Island, November 13 - 18, 2004


The Help system is often the only resource that users can consult when they are faced with problems associated with the use of IR systems of all types, including web search engines, digital libraries, online databases, and other systems. Despite the importance of Help systems in interactive IR, people use this resource infrequently, for a variety of reasons that are not fully understood. In this paper we report results of a study designed to investigate users' perceptions of the overall importance of IR Help systems; the frequency with which they use them; evaluations of the helpfulness of various Help functions; and reasons for not using Help systems at all. Fifty participants completed a self-administered questionnaire which contained structured and open-ended questions about IR Help systems, along with other background questions about the respondents.

Results of this study reveal that respondents perceive IR Help systems to be important; yet, they use them rarely or infrequently. Many of the Help mechanisms are not very useful in enabling users to effectively interact with IR systems. Based upon an analysis of the open-ended answers to questions about why help systems are helpful or not, we identify major areas in which Help systems need improvement if they are to improve IR interaction.

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