Contextualised Search Result Displays

One of the prevalent topics covered in the early days of this blog concerned how to appropriate search tools and technologies and explore how they could be used as more general purpose technologies. Related to this were posts on making the most of document collections, or exploiting technologies complementary to search that returned results or content based on context.

For example:

There’s probably more…

(Like looking for shared text across documents to try to work out the provenance of a particular section of text as a document goes through multiple versions…)


So where are we at now…?

Mulling over recent updates to Parliamentary search, I started wondered about ranking and the the linear display of results. I’ve always quite liked facet limits that will filter out a subset of results returned by the search term based on a particular attribute. For example, in an Amazon search, we’re probably all familiar with entering a general search term then using category filters / facets in the left hand sidebar to narrow results down to books, or subject categories within books.

Indeed, the faceted search basis of  “search + filter” is one that inspired many of my own hacks.

As well as linear displays of ranked results (ranked how is always an issue), every so often multi-dimensional result displays appear. For example, things like Bento box displays (examples) were all the rage in university library catalogues several years ago, where multiple topical results panels display results from different facets or collections in different boxes distributed on a 2D grid. I’m not sure if they’re still “a thing” or whether preferences have gone back to a linear stream of results, perhaps with faceting to limit results within a topic? I guess one of the issues now is limited real estate on portrait orientation mobile phone displays compared to more expansive real estate you get in a landscape oriented large screen desktop display? (Hmmm, thinks… are Netvibes and PageFlakes still a thing?)

Anyway, I’ve not been thinking about search much for years, so in a spirit of playfulness, here’s a line of thinking I think could be fun to explore: contextualised search results, or more specifically, contextualised search result displays.

This phrase unpacks in several ways depending on where you think the emphasis on “contextualised” lies. (“contextualised lies”… “contextualies”…. hmmm…)

For example, if we interpret contextualised in the sense of context sensitive relative to the “natural arranging” of the results returned, we might trivially think of things like map based displays for displaying the results of a search where search items are geotagged. Complementary to this are displays where the results have some sort of time dependency. This is often displayed in the form of a date based ranking, but why not display results in a calendar interface or timeline (e..g. tracking Parliamentary bill process via a timeline)? Or where dates and locations are relevant to each resource, return the results via a calendar map display such as TimeMapper (more generally, see these different takes on storymaps). (I’ve always thought such displays should have to modes: a “show all” mode, and then a filtered mode, e.g. that shows just results for a particular time/geographical area limit.)

(One of the advantages of making search results available via a feed is that tinkerers can then easily wire the results into other sorts of display, particularly when feed items are also tagged, eg with facet information, dates, times, names of entities identified in the text, etc.)

A second sense in which we might think of contextualised search result displays is to identify the context of the user based on their interests. Given a huge set of linear search results, how might they then group, arrange or organise the results so that they can work with them more effectively?

Bento box displays offer a trivial start here for the visual display, for example by grouping differently faceted results in their own results panel. Looking at something like Parliamentary search, this might mean the user entering a search term and the results coming back in panels relating to different content types: results from research briefings in one panel, for example, from Hansard in other, written questions / answers in a third, and so on.

(Again, if results from the search engine are available as a tagged feed, it should be easy enough to roll your own display? Hmm… thinks.. what Javascript libraries would you use to display such a thing nowadays?)

It might also be possible to derive additional information from the results. For example, if results are tagged with members associated with a result (on a committee, asked that question, was the person speaking whose result was returned in the Hansard result), then a simple ranked facet of who the members interested in the topic across all the resource types might identify that person as someone interested in the topic (expert search / discovery also used to be a big thing, I seem to remember?).

In terms of trying to imagine differently contextualised displays, what sorts of user / user interest might there be? Off the top of my head, I can imagine:

  • someone searching for a topic “in general”: so just give them a list of stuff ranked however the search algo ranks it;
  • someone searching for a topic in general, organised by format or type (e.g. research briefing, written question/answer, parliamentary debate, committee report, etc), in which case a faceted display or bento box display might work;
  • someone searching for something in response to a news item, in which case they might want something ordered by time and maybe boosted by news mentions as a ranking factor (reminds me of trying to track media mentions of press releases and my press release / poll report CSE);
  • someone searching around the activities of an MP, in which case, you might want something like TheyWorkForYou member pages or perhaps a calendar or timeline view of their activity, or a narrative chart (e.g. with one line for a member, then other lines for the sorts of interaction they have with a topic – committee, question, debate – with each node linking to the associated document);
  • someone trying to track something in the context of the progress of a piece of legislation (or committee inquiry), in which case you may want a timeline, narrative chart or storyline style view; and maybe a custom search hub that searches over all documents relating to that piece of evolving legislation;
  • someone interested in people interested in a topic – expert search, in other words;
  • someone interested in the engagement of a person or organisation with Parliamentary processes, such as witness appearances at committee, submissions to written evidence, etc; it would also be handy if this turned up government relations, such as an association with a government group (it would be nice of that was a register, with each group having a formal register entry that included things like members…). Showing the different sorts of process, and the stage of the process at which the interaction or mention occurred could also be useful….

There are probably more…

Anyway, perhaps thinking about search could be fun again… So: does the new Parliamentary search make feeds available? And when are the Release TBC items listed on going to be available?!:-)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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