Search tactics used in solving everyday how-to technical tasks: Repertoire, selection and tenacity

Sophie Rutter, Verena Blinzler, Chaoyu Ye, Max L. Wilson, Michael D. Twidale

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


With greater access to computational resources, people use search to address many everyday challenges in their lives, including solving technology problems. Although there are now many useful ‘how-to’ resources online (especially videos on YouTube), it can still be difficult to identify, understand, and resolve certain kinds of technical problem. While research tasks have been studied for many years and we know the tactics people use, we know far less about searchers’ tactics for how-to technical tasks that involve actually being able to apply found information to resolve a problem. Crucial to our study was developing and studying a highly realistic, how-to technical task, for which there was no single guidance resource: making a phone safe for a child. After providing 39 participants with an actual phone to fix, and a search engine to perform the task, we analysed their search tactics using retrospective cued think aloud interviews. Our primary contribution is a set of 77 tactics used, in three categories, along with detail of how common they were. We conclude that people had a lot of tactics in their repertoire. Although it was not hard for participants to find relevant information, what was hard was for participants to find information they could use; indeed only 23% of participants successfully completed the entire task. Domain knowledge affected the choice of tactics used (although not necessarily towards better task success). We discuss these influences and make design recommendations for how future search systems can support those in resolving how-to technical tasks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)919-938
Number of pages20
JournalInformation Processing and Management
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2019


  • Domain knowledge
  • Everyday life information seeking
  • How-to
  • Search success
  • Tactics
  • Technical problem solving

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Media Technology
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Management Science and Operations Research
  • Library and Information Sciences


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