Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy


Computer Science


Sedig, Kamran


This dissertation is concerned with the design of visual interfaces for searching and triaging large document sets. Data proliferation has generated new and challenging information-based tasks across various domains. Yet, as the document sets of these tasks grow, it has become increasingly difficult for users to remain active participants in the information-seeking process, such as when searching and triaging large document sets. During information search, users seek to understand their document set, align domain knowledge, formulate effective queries, and use those queries to develop document set mappings which help generate encounters with valued documents. During information triage, users encounter the documents mapped by information search to judge relevance to information-seeking objectives. Yet, information search and triage can be challenging for users. Studies have found that when using traditional design strategies in tool interfaces for search and triage, users routinely struggle to understand the domain being searched, apply their expertise, communicate their objectives during query building, and assess the relevance of search results during information triage. Users must understand and apply domain- specific vocabulary when communicating information-seeking objectives. Yet, task vocabularies typically do not align with those of users, especially in tasks of complex domains. Ontologies can be valuable mediating resources for bridging between the vocabularies of users and tasks. They are created by domain experts to provide a standardized mapping of knowledge that can be leveraged both by computational- as well as human-facing systems. We believe that the activation of ontologies within user-facing interfaces has a potential to help users when searching and triaging large document sets, however more research is required.

Summary for Lay Audience

From the ancient practice of food foraging to the information-seeking objectives of the modern world, search and triage has always been a cornerstone of the human experience. The slow evolutionary march has held humans largely to the same form, yet through tools, humanity has been able to break free of physiological binds, both physical and cognitive. Examples such as shovels, cars, and pencils reflect the power of physical tool augmentation, just as language, mathematics, and computers reflect the power of cognitive tool augmentation. User wellbeing is tied to the quality of their tools. When mindfully designed, tools can help users complete their tasks – perhaps at a quicker pace, more effectively, for a longer time, or with less effort. Thus, if a task can be better understood, then designers can be cognizant of constraining features, formulize requirements which work around those constraints, then use those requirements to assess the quality of existing tools and in turn form new strategies that better serve users.

The 1950s initiated the use of computers as search tools, proliferating over the decades. Notably, the rise of reasonably accessible global networking in the 80s and 90s culminated in the first exposure to the power of generalized search engines, and in particular, for exploring the interconnected web. Yet even as tools continue to improve – with faster computations, more intelligence, less power, and over larger document sets – users must still be the primary consideration when designing effective search and triage solutions. That is, technological innovation does not matter if the user does not know how to use their tools, understand its results, or activate that understanding in a manner that is meaningful to completion of their task.

It has never been more important for researchers to provide guidance for designers to help realize more powerful and effective search and triage tools. Designers must concentrate first on addressing the user-facing considerations of search and triage interface design. For this effort, we center this dissertation on investigating how the designs of visual interfaces can help users improve their searching and triaging of large document sets.