The Google search engine has become the primary mental model for web search. In my research, I wanted to look at how we could design our search systems to do more than a simple query input and text-based output. I was interested in looking at Pinterest, a search engine that produces visual search results, and how its features could contribute to exploratory search and browsing.
I had never considered the variety of search engines that were available to us, nor how well they were serving users. I realized how strong of a mental model the Google search engine had become and how most of us have accepted the simple relation of inputting a query and receiving pages and pages of text-based results.
When considering how we could design our search systems to do more and employ features that encouraged exploratory search and browsing to enhance learning and discovery, I became interested in how visualization and image-based results are integrated into the search process. Pinterest came to mind because of its visual search results.
Through the lens of exploratory search, I wanted to know what makes Pinterest appealing to users, what does it offer as a search engine, and what features it provided. For my research, I wanted to examine a search engine that utilizes images and was a platform for everyday information seeking behavior, rather than the academic or work-based searches that tend to be more defined at the start of the information-seeking process.
Pinterest is a social media platform based on collecting and sharing images. Its emphasis on visual discovery and the creation of “boards” (simulating bulletin boards) allows users to search, select, classify, organize, and curate information over time.
On Pinterest, users input search queries and browse results like a normal search engine, but these results can then be saved onto a board created by the user and shared. The main surrogate of Pinterest search results are images, making the SERP (Search Engine Results Pages) visually appealing. Image search results invites a subjective factor of interpretation and the user’s own personal values, beliefs, and aesthetics when determining the relevance of the image to the search query. Clicking on an image takes the user to a new page and presents a URL to where the image is located (i.e. an external website), the image title, description, social interactions, and the last user who posted the image to a board. Beneath this information are more image results related to the selected image and defined as, “More like this,” creating a network of shared images across a number of users interested in the same or similar topics. This network of related images encourages continuous browsing and cataloging, and places users in an environment where discovery is more fulfilling than single answers.
The population this pilot study focused on is regular Pinterest users, both novice and experienced. Originally, I planned to recruit six participants, three which were experienced and three which were novice users of Pinterest. However, in my actual recruitment, I was only able to recruit four experienced users and two novice users. These participants were people that I knew and who had some degree of familiarity with Pinterest. They were identified as experienced or novice users in the pre-session questionnaire. Each study session was an hour long and participants were recruited through a general social media post, as well as through email.
The criteria for this study were user interest, user engagement, and usefulness. Measures that were considered included browsing behavior, the visual aesthetic of the Pinterest SERP, and interaction with features (pinning to a board, following a URL to an external page, adding comments, following other boards/users, sharing results, etc.).
To collect data for this study, I used two questionnaires: one before the study session and one after. For the study session itself, I used three search tasks to explore user engagement in terms of exploratory search and browsing, as well as use of Pinterest features. Each task was followed by a set of post-tasks questions and after all three tasks were completed, participants were asked a set of exit interview questions.
In this study, I was interested in the three following criteria: user interest, user engagement, and usefulness. From my analysis of time-on-task and the participant’s level of experience, I was able to make observations on user interest and user engagement that could be further explored with a larger sample size.
Originally, I couldn’t decide on how valuable time would be to my study. Because I wanted to encourage browsing and exploratory search, I wondered whether I should consider time as a measure because ideally, I would want the participant to spend as much time as they needed on each task. However, in the end, time proved to be fruitful in revealing some difference between participants in my sample.
Experienced users tended to spend more time on each task, while novice users spent less. This engagement could be positive or negative—either the participant really wanted to continue searching and adding ideas to their board, or they weren’t able to find what they were looking for. In general, experienced users spent more time on the tasks and used more features than novice users.
Experienced users seemed to have more knowledge and a better idea of how they use Pinterest, as well as more expectations for the system and website.
Experienced users also spent more time browsing, they used more search queries to engage in exploratory search, and they paid more attention to the creation and naming of boards.
One participant was very community-driven and so her interaction on Pinterest was more public and social—the first thing she would do on Pinterest is check her notifications and see if other users have repined her post.
For the majority of the participants, they used Pinterest more privately—they didn’t follow other users and they created “secret” boards that are only for their viewing.
All participants used Pinterest as a way to gather and organize ideas and images, and they were all drawn to the visual aspects of the Pinterest search results and liked to spend time on the site itself and go through their feed. This is especially true for experienced Pinterest users who had personalized their homepage to receive results that met their interest and aesthetics.
Mobile vs. Desktop
Two out of the six participants were unfamiliar with the Pinterest website because they always used Pinterest on their mobile devices. This then created a learning curve that needed to happen during the session so that the participants would be able to complete the three search tasks. Even though these two participants were both experienced users (having used Pinterest for over a year), they had trouble navigating the website and needed time to figure out where to create a board and how to follow external links. I hadn’t considered how different the interface of a website compared to a mobile app would be, which made me consider whether or not I should conduct a study that allowed experienced Pinterest user to use the device/interface that they are familiar with.
Multiple platforms used in conjunction to enhance and deepen information retrieved
I was surprised by how much the participants related Pinterest to other systems and platforms, predominantly Google as a companion search engine and Etsy, if the user was interested in shopping for images that are posted on Pinterest. This introduced the idea of how users will use multiple platforms and systems in conjunction with each other as a way to support, supplement, and vary their search results. It reminded me that users may employ two systems in conjunction with each other to inform their search, build knowledge, solve problems, and as a way to cross-check information to ensure its credibility. For example, when discussing Task 1 (planning a trip to Denmark), all participants talked about using Pinterest along with other search engines and platforms to gather more information about where to go and what to do. In this particular scenario, participants explained that they would use Google to focus on information/text-intensive results and retrieve factual information such as transit systems and currency. Then, they would look up specific place names on Pinterest and see what else they could find and discover. Each participant seemed to have a clear idea of what they wanted to use Pinterest for.
Naming a board can reflect the mindset or goal of the board
My favorite surprise was learning about the participants' attention to naming their boards. Particularly among the experienced participants, they revealed that naming a board is important because it reflects the mindset the participant is in when creating the board and also serves as a creative catalyst that will set the mood, aesthetic, and/or theme for the board. Despite knowing that the search task was just a scenario, two of the participants spent time carefully formulating a name for their board, which to me reflects the playfulness and care that users place into what they create and gather on Pinterest. All the participants seemed interested in using Pinterest as a way to define themselves and the world around them in a light-hearted and enjoyable way.