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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The user's mental model of an information retrieval system: An experiment on a prototype online catalog


An empirical study was performed to train naive subjects in the use of a prototype Boolean logic-based information retrieval system on a bibliographic database. Subjects were undergraduates with little or no prior computing experience. Subjects trained with a conceptual model of the system performed better than subjects trained with procedural instructions, but only on complex, problem-solving tasks. Performance was equal on simple tasks. Differences in patterns of interaction with the system (based on a stochastic process model) showed parallel results. Most subjects were able to articulate some description of the system's operation, but few articulated a model similar to the card catalog analogy provided in training. Eleven of 43 subjects were unable to achieve minimal competency in system use. The failure rate was equal between training conditions and genders; the only differences found between those passing and failing the benchmark test were academic major and in frequency of library use. 

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