Untangling search task complexity and difficulty in the context of interactive information retrieval studies

Barbara Wildemuth (School of Information & Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA)
Luanne Freund (The iSchool, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)
Elaine G. Toms (Information School, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Publication date: 7 October 2014



One core element of interactive information retrieval (IIR) experiments is the assignment of search tasks. The purpose of this paper is to provide an analytical review of current practice in developing those search tasks to test, observe or control task complexity and difficulty.


Over 100 prior studies of IIR were examined in terms of how each defined task complexity and/or difficulty (or related concepts) and subsequently interpreted those concepts in the development of the assigned search tasks.


Search task complexity is found to include three dimensions: multiplicity of subtasks or steps, multiplicity of facets, and indeterminability. Search task difficulty is based on an interaction between the search task and the attributes of the searcher or the attributes of the search situation. The paper highlights the anomalies in our use of these two concepts, concluding with suggestions for future methodological research related to search task complexity and difficulty.


By analyzing and synthesizing current practices, this paper provides guidance for future experiments in IIR that involve these two constructs.



Wildemuth, B., Freund, L. and G. Toms, E. (2014), "Untangling search task complexity and difficulty in the context of interactive information retrieval studies", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 70 No. 6, pp. 1118-1140. https://doi.org/10.1108/JD-03-2014-0056

Download as .RIS



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2014, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Please note you might not have access to this content

You may be able to access this content by login via Shibboleth, Open Athens or with your Emerald account.
If you would like to contact us about accessing this content, click the button and fill out the form.
To rent this content from Deepdyve, please click the button.