How users ask determines the answers they receive in online Q&A


Grace YoungJoo Jeon

Two School of Information researchers have been honored with a best paper award at the 2015 Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) annual meeting. Grace YoungJoo Jeon, a research fellow, and Professor Soo Young Rieh are co-authors of the paper chosen as the Best Information Behavior Conference Paper for 2015 by the ASIS&T Special Interest Group for Information Needs, Seeking and Use (SIG USE).

The paper is titled “Social Search Behavior in a Social Q&A Service: Goals, Strategies and Outcomes.” The researchers examined the strategies that people employ when they are seeking information online via a social question and answer (Q&A) service such as Yahoo! Answers. Yahoo! Answers was chosen for the survey because it is the largest such service, with approximately 5 million unique monthly visitors.

The study addressed three research questions:
•    What do information seekers intend to achieve by using a social Q&A service for social search?
•    What kinds of question formulation strategies and tactics do information seekers employ to achieve their search goals?
•    How do information seekers’ goals and question formulation strategies influence perceived outcomes of social search?

Participants in the study were 78 undergraduate students at the University of Michigan with a Yahoo! Answers account who had posted at least one question to that site over the prior three months. During the study, they were asked to post at least five questions in one week on the site, follow the responses and select the best answer, if applicable.

The researchers found that questions fell into five broad categories, from curiosity (“Why is this winter so cold?) to problem-solving (“How do I get rid of bruises quickly?”). They also found that the type of question posed affected whether the asker put more emphasis on quantity or quantity in the responses received.

For example, when their goal was to receive help with school work, they valued quantity over quality. When they posted questions designed to gain knowledge or skills (“How can I improve my vocal range?”), they stated that getting high-quality answers was more important than how many they received.

The study also examined strategies that people used in order to increase the number of responses they would receive: namely, attracting the attention of potential answerers and lowering the barriers to answering. When the emphasis was on high-quality answers, the participants would provide a context for their questions, narrow the options and target a specific audience.

In answer to their third research question, the authors found that satisfaction with answers was not related to the average number of answers received. In the case of those who sought help for schoolwork issues, while they received the fewest answers, they perceived their search sessions to be the most successful. And while those who searched merely to satisfy their curiosity received the highest number of responses, they didn’t rate their satisfaction any higher than those associated with other goals.

"Our study shows that the core strategy for people seeking answers via online Q&A sites should be to strike a balance in specifying their questions considering their prioritization of quantity and quality,” said the paper’s lead author, Grace YoungJoo Jeon. “We believe the findings provide insights for social Q&A service designers in helping users achieve their search goals and in enhancing users’ experience."

The paper will be presented on November 9 at the 2015 ASIS&T Annual Meeting, which takes place November 6-10 in St. Louis. 

Read the full paper here.

Posted November 4, 2015