Multitasking, cognitive coordination and cognitive shifts during Web searching

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


As Web searching becomes more prolific for information access worldwide, we need to better understand users’ Web searching behaviour and develop better models of their interaction with Web search systems. Web search modelling is a significant and important area of Web research. Searching on the Web is an integral element of information behaviour and human–computer interaction. Web searching includes multitasking processes, the allocation of cognitive resources among several tasks, and shifts in cognitive, problem and knowledge states. In addition to multitasking, cognitive coordination and cognitive shifts are also important, but are under-explored aspects of Web searching. During the Web searching process, beyond physical actions, users experience various cognitive activities. Interactive Web searching involves many users’ cognitive shifts at different information behaviour levels. Cognitive coordination allows users to trade off the dependences among multiple information tasks and the resources available. Much research has been conducted into Web searching. However, few studies have modelled the nature of and relationship between multitasking, cognitive coordination and cognitive shifts in the Web search context. Modelling how Web users interact with Web search systems is vital for the development of more effective Web IR systems. This study aims to model the relationship between multitasking, cognitive coordination and cognitive shifts during Web searching. A preliminary theoretical model is presented based on previous studies. The research is designed to validate the preliminary model. Forty-two study participants were involved in the empirical study. A combination of data collection instruments, including pre- and post-questionnaires, think-aloud protocols, search logs, observations and interviews were employed to obtain users’ comprehensive data during Web search interactions. Based on the grounded theory approach, qualitative analysis methods including content analysis and verbal protocol analysis were used to analyse the data. The findings were inferred through an analysis of questionnaires, a transcription of think-aloud protocols, the Web search logs, and notes on observations and interviews. Five key findings emerged. (1) Multitasking during Web searching was demonstrated as a two-dimensional behaviour. The first dimension was represented as multiple information problems searching by task switching. Users’ Web searching behaviour was a process of multiple tasks switching, that is, from searching on one information problem to searching another. The second dimension of multitasking behaviour was represented as an information problem searching within multiple Web search sessions. Users usually conducted Web searching on a complex information problem by submitting multiple queries, using several Web search systems and opening multiple windows/tabs. (2) Cognitive shifts were the brain’s internal response to external stimuli. Cognitive shifts were found as an essential element of searching interactions and users’ Web searching behaviour. The study revealed two kinds of cognitive shifts. The first kind, the holistic shift, included users’ perception on the information problem and overall information evaluation before and after Web searching. The second kind, the state shift, reflected users’ changes in focus between the different cognitive states during the course of Web searching. Cognitive states included users’ focus on the states of topic, strategy, evaluation, view and overview. (3) Three levels of cognitive coordination behaviour were identified: the information task coordination level, the coordination mechanism level, and the strategy coordination level. The three levels of cognitive coordination behaviour interplayed to support multiple information tasks switching. (4) An important relationship existed between multitasking, cognitive coordination and cognitive shifts during Web searching. Cognitive coordination as a management mechanism bound together other cognitive processes, including multitasking and cognitive shifts, in order to move through users’ Web searching process. (5) Web search interaction was shown to be a multitasking process which included information problems ordering, task switching and task and mental coordinating; also, at a deeper level, cognitive shifts took place. Cognitive coordination was the hinge behaviour linking multitasking and cognitive shifts. Without cognitive coordination, neither multitasking Web searching behaviour nor the complicated mental process of cognitive shifting could occur. The preliminary model was revisited with these empirical findings. A revised theoretical model (MCC Model) was built to illustrate the relationship between multitasking, cognitive coordination and cognitive shifts during Web searching. Implications and limitations of the study are also discussed, along with future research work.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Queensland University of Technology
  • Spink, Amanda, Principal Supervisor, External person
  • Tjondronegoro, Dian, Principal Supervisor, External person
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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