A Visual Approach to Query Formulation for Systematic Search


I am delighted to report that last week we had the privilege of demoing 2dSearch at CHIIR 2019 in Glasgow. For those unfamiliar with this event, it is formally known as the ACM SIGIR Conference on Human Information Interaction and Retrieval and focuses on user-centered approaches to design and evaluation of systems for information access, retrieval, and use. Our demo provoked some interesting discussions and intriguing ideas for future directions. I am very grateful to the demo chairs and to the conference organisers for putting together such a strong programme.

It was also an opportunity to reflect on some of the key messages that we want to deliver. It’s taken a while, but I think we’re finally starting to refine our value proposition to one that can be communicated within a couple of minutes. In mitigation, our proposition was always going to be complicated by the fact that the key use cases are somewhat specialist, and not necessarily challenges to which the archetypal ‘web searcher’ would be exposed. Moreover, each profession has its own community of practice, inducing an additional layer of nuance around the core message. But I do believe that if you can’t articulate the key idea of your proposition in a couple of sentences, there is still work to be done. That is of course no dishonour; after all, the whole point of a startup is to be agile, and to pivot where necessary to accommodate an evolving understanding the world and the place within it for your solution. And that’s certainly something we have all experienced over the last 9 months.

But back to CHIIR, and our demo. Reproducibility, transparency and comprehensiveness may not be principles that you’d normally associate with everyday web searching, but they are very much at the heart of professional (or systematic) searching. And with that in mind, I am pleased to share our peer-reviewed submission to CHIIR, which is publicly available via the ACM Digital Library. I am pleased also to acknowledge that this work was co-authored by my colleagues Jon Chamberlain of Essex University and Farhad Shokraneh of Nottingham University.

As you may know, one of our founding principles is a commitment to working closely with the scientific community, and publishing as much of our work as possible in open access scholarly publications. In that context, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

T.G. Russell-Rose, J. Chamberlain and F. Shohkraneh “A visual approach to query formulation for systematic search”. Proceedings of the 2019 Conference on Human Information Interaction & Retrieval. ACM, Glasgow, UK, March 10-14.


Knowledge workers (such as healthcare information professionals, patent agents and legal researchers) need to create and execute search strategies that are accurate, repeatable and transparent. The traditional solution offered by most database vendors is to use proprietary line-by-line ‘query builders’. However, these offer limited support for error checking or query optimisation, and their output can often be compromised by errors and inefficiencies. Using the healthcare domain for context, we demonstrate a new approach to search strategy formulation in which concepts are expressed as objects on a two-dimensional canvas, and relationships are articulated using direct manipulation. This approach eliminates many sources of syntactic error, makes the query semantics more transparent, and offers new ways to optimise, save and share search strategies and best practices.