Thirty years of user studies– and what we still need to find out

Hilary Nesi

The main – perhaps the only – reason for investigating dictionary use is in order to improve users' consultation methods, and to meet more closely their consultation needs. This is easier said than done, of course, given that there are so many different types of user consulting dictionaries in so many different contexts, for so many different purposes, and with such differing levels of knowledge and expertise. Moreover although the research area is still relatively young (very few empirical studies were conducted before the 1980s) it spans a period of great technological change and has experimented with a wide range of methodologies, so that studies purporting to address similar research questions, in similar contexts, have sometimes arrived at very different conclusions.

Focusing particularly on dictionaries for learners of English, this paper will trace developments in user studies over the past thirty years, and will attempt to identify conclusions we can all agree on, claims that remain contentious, and important questions that still remain to be answered. It assumes that the 'perfect' dictionary consultation is the one which provides the best answers, in the least obtrusive way.