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Generating Effective Online Recommendations Using Viewing-time Weighted Preferences for Attributes

Article · January 2014with13 Reads
Generating Effective Recommendations Using
Viewing-Time Weighted Preferences for Attributes
Recommender systems are an increasingly important technology and researchers
have recently argued for incorporating different kinds of data to improve
recommendation quality. This paper presents a novel approach to generating
recommendations and evaluates its effectiveness. First, we review evidence that
item viewing time can reveal user preferences for items. Second, we model item
preference as a weighted function of preferences for item attributes. We then
propose a method for generating recommendations based on these two
propositions. The results of a laboratory evaluation show that the proposed
approach generates estimated item ratings consistent with explicit item ratings and
assigns high ratings to products that reflect revealed preferences of users. We
conclude by discussing implications and identifying areas for future research.
1. Introduction
A recommender system is an information system “that produces individualized
recommendations as output or has the effect of guiding the user in a personalized
way to interesting or useful objects in a large space of possible options” (Burke,
2002, p. 6). Recommenders have become increasingly important in e-commerce as
they can increase sales (Pathak et al., 2010; Schafer et al., 2001), improve
customer loyalty (Schafer et al., 2001), generate competitive advantage (Murthi &
Sarkar, 2003) and reduce information overload (Liang et al., 2007). The marketing
power of recommenders is widely recognized (Gladwell, 1999; Vrooman et al.,
2002), and they are used commercially by online retailers including Amazon and
Netflix. The popularity of the Netflix Prize competition (
to improve recommender accuracy exemplifies the intense level of interest among e-
commerce vendors in improving recommendation quality.
Recommenders replace or augment other online navigation methods. In situations
of information overload (cf. Edmunds & Morris, 2000), search engines and both
expert- and user-generated taxonomies (Macgregor & McCulloch, 2006; Welty,
1998) encounter several problems. First, search engine effectiveness requires that
the search terms appear in the information source. Second, expert taxonomies
suffer from the difficulty in arriving at a single, correct set of classes for describing a
particular domain (Sacco, 2006). Third, user-generated taxonomies require shared
vocabularies (Mathes, 2004), which are difficult to guarantee when users
independently tag resources. These limitations provide opportunities to improve
navigation using recommenders.
Recommender effectiveness depends on recommendation accuracy and
considerable research attention has been given to designing and evaluating
systems to generate accurate recommendations. As described below, existing
recommenders typically rely on explicit indicators of preference for some items (e.g.,
ratings) or implicit indicators of preference (e.g., user profiles) to recommend new
items. Such indicators are obtrusive and may require a considerable investment of
time and effort by users before a system can make effective personalized
In addition, some evidence suggests that accuracy improvements have stalled
(Herlocker et al., 2004). One possible explanation is that the popular user-to-user
comparison recommendation strategy is approaching its theoretical or practical
limits. More generally, increasing the amount and diversity of both the information
exploited and heuristics used by recommenders may produce greater accuracy
improvements than refining strategies based on existing, information-starved
heuristics (Bell et al., 2007; Ralph & Parsons, 2006). This suggests that further
progress may be made by identifying data that is theoretically linked to relevant
constructs (e.g., preference, interest) and readily available to, but rarely used by,
In view of these two issues, we sought a type of information that can obtained
unobtrusively, has been linked to preference by previous psychological research and
can be incorporated in an IT artifact to generate effective recommendations. The
artifact addresses both the problem of obtrusiveness associated with existing
artifacts and the call for increasing the diversity of information used to determine
preferences and generate recommendations.
Specifically, one such type of information is viewing time. Viewing time is the period
for which a user looks at an object or description of an object in an online catalog.
Viewing time is theoretically interesting as numerous psychological studies have
linked it to interest, preference and related constructs in browsing and reading
contexts (see Section 4); however, whether the viewing time / preference
relationship in a shopping context is strong enough to inform recommendations
remains unknown. Viewing time is practically interesting for recommender
development as it is causally linked to interest and preference, readily calculable
using client-side scripts and rarely used directly by existing recommenders (see
Although viewing time may serve as an indicator of preference for items (and as a
new source of information in recommenders) and can be collected and used
unobtrusively in an online setting, it is not known whether the viewing time/
preference relationship can be extracted from a “noisy” context in which other
factors can influence viewing time and whether this extracted information can be
exploited effectively to predict preferences for unseen (new) items. Therefore we
pose the following research question:
Research Question: Is the relationship between viewing time and
preference sufficiently robust that it can be incorporated in an artifact to
recommend items that reflect user preferences?
To address this question, we first review existing literature on recommender systems
(§2) specifically challenges in recommender evaluation (§3) and viewing time
(§4). Then we propose a recommendation heuristic (§5) that: 1) uses viewing times
of seen items to estimate ratings of these items; 2) models item preference as a
weighted function of preferences for item attributes; 3) uses the attribute
preference / item preference relationship to rate unseen items; and 4) recommends
highly rated unseen items. Next we describe an experimental study to determine
whether the proposed heuristic can leverage viewing time data to produce good
recommendations (§6). The results (§7) show that viewing time data can be used to
predict preferences and thereby generate good recommendations. The contributions
of the study (§8) are twofold. From a design perspective, we demonstrate that the
psychological relationship between viewing time and preference may guide the
design of an artifact to recommend items that match user preferences. From a
practical perspective, we provide a recommendation heuristic that can incorporate
new data into ensemble recommenders, especially in e-commerce contexts where
obtrusive or collaborative recommenders are impractical.
2. Milestones in Recommender Systems Research
The first automated recommender system was Tapestry, which allowed users to rate
emails and create queries based on other users’ ratings (Goldberg et al., 1992). This
spawned a wave of development of standalone recommender systems, some
collaborative (like Tapestry), others content-based.
Collaborative filtering systems “try to predict the utility of items for a particular user
based on the items previously rated by other users” (Adomavicius et al., 2005, p.
737). Collaborative systems more generally make predictions based on a user’s
similarity to others, using diverse methods of computing user similarity. For instance,
Konstan et al. (1997) compared users based on their explicit item ratings, while
Mobasher et al. (2000) compared users’ navigation patterns. Collaborative
recommenders have been successful in academic environments (cf. Mobasher et
al., 2001; Shahabi & Chen, 2003; Shahabi et al., 2001) as well as commercial
environments including and However, such recommenders
always assume that similar users have similar goals (Kohrs & Merialdo, 2001) and
sometimes require users to rate items explicitly an obtrusive and time-consuming
task (Perkowitz & Etzioni, 2000). Some also require coincidence of ratings, such that
performance degrades with sparse ratings data (Konstan et al., 1997; Sarwar et al.,
1998). Despite methods proposed to overcome sparsity (e.g., Mobasher et al., 2002;
Sarwar et al., 1998), lack of data remains problematic (Schafer et al., 2007).
Content-based recommenders “recommend an item to a user based upon a
description of the item and a profile of the user’s interests” (Pazzani & Billsus, 2007,
p. 325). These vary on three primary dimensions: how items are represented, how
user interests are represented and how both representations are compared. Some
systems model items as keyword/frequency vectors, model users as pseudo
keyword/frequency vectors constructed from ratings and then use the angle
between user and item vectors as a similarity measure (Tai et al., 2002; Zhao &
Grosky, 2002). Others adopt a machine learning approach (Pazzani & Billsus, 1997)
or allow users to navigate the item space directly (Burke, 1999; 2000). Content-
based recommenders require sufficient information to both determine user
preferences (Adomavicius et al., 2005) and differentiate liked and disliked items
(Pazzani & Billsus, 1997).
The limitations of content-based and collaborative recommenders inspired hybrid
recommenders, standalone systems that combine content-based and collaborative
aspects (e.g., Basu et al., 1998). More generally, recognizing that results from
heterogeneous recommender systems can be combined without degrading
accuracy (Ralph & Parsons, 2006), more recent research has shifted toward
ensemble approaches (Jahrer et al., 2010). An ensemble recommender combines
the results of three or more predictors (recommendation heuristics) post hoc and is
defined by the set of predictors and the method of blending their results. Ensemble
recommenders have experienced much success (e.g., “BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos”
ensemble recommender won the Netflix grand prize by combining 24 heuristics
(Koren, 2009)).
In addition to the artifact construction research stream described above, a
behavioral stream of research has emerged focusing on the interplay between
recommender features, use and effects on users’ decision process and evaluations
(Xiao & Benbasat, 2007). Among the key findings of this line of research are that
use of recommenders increases decision quality while decreasing decision effort
(Häubl & Murray, 2006; Pereira, 2001) and that these relationships are modified by
characteristics of both the recommender and the product, e.g. product complexity
(see Xiao & Benbasat, 2007 for a summary). In addition, these studies have
examined the effect of recommender characteristics on measures of trust, ease of
use, perceived usefulness and satisfaction, (e.g., Liang et al., 2007).
Furthermore, the construction and behavioral research streams have been
supplemented by an evaluation stream, to which we turn in the following section.
3. The Shifting Focus in Recommender Evaluation
A recommender may be evaluated by testing it against a neutral baseline (e.g., a
null hypothesis) or a competing artifact (e.g., another recommender). Which is more
appropriate depends on the type of recommender being studied. “Recommender” is
commonly used to refer to three types of artifacts:
1. heuristics – algorithms that predict user ratings on some dimension;
2. ensembles – collections of heuristics blended to maximize cumulative predictive
accuracy; and
3. systems – applications that draw on a heuristic or ensemble to “guid[e] the user
in a personalized way to interesting or useful objects in a large space of possible
options” (Burke, 2002, p. 331).
Next we explain why it is more appropriate to evaluate heuristics (including our
proposed heuristic) against a neutral baseline, while it is more appropriate to
evaluate ensembles (including the BellKor system described above) against a
competing artifact.
3.1. Tiered Architecture in Recommender Design
In the 1990s, researchers would develop a heuristic (e.g., nearest neighbor
collaborative filtering) and implement a system that simply ran the heuristic and
displayed the highest rated items (e.g., Konstan et al., 1997). Modern
recommenders, however, exhibit a tiered architecture with a pool of heuristics on the
bottom, a blending algorithm (ensemble) in the middle and a graphical interface
(recommender system) on top. Consequently, recommender research can be
divided into these three tiers.
First, recommender heuristic researchers theorize about possible relationships a
heuristic might exploit, design heuristics that exploit those relationships and evaluate
heuristic accuracy (e.g., Jin & Mobasher, 2003). When developing an incremental
improvement of an existing heuristic, the new heuristic may be evaluated against the
existing heuristic to quantify the accuracy improvement. However, comparing a
novel heuristic against a dissimilar existing heuristic is uninformative as the relative
accuracy of dissimilar recommenders is irrelevant to their practical use. Therefore,
novel heuristics may be compared against a neutral baseline representing the null
hypothesis that the heuristic is ineffective and performs no better than a random
recommender. Successful heuristics are not used directly; rather, they are made
available for use in ensembles.
Second, recommender ensemble researchers iteratively select heuristics (from the
pool of known heuristics) to maximize predictive accuracy in a specific domain (e.g.,
Jahrer et al., 2010). The results of diverse heuristics are blended such that adding a
heuristic cannot reduce accuracy. This process (similar to a stepwise regression)
illuminates why the relative accuracy of dissimilar recommenders is practically
irrelevant – ensembles combine heuristics rather than choose between them. Here,
evaluating against existing ensembles seems preferable – a new ensemble is
innovative if it significantly outperforms the best available alternative ensemble for
the domain of interest.
Third , r ecomm e nder system re s earch e rs devi s e ways of di s playi n g
recommendations and (possibly) collecting data to improve diverse utility
dimensions including ease of use, conversion rates and consumer trust in
recommendations (cf. Xiao & Benbasat, 2007). Recommender systems may be
evaluated against existing systems or neutral baselines depending on the research
3.2 Systemic Challenges in Evaluating Recommender Heuristics
It is often assumed that novel heuristics should be evaluated by comparing them
against existing heuristics. This section analyzes this assumption to convey its
problems and examine the merit of evaluating novel heuristics using null hypothesis
Suppose we have new heuristic d and an existing heuristic b. Further suppose d
estimates ‘like’ ratings (i.e., ratings of items on numerical like/dislike scales) from
item viewing times and b estimates ‘like’ ratings using similar users’ previous, explicit
‘like’ ratings (e.g., nearest neighbor collaborative filtering). A common method of
testing d would involve comparing it to b experimentally if d outperforms b (d > b)
we would accept d as an innovation while if d fails to outperform b (d b) we would
reject d as non-innovative. This comparative logic is used in many recommender
studies (e.g., Basu et al., 1998; Jin & Mobasher, 2003; Mobasher et al., 2001; 2002;
Sarwar et al., 1998; Shahabi & Chen, 2003). For example, Jin and Mobasher (2003)
compare a basic user-based collaborative filtering algorithm to one enhanced with a
semantic similarity algorithm.
However, judging d by comparing it to b is problematic in at least three ways: 1) if b
and d use different data, d may be useful in domains where b cannot be applied at
all, 2) as recommender performance is domain-dependent (Herlocker et al., 2004), d
may outperform b in some domains (e.g., books, movies) but not others (e.g.,
cameras, computers); and 3) practically speaking, the comparative performance of b
and d is irrelevant as we can simply run both heuristics and blend their results to
further increase accuracy.
With the advent of ensemble recommenders (Jahrer et al., 2010) and methods of
combining the results of any set of heuristics such that adding heuristics cannot
decrease overall accuracy (Ralph & Parsons, 2006), it is tempting to judge d by
investigating whether adding it to an ensemble of existing heuristics improves
overall accuracy. For example, suppose we have a pool of heuristics (X=x1, x2,...,
xn). Further suppose that previous research with these heuristics has determined the
optimal ensemble for the domain of movie recommendations is B = f(x1, x2, x3),
where f is the best identified blending function for these three predictors. To test a
new heuristic, d, we append d to the baseline heuristic and empirically compare D =
g(x1, x2, x3, d) against B, where g is the best identified blending function for these
four predictors. Mimicking the logic of stepwise regression, if D significantly
outperforms B, d is innovative, otherwise not.
However, judging d by comparing D to B is problematic in at least four ways. First,
as not all heuristics can operate in all domains, d may be available in domains
where x1, x2 or x3 are not (e.g., if it uses different information to generate
recommendations). In such domains, adding d to the remaining heuristics may
produce significant accuracy gains. Second, as the relative performance of
heuristics is domain dependent (Herlocker et al., 2004), D may outperform B in
some domains but not others. Third, as the relative performance of D and B
depends on the blending algorithm used, D may outperform B with some blends but
not others. This is especially problematic when comparing D to a proprietary
ensemble where the blending function may be unknown. Fourth, ensemble
recommenders are often constructed using linear blending methods (Jahrer et al.,
2010), which have several well-known problems including inflating the risk of
overfitting models and inability to guarantee optimality in the presence of redundant
predictors (Judd & McClelland, 1989). Therefore, if we find that D outperforms B, d
may be capturing only coincidental data features.
Additionally, the lack of large publicly available datasets in diverse domains
(Herlocker et al., 2004) impedes cross-domain evaluation. Moreover, the lack of
necessary data (e.g., viewing times) in these datasets impedes testing novel
recommenders against ensembles of traditional predictors.
In summary, testing a new heuristic by comparison to an existing heuristic is
problematic as results are domain dependent and in practice recommenders blend
numerous heuristics. Moreover, testing a new heuristic within comparative studies of
ensemble recommenders is also problematic due to domain dependence,
confounding effects of blending methods and overfitting. The alternative is to
evaluating heuristics against a neutral baseline (below).
3.3. Suggestions for Overcoming Challenges in Heuristic Evaluation
A recommender heuristic produces a set of estimated item ratings. The accuracy of
these ratings can be evaluated using numerous measures of average error (lower
being better). These error terms have no absolute meaning – one error term is only
meaningful relative to other error terms. However, comparing a novel heuristic to an
existing one may be misleading (above). Therefore, to test the hypothesis that
heuristic d is accurate, researchers may construct a neutral baseline, that is, a set of
estimated ratings that operationalizes the null hypothesis that d is inaccurate. The
average error of d can then be compared to the average error of the baseline.
Researchers may then evaluate the probability that the difference is due to chance
using inferential statistics and the practical significance of the difference using
measures of effect size.
Additionally, as heuristic performance is domain dependent, heuristics should be
evaluated across several item classes. Moreover, the innovativeness of a heuristic
should be judged based on how different it is from existing heuristics in terms of
inputs, requirements, structure and processing in addition to predictive accuracy
(Bell et al., 2007).
In Section 4, we propose a novel source of information that can serve as a basis for
generating recommendations.
4. Viewing Time as an Indicator of Preference
Bell et al. (2007) claim that “the success of an ensemble approach depends on the
ability of its various predictors to expose different, complementing aspects of the
data” (p. 6). One type of data readily estimable from weblogs and client-side scripts,
but rarely utilized in recommender systems, is viewing time - the period for which a
user looks at content associated with a particular item. Viewing time is interesting for
several reasons.
First, viewing time data can be used in situations that are commonly problematic for
existing content-based and collaborative recommenders. For example, some
recommenders require: 1) users to explicitly rate items – an obtrusive and time-
consuming task (Perkowitz & Etzioni, 2000); 2) extensive explicit or implicit ratings
from other users, i.e, the cold-start problem (Schafer et al., 2007); or 3) coincidence
of ratings, such that performance degrades with sparse data (Konstan et al., 1997;
Sarwar et al., 1998). In contrast, viewing time can be collected from user behavior
automatically and unobtrusively. If recommendations can be generated directly from
a user’s viewing time data (without comparing to other users), such a recommender
could be used in situations that preclude many other recommendation approaches
e.g., by an electronic catalog that lacked sufficient purchase history for related
collaborative recommendations. Furthermore, a recommender that uses a single
session of viewing times may overcome problems with temporary interests (e.g.,
when one shops for a gift, preferences indicated by one’s purchase history may not
Second, a variety of psychological research shows a positive relationship between
viewing time and preferences (or related constructs). Day (1966) reported that
participants in a study looked longer at images rated “liked”; Faw and Nunnally
(1967) found a positive correlation between “pleasant ratings” and viewing time;
Oostendorp and Berlyne (1978) found that subjects viewed objects longer when
they engendered pleasurable emotions.
Third, more recent work in the online context corroborates the viewing time /
preference relationship. An online shopping simulation (Parsons et al., 2004) found
a positive correlation between viewing time and items shoppers placed in carts.
Time spent reading Usenet news was found to be positively related to explicit ratings
(Konstan et al., 1997) and reader interest (Morita & Shinoda, 1994), as was
webpage viewing time (Claypool et al., 2001). Several studies support a positive
relationship between viewing time and relevance (Cooper & Chen, 2001; Miller et
al., 2003; Seo & Zhang, 2000).
Theoretically speaking, the causal relationship between preference and viewing time
is complex. Preference is one of several possible antecedents of viewing time (cf.
Heinrich, 1970), summarized in Figure 1. Other possible antecedents might
attenuate the relationship between viewing time and preference. However, to the
extent viewing time is useful in predicting preference, the relationship is robust to
such attenuation.
However, people tend to express unwarranted preference for more familiar items – a
psychological phenomenon known as the mere exposure effect or familiarity
principle (Bornstein & Carver-Lemley, 2004). Therefore, a user’s preference for an
item may cause longer viewing times, which may, in turn, increase the user’s
preference over time. Practically speaking, however, as prediction relies on
correlation rather than causation a substantial covariance of preference and viewing
time may be useful for generating recommendation regardless of causal direction.
The objective of this research is to examine the extent to which this relationship can
be used to infer preferences based on viewing time and to recommend items that
best match these inferences.
Viewing time has already been used in some recommenders, for example, as part of
the user similarity calculations in collaborative filtering (e.g., Lee et al., 2008;
Mobasher et al., 2001) and information filtering (cf. Oard & Kim, 2001). However, we
are not aware of any recommender research on directly extracting user preferences
for items from viewing time data. Given the psychological basis for hypothesizing
that useful preference information can be extracted from viewing time data, we
created a content-based recommender to exploit this relationship.
Figure 1. Factors Influencing Viewing Time
Position in Sequence
5. The Desire Recommender System
DESIRE (Desirability Estimator and Structured Information Recommendation
Engine) is a content-based recommender system for predicting user preferences for
unseen items in a catalog, based on time spent browsing a small set of items from
the catalog. The DESIRE algorithm is presented in the Appendix (for a complete
technical exposition see Parsons and Ralph, 2010); this section provides an
overview of the general strategy used to generate recommendations. DESIRE is
comprised of the following three components (Figure 2). While many content-based
recommenders share a similar structure, DESIRE employs unique methods of
generating the user profile and estimating ratings.
1. The User Rating Estimator computes a user’s implicit ratings for seen items from
the user’s viewing time data;
2. The User Profile Generator formulates a user’s expected preferences based on
the implicit ratings and the attributes of seen items;
3. The Recommendation Engine predicts ratings for unseen items based on their
attributes and the user’s profile.
Figure 2. DESIRE’s Primary Components
5.1. Algorithm Overview
5.1.1. Rating Estimator
The rating estimator converts a list of item/viewing time pairs into a list of item/rating
pairs by calculating z-scores for the viewing times and normalizing to a [-1,1] range.
This conversion reduces the impact of outliers. The normalized viewing time is then
used as the user’s implicit rating of the seen item.
5.1.2. User Profile Generator
The user profile generator describes a user’s modeled preferences in terms of the
desirability of particular item characteristics, consistent with the additive value model
from multi-attribute utility theory (Fishburn, 1970; Keeney, 1968) and conjoint
analysis in the marketing literature (Green & Srinivasan, 1978; 1990). It converts
item attribute data and implicit ratings into inferred attribute ratings, using different
approaches for nominal or ordinal data (categorical attributes) and ratio or interval
data (numeric attributes).
For each categorical attribute (e.g., color) the user profile generator will first
construct a list of every value (e.g., red, blue, yellow) in the list of seen items. It then
assigns a rating to each value equal to the mean rating of each seen item having
that value. For instance, if the user has viewed two red bicycles, and the rating
estimator estimates a ratio of 0.5 and -0.3 for those bicycles, the value ‘red’ would
be given a rating of 0.1. In this way, each value of each attribute of each seen item
is given an estimated rating.
For each numeric attribute (e.g., price), the user profile generator estimates the
user’s ideal quantity for that attribute as a weighted average of values for that
attribute in each liked item, where the weights are the item ratings. For example,
given four items with prices $2, $4, $6 and $10, and ratings -0.4, 0.3, 0.8 and 0.2
respectively, the ideal price would be (0.3*4 + 0.8*6 + 0.2*10)/(0.3+0.8+0.2), or
$6.15. Here, a liked item is a seen item with a positive rating. DESIRE ignores seen
items with negative ratings to avoid biasing ideal value calculation. For example, if a
user views a large number of more expensive items for a short period and a small
number of less expensive items for a long period, including disliked items will inflate
the ideal price estimate. While more sophisticated approaches are possible, ignoring
disliked items for initial studies seemed reasonable.
In summary, a user profile consists of a set of ideal quantities for each numeric
attribute and a set of ratings for each value of each categorical attribute.
5.1.3. Recommendation Engine
Given a user profile, the recommendation engine predicts the ratings the user would
give to a set of unseen items. For each item, DESIRE must first compute an
attribute/rating vector – a set of (attribute/rating) pairs where the rating indicates the
similarity between the item and the user profile with respect to the attribute.
For categorical attributes having a single value (e.g., color = red) the similarity rating
is equal to the inferred rating from the user profile. If the user profile has no rating for
a value of categorical attribute in an item, that value (or that attribute if it has only
one value) is omitted. Categorical attributes having multiple values may be handled
in several ways. For example, suppose a user profile has color value ratings of 0.4
for black and 0.6 for brown. The color similarity rating for a pair of brown and black
boots could be calculated using the mean (0.5), the minimum value (0.4) or the
maximum value (0.6). For the purposes of this study, we used the mean.
Numeric attributes are assumed to have only one value. By examining the
population of both seen and unseen items, z-scores are calculated for both the ideal
quantity (from the profile) and the item values for each numeric attribute. The
similarity rating for a particular attribute is then calculated as the absolute value of
the difference between the z-score of the item value and z-score of the profile value.
The similarity ratings for both categorical and numeric attributes are then
transformed to the range [-1,1]. This results in a set of attribute/rating pairs with each
rating having the same [-1,1] range. A single value to represent the similarity
between the item and the user profile can then be calculated as the mean of the
ratings. However, not all attributes are equally important; therefore, a weighted
average, where the weights indicate the relative importance of each attribute, is
more appropriate. These weights would obviously vary by product category. They
can be determined a priori using the procedure described in Section 6.1.
This process is repeated for each item. Once DESIRE has predicted ratings for all
items, recommendations can be made in one of two ways. DESIRE can generate a
recommendation set of a particular size or recommend all items exceeding a
particular ‘recommendation threshold’. In both cases, the predicted ratings form the
basis for including items in the recommendation set (i.e., the recommended items
are those with the highest predicted rating). In either case, DESIRE’s
recommendations may be combined with the results of other recommender
heuristics in an ensemble system.
5.2 Conceptual Evaluation
DESIRE has several desirable properties relative to most existing recommender
systems. First, it is unobtrusive the recommendation set is generated without the
user being aware of, or interacting with, the recommender system. For example, the
user does not have to rate items in order to receive recommendations. Second,
DESIRE maintains user independence – recommendations for user U do not require
information about users other than U. In contrast, systems that require users to rate
items explicitly and compare ratings from different users are neither transparent nor
user independent. Third, DESIRE’s scalability is superior to nearest neighbor
collaborative filtering algorithms as DESIRE’s complexity is linear in the number of
items, while CF depends on the numbers of both items and users. Fourth, DESIRE
can operate either on a single session’s browsing data (overcoming the gift-
shopping problem mentioned above) or on a user’s entire history. Fifth, DESIRE
consists of loosely coupled modules, in the sense that its three components (rating
estimator, profile generator and recommendation engine) can be individually
replaced. For example, in a context where users are willing to explicitly rate items,
the profile generator could use the explicit ratings directly.
However, DESIRE also has three primary limitations. First, DESIRE is only
applicable where attribute data, the relative importance of item attributes, and user
viewing times are available. Second, DESIRE assumes that the available attribute
data are related to items’ value dimensions. Thus, if the available attribute data are
based on objective dimensions such as price and size, but user preferences are
based on intangible or qualitative dimensions such as fashionability, DESIRE is not
expected to work well. We return to this issue in the empirical evaluation. Third,
DESIRE is best suited for exploratory search contexts, especially hedonic browsing,
rather than directed search contexts (cf. Hong et al., 2005; Moe, 2003). Moe’s
(2003) analysis of data from a nutrition products website found that hedonic
browsing accounted for 66% of (non-shallow) website visits. In contrast, DESIRE
would likely be ineffective in modeling a user who adopts satisficing search strategy
(Simon, 1956) and a “single criterion” stopping rule (Browne et al., 2007), i.e., a user
who evaluates items on a single dimension and stops when the first satisfactory item
is found.
6. Empirical Evaluation of DESIRE Recommendations
As DESIRE is a recommender heuristic, we designed a lab study to empirically
evaluate it against a neutral baseline across several item classes. Accomplishing
this requires a variety of data:
1. A data store of items and their attributes
2. The relative importance of each attribute
3. A data store of viewing time triples (user, item, viewing time)
4. A data store of explicit rating triples (user, item, rating)
We therefore discuss the empirical evaluation in several steps. First, the
development of the item data store and relative attribute importance index using two
pre-studies is described. Hypotheses are then introduced. Third, the shopping
simulation used to construct the viewing time data store is described. Fourth, details
of the explicit ratings exercise, from which the explicit ratings data store is
constructed, are given.
6.1. Pre-Studies
In the first pre-study, a convenience sample of students in an MBA class at a mid-
sized Canadian university was asked, “List all the factors you take into account
when buying from each product category listed below”. The categories were
bicycles, boots, digital cameras, digital music players, DVD movies, notebook
computers, winter coats, video games, jewelry and winter gloves. We compiled the
responses, eliminating repeated responses and combining similar responses. We
then investigated the extent to which readily available data matched the factors
listed for each item class. Based on attribute data availability, we chose five
categories: bicycles, boots, digital cameras, digital music players, and notebook
computers. Table 1 lists the factors identified by participants for each of these
We then gathered attribute data corresponding to the factors identified by the
participants. Some factors, such as “ease of connection to computer” for digital
cameras, were eliminated due to data unavailability. This produced the item data
store. We divided the item data store into a training set, used in the shopping
simulation (see Section 6.3), and a holdout set, used for explicit item rating (see
Section 6.4).
To determine the relative importance of these attributes, simply asking users to rank
or rate each attribute’s influence on their preferences would be ineffective, as self-
reports of the relative importance of factors are poorly correlated with relative
importance revealed implicitly through regression analysis (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975).
Therefore, we recruited a second convenience sample of 14 undergraduate
business students from the same university. Participants viewed a series of products
from each category and, for each product, rated each attribute and the product
overall on a nine point scale from unsatisfactory to satisfactory. A stepwise multiple
regression was performed on the results to determine which attributes predicted
brake types, brand, color, comfort, frame material, number of seats, price,
suspension, frame size, speeds/gears, tires, tire size, testimonials, type (e.g.,
mountain), warranty coverage, warranty term, weight
brand, comfort, color, fashionability, functionality, material, maintenance required,
price, purpose, sole type, style, warmth, waterproofing, weight
ac adapter, accessories, appearance, batteries included, battery type, brand, card
reader, charger type, color, digital zoom, display type, ease of connection to
computer, features, internal memory, macro lens, maximum memory expansion,
resolution, memory card included, optical zoom, price, quality settings, recharge
time, service, size, sound capability, style, type of memory card, warranty, video
battery life, brand, capabilities, color, compatibility, display size, display quality,
display resolution, drives, memory, memory speed, platform (mac/pc), ports, price,
processor speed, service, size, weight, warranty
Digital Music
anti-skip protection, battery life, battery type, brand, accessories, expandable,
features, formats played, headphones, max expanded memory, memory, portable
hard drive capability, price, recording capability, sound quality
Note: Italicized attributes were used in the subsequent study; others were dropped due to lack of
overall ratings for each product category. The coefficients of the significant variables
in the regression equations, shown in Table 2, were then adopted as DESIRE’s
relative attribute importance weights.
6.2. Hypotheses
We first hypothesize that DESIRE will predict explicit item ratings more accurately
than a recommender that produces random recommendations. Operationalizing this
hypothesis requires an accuracy measure and a procedure for generating random
Herlocker et al. (2004) review several methods of computing recommendation
accuracy. Two of the most common measures are Mean Absolute Error (MAE) and
Root Mean Square Error (RMSE), defined as follows:
MAE = " RMSE = "
Table 2: Relative Importance of Item Attributes
type of brakes
number of gears or speeds
tire size
Digital cameras
digital zoom
Digital music players
audio quality
Notebook computers
battery life
maximum screen resolution
MAE and RMSE measure the discrepancy between a set of predictions and a set of
observations. An MAE (or RMSE) of zero indicates perfect accuracy. However, error
terms other than zero are difficult to assess in isolation they are most meaningful
when compared with the MAE (or RMSE) of another set of predictions. RMSE
penalizes larger errors more severely than MAE. However, as MAE is more
commonly used and “has well studied statistical properties that provide for testing
the significance of a difference between the mean absolute errors of two
systems” (Herlocker et al., 2004, p. 21), we focus on this measure in the following
Theoretically, if item viewing times and user preferences are not related, DESIRE
will predict ratings no more accurately than a random rating generator (RANDOM).
However, recommendations may be randomly generated using many different
distributions. For the purpose of comparison, we adopt two interpretations of
“random”. First, we can compare DESIRE’s ratings to ratings generated on a
uniform distribution. Second, we can compare DESIRE’s ratings to ratings
generated randomly from the distribution of user ratings obtained during the item
rating phase (Section 6.4). While it is possible to evaluate DESIRE using random
recommendations conforming to any number of other distributions, using the
distribution derived from actual rating data provided the most conservative test of
DESIRE’s accuracy.
Consequently, Hypothesis 1 may be operationalized as follows.
Additionally, we can compare DESIRE ratings with users’ revealed preferences. We
argue that, by placing items in their virtual shopping baskets, online shoppers
explicitly reveal their preference for these items. Although in practice shoppers do
not always buy these “basket items” (e.g., shopping baskets may be abandoned),
adding an item to a basket indicates preference for the item compared to items
viewed, but not added to the basket. Therefore, we expect DESIRE to rate these
“basket items” higher than items not placed into the shopping basket (“non-basket
items”). As the shopping simulation (Section 6.3) includes a shopping basket
feature, we can operationalize Hypothesis 2 as follows.
HYPOTHESIS 2. DESIRE’s ratings of basket items will be higher than its
ratings of non-basket items.
Hypotheses 1 and 2 address predictive accuracy rather than recommendation
quality per se. We follow the common assumption in recommender evaluation that
predictive accuracy is the primary determinant of recommendation quality (cf.
Herlocker et al. 2004),.
6.3. Shopping Simulation
We recruited a convenience sample of 67 participants from an undergraduate
business course. Participation was encouraged by giving students the option of
participating in the study or completing another task of equivalent time commitment
to receive a 3% bonus on their course grade. These students took part in a
laboratory study in small groups of 10 to 20. Each subject participated individually,
sitting at a pre-configured computer.
Participants were told that the purpose of the study was to improve our
understanding of electronic commerce and online catalogs. After reviewing the study
purpose and agreeing to take part, participants viewed the study directions online
(Figure 3). The directions were embedded in the shopping simulation website such
that participants could return to them at any time. In short, participants were asked
to pretend that they were shopping, look at whatever they wanted to for however
long they wanted to and add items they wanted to “buy” to their shopping baskets.
Participants then took part in a simulated shopping exercise. Participants could view
as many or as few item pages as they chose, for as little or as much time as they
wished. Participants could return to a previously-viewed item page of 3669 item
page views in total, 428 (11.7%) were repeats. This low repeat rate is consistent with
browsing (rather than searching) behavior.
Item pages were generated from the datastore (training set) created during the
pretests. Figure 4 depicts a sample item page. Item pages contained all of the
italicized attributes indicated in Table 1, not just the attributes used by DESIRE. All
item pages within each product category were as similar as possible, with exactly
the same attributes listed and exactly one picture. The system recorded the time
each participant spent viewing each item page. Participants could navigate among
the available items either by browsing “departments”, that is, listings by product
category (Figure 5), or by keyword search. Participants could add any number of
items to their shopping basket, which could be viewed at any time. Looking at the
shopping basket (Figure 6), participants could remove items, “Proceed to Checkout”
Figure 3. Front Page of Simulated Catalog
or continue shopping. Clicking the “Proceed to Checkout” button ended the
simulation, consistent with the directions provided.
This phase produced the data store of viewing time triples. Where a participant
viewed the same item page repeatedly, total viewing time was used. No
recommendations were generated or displayed during the shopping simulation.
Figure 4. Sample Item Page
Figure 5. Sample Product Listing by Category
Figure 6. Sample Shopping Cart
6.4. Explicit Item Rating
After completing the shopping simulation, participants were asked to rate a series of
items they had not previously seen (the holdout set, which was randomly selected
from the set of all catalog items). Participants were shown an item page similar to
the item pages in the shopping simulation but with a nine-point rating scale. Up to
ten items were presented per product category; however, if a participant did not view
any items from one or more categories in the shopping simulation, that participant
was not asked to rate items from those categories. During this phase, an explicit
ratings data store comprising 930 explicit product ratings was constructed. No
recommendations were generated or displayed during the explicit item rating phase.
6.5. DESIRE Computation
With data collection complete, the DESIRE algorithm (Appendix A) was run. Input
data included the item data store (including attribute data), the relative attribute
importance index and the item viewing times from the shopping simulation (but not
the explicit item rating page). This produced a set of estimated ratings for holdout-
set items in each product category in which the participant had viewed items during
the simulation. We could then compute DESIRE’s accuracy by comparing DESIRE’s
estimated ratings of holdout items to users’ explicit ratings of the same holdout
7. Results and Discussion
7.1. Comparing DESIRE to RANDOM Ratings
To test Hypothesis 1 (that DESIRE ratings are better than RANDOM ratings), we
compared the MAE of DESIRE’s ratings (versus the user-generated ratings
described above) by product category to the MAE of RANDOM ratings.
Tables 3 and 4 contain the results of independent-sample t-tests comparing
DESIRE’s ratings with ratings generated from a uniform distribution and the
observed distribution (from the product rating phase), respectively. The analysis in
Table 3 demonstrates that the difference between DESIRE ratings and random
(uniform) ratings is highly significant across all five product categories (using a
Bonferroni-adjusted significance level of 0.01), with DESIRE performing
substantially better than a system that generates ratings randomly. In addition, the
effect size ranges from moderate to high in all categories except boots (the
rightmost column of Table 3 lists the Cohen’s-d statistic for each category tested,
where 0.8 is interpreted as high, 0.5 as moderate, and 0.2 as low).
Table 3: t-test Results of DESIRE versus Random (Uniform
Distribution) Recommendations
Cohen’s d
Notebook computers
Digital cameras
Digital music players
Table 4: t-test Results of DESIRE versus Random (Distribution from
Data) Recommendations
Cohen’s d
Notebook computers
Digital cameras
Digital music players
Table 4 shows that the improvement of DESIRE ratings compared to random ratings
(based on observed item ratings) is highly significant across four of the five product
categories (using a Bonferroni-adjusted significance level of .01), with DESIRE
performing better than a system that generates ratings randomly, except for the
category digital music players. The effect sizes were moderate in all four categories.
7.2. Comparing DESIRE Rating of Basket and Non-basket Items
To test Hypothesis 2 (that DESIRE ratings of basket items will be higher than
DESIRE ratings of non-basket items), we examined DESIRE’s ratings only for the
items that participants placed in shopping baskets, as these items reflect
participants’ preferences as revealed by their simulated shopping choices. We
expect user ratings of these items to be high (note that users were not asked to rate
these items). The average DESIRE rating of shopping basket items on a scale from
-1 to 1 was positive (mean = 0.32, p < 0.01), and all but two of the DESIRE ratings
were positive. If we exclude boots as the value dimensions for a fashion product
such as boots may not match availability attribute data – the average DESIRE rating
of items from the remaining categories is 0.38. Interestingly, the lowest eight ratings
by DESIRE for shopping basket items were for “boots”, suggesting the system’s
limitations in predicting user preferences for product categories that appear to be
highly influenced by style, rather than by measurable product attributes.
Table 5 compares the average DESIRE rating of shopping basket items to the
average DESIRE rating of non-basket items across product categories. DESIRE
ratings of basket items (reflecting revealed preferences of participants) are
significantly higher than ratings of non-basket items for all five product categories
(using a Bonferroni-adjusted significance level of .01). The effect size is large for all
product categories. Collectively, these results provide strong support for H2
DESIRE did provide higher ratings for products that were preferred by participants
than for items that were not preferred by participants.
7.3. Comparing DESIRE Ratings between Product Categories
As described above, DESIRE estimates user preference for an item based on the
attributes of the item. This assumes the attributes for which data are available
correspond to the value dimensions of the item (Keeney & Raiffa, 1976) the item
characteristics that primarily determine preferences. For example, if purchase
decisions for notebook computers are based entirely on color, keyboard comfort,
and screen glare, whereas the only data available concern price, processor speed
and memory capacity, and the latter are unrelated to the former, DESIRE is unlikely
to infer preferences accurately. Therefore, the quality of DESIRE’s predictions
should be positively related to the extent to which the available item data coincides
with the value dimensions of the items.
To explore whether DESIRE rating quality will be higher for product categories for
which preferences are based on quantifiable and easily measurable attributes, we
conducted a one-way ANOVA comparing the MAEs of the five product categories.
As the pretest showed that boot preferences are significantly influenced by criteria
that were not quantified or available for use by DESIRE (e.g., ‘comfort’ and ‘style’),
we expect that the MAE will be higher for boots than for the other product
categories. To begin, we conducted an overall test for differences in MAE among the
five product categories. The MAE differed significantly across the categories – F (4,
925) = 14.48, p < .001.
Table 5: t-test Results of Basket versus Non-basket DESIRE Ratings
Basket (N)
SD Basket
Mean Non-
Basket (N)
SD Non-
0.434 (22)
0.252 (185)
0.186 (20)
-0.172 (254)
Digital cameras
0.346 (6)
0.247 (182)
0.361 (14)
0.253 (182)
Digital music
0.312 (6)
0.045 (127)
To determine whether the mean for boots was higher than for other categories, we
conducted a post hoc test to pair-wise compare the means of the product
categories. A Levene’s test for homogeneity of variance showed that the variances
of the groups differed (Levene (4, 925) = 13.435, p < .001). Therefore, we used
Tamhane’s test for differences in the group means. Table 6 shows the comparison of
the MAE of boots with each of the other product categories. As can be seen, the
MAE of boots is significantly higher than that of bicycles, digital cameras, and
notebook computers. While the MAE for boots was higher than for digital music
players, the difference was not significant.
To further explore the results for digital music players, Table 7 reports the
comparison of the MAE of this category with the others. As can be seen, the MAE
for digital music players does not differ significantly from that of boots, but is
significantly higher than the MAE for digital cameras and for notebooks computers,
and is marginally higher than the MAE for bicycles.
Initially, the result for digital music players appears surprising, as these products can
be evaluated based on quantifiable attributes such as memory size, sound quality,
and battery life. However, on further consideration it seems reasonable that – as
Table 6: Post hoc Comparison of MAE of Boots with Other Product Categories
Mean Difference (Boots – category)
Std. Error
< .001
Digital cameras
< .001
Notebook computers
< .001
Digital music players
1p-values are for Tamhane’s test. Similar results hold for other tests.
Table 7: Post hoc Comparison of MAE of Digital Music Players to
other Product Categories
Mean Difference (Players –
Std. Error
Digital cameras
Notebook computers
1p-values are for Tamhane’s test. Similar results hold for other tests.
with boots – style and fashion may have a major influence on preferences for these
items. Indeed, a senior brand manager at Creative Technologies said of digital
music players: “We understood the whole thing with these players can't be just
functionality, that we always concentrated on ... people were using them as fashion
statements” (Marriott, 2004, p. 1). Our results therefore provide support for the
conjecture that DESIRE generates more accurate recommendations when available
item attributes coincide with user value dimensions.
7.4. Limitations
The above results should be understood in light of the limitations of the empirical
validation. The lab study used a mostly homogeneous group of university students.
As a result, it is not clear whether the relationship between viewing time and
preference, and the expression of preference for an item as an aggregation of
preferences for its attribute values, will generalize to other demographic contexts
including different cultures and age groups. Additionally, the same attribute weights
were used for all participants. As the relative importance of attributes will vary
among individuals, the accuracy of DESIRE could be improved by optimizing the
attribute weights at an individual or demographic group level. Notwithstanding this,
our empirical study demonstrates that useful recommendations can be generated
even with global attribute weights given a relatively homogeneous population.
Additionally, as depicted in Figure 1, factors other than preference affect viewing
time. Thus, it will not be possible to use viewing time as a perfect measure of
preference. What we have shown instead is that indicators of preference can be
extracted from viewing times and used to predict preferences for item attributes.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the laboratory setting unduly favors DESIRE as
real-world viewing time data would include significant noise from multitasking,
distractions, etc. However, modern web technologies are capable of detecting
inactivity (which is how instant messaging systems automatically change user status
from “online” to “away”). More fundamentally, the purpose of the study was to
determine the feasibility of using the relationship between preferences and viewing
time to generate recommendations.
Moreover, from the authors’ observations during the study, many sources of noise
were evident. Although participants were asked to focus on the experimental task,
some participants talked to each other or interacted with their mobile phones. While
this may increase the external validity of the study, such noise may introduce ill-
understood variance in the results, therefore threatening internal validity. However, it
was felt that taking more draconian steps such as confiscating participants’ mobile
phones and requesting silence would have increased the artificiality of the setting.
Similarly, running individual sessions may have increased internal validity but would
have required a substantial reduction in sample size.
Additionally, in the conceptual evaluation of DESIRE we noted that DESIRE
assumes that users’ value dimensions are reflected in item attribute data. However,
the above results show that the approach may be somewhat useful for items (such
as boots) where preferences are often understood at least partly in terms of
intangible qualities.
Finally, our experimental evaluation considered only single session viewing times to
infer preferences for item attributes. Thus, it was not possible in our study to
distinguish enduring from situational preferences. These can clearly differ,
depending on whether a person is shopping for oneself or for a gift for someone
7.5. Directions for Future Research
These limitations suggest several areas for future research. As DESIRE’s viewing-
time-based user profile generator and content-based recommendation engine are
independent, they could be investigated in combination with alternative components.
For example, implicit ratings from the user profile generator could be used as input
for user-based collaborative filtering, and the recommendation engine could be used
with explicit ratings. Furthermore, a key aspect of DESIRE’s recommendation
approach is the construction of preferences based on item attributes. This approach
supports an alternative to the traditional way of thinking about product catalogs in
predetermined and fixed categories. Indeed, in specific situations our approach can
be used to make recommendations from one product category based on attribute
preferences inferred from items in another category. In this way, it is possible to
support multiple item classifications on an ad hoc basis (Parsons & Wand, 2008a;
2008b). Additionally, as DESIRE requires estimates of the relative importance of
product attributes in influencing preferences, further research is needed to examine
the role of enduring and situational factors in determining these estimates. Future
work can incorporate longer term preferences (reflected by repeated measures of
viewing time for particular attributes) into user profiles, and factor these preferences
into DESIRE recommendations. As well, a more sophisticated ideal value
calculation, which incorporates “disliked” items (perhaps by aggregating multiple
views of disliked items to arrive at an appropriate weight representing the extent to
which these items should be avoided in recommendations) may increase DESIRE’s
performance. Moreover, work is needed to better understand the effectiveness of
the proposed approach for different kinds of items. We examined five specific
categories of consumer products, but our understanding of the factors that influence
preference for different kinds of products and other items is incomplete. Similarly, to
fully understand the range of contexts to which DESIRE can be applied, the
effectiveness of recommendations in other domains (e.g., information search) needs
to be examined. Further research is also needed to examine the impact of other
factors that influence viewing time (e.g., complexity, novelty, position in sequence)
and control for these in DESIRE’s algorithm. By isolating the impact of preference
from other factors that influence viewing time, it should be possible to produce
further improvements in DESIRE’s accuracy.
Finally, note also that in the experimental setting, DESIRE was not used to generate
recommendations to be evaluated by participants. Instead, predicted ratings from
DESIRE were compared to actual ratings of items provided by participants. Further
research might use DESIRE to make recommendations for users, and the quality of
such recommendations evaluated directly by participants. Such a study can be
conducted in either a lab or field setting.
8. Summary and Conclusions
Recommender systems guide a user “in a personalized way to interesting or useful
objects in a large space of possible options” (Burke, 2002, p. 6). Many modern
recommenders blend an ensemble of predictors to improve recommendation quality.
Bell et al. (2007) explain: “The success of an ensemble approach depends on the
ability of its various predictors to expose different, complementing aspects of the
data” (p. 6). Following this, we proposed and tested a novel predictor, DESIRE,
which exploits the positive relationship between item viewing times and user
preferences to make accurate predictions. The results of a laboratory experiment
with DESIRE demonstrate not only that the viewing time / preference relationship
can be used to predict preferences for unseen items without comparing users, but
also that preference for an item can be modeled as an aggregation of preference
ratings of its attributes.
DESIRE is unlike existing predictors in that it employs a rarely-used aspect of the
available data, i.e., viewing time. Furthermore, it makes inferences about a user’s
preferences directly, not by comparison to other users. Moreover, DESIRE achieves
this without any explicit ratings or onerous user interaction. These characteristics
make DESIRE applicable in many situations where collaborative predictors and
more obtrusive content-based predictors are impractical or ineffective.
Therefore, the paper has three contributions. First, we presented the DESIRE
algorithm (fully specified in the Appendix). Second, we presented a thorough
analysis of recommender evaluation, concluding that heuristics should be tested
against a null hypothesis rather than a competing artifact. Third, we presented
substantive empirical evidence that the DESIRE predictor can extract useful
patterns from viewing time data, suggesting strong potential for its inclusion in
ensemble recommenders across diverse domains. These contributions have
implications for both research and practice.
From a theoretical perspective, DESIRE instantiates specific theoretical propositions
regarding the relationships between viewing time and user preference and between
preferences for items and preferences for their attributes. Demonstrating that
DESIRE’s accuracy exceeds that of a random recommender (which instantiates the
null hypothesis) by a statistically and practically (moderate to large effect sizes)
significant margin supports both of these theoretical propositions. Specifically, we
showed that viewing time of an item reveals useful information about user attitude
toward that item, attitude toward an item can be modeled as a function of attitudes
toward attributes of the item, and inferred preference for item attributes facilitates
inferences about preferences toward other items. This contributes to both the
psychological research on viewing time and the research on content-based
recommender systems, as DESIRE can be employed to determine preferences in
an effective, unobtrusive manner based on observed browsing behavior.
From a design perspective, our research highlights the potential of psychological
theories or research findings to guide design choices in constructing IT artifacts.
Prior research on recommender design has emphasized abstract mathematical
methods to calculate similarity (such as user-to-user similarity or item-to-item
similarity), usually requiring large amounts of data to perform well. Such approaches
lack a clear psychological basis for why similarity measures will translate to shared
preferences. In contrast, DESIRE demonstrates that a well-supported psychological
property (the relationship between viewing time and preference) can be used to
predict preferences accurately (thereby forming a basis for recommendations) using
relatively little data. This, in turn, can motivate a reanalysis of existing psychological
literature with a view to identifying empirical findings that can guide IT artifact
Methodologically, our analysis of recommender evaluation contributes to evaluation
methodology, as systematically distinguishing between recommender systems and
heuristics motivates a shift in evaluation practices across the field. This is a widely
misunderstood issue, and we hope our exposition initiates further investigation of
more appropriate evaluation practices. Venable et al. (2012) lay out a state of the art
framework for choosing artifact evaluation methods. One of the questions they ask
is “Determine the goal/purpose of the evaluation. Will you evaluate single/main
artifact against goals? Do you need to compare the developed artifact against with
other, extant artifacts?” (p. 434). However, they do not answer the question of when
is it appropriate to compare the new artifact against existing alternative artifacts. We
explore this issue in depth and find that artifacts should be evaluated against
alternatives unless existing alternatives require different data or resources, or the
proposed artifact embeds hypotheses (in our case, based on psychological theory)
that we want to test.
Practically speaking, our results illuminate the potential usefulness of viewing time
data and attribute data for non-collaborative recommender heuristics. For
companies that currently employ recommender systems, our results suggest
incorporating viewing time data into recommendation calculation by, for example,
adding DESIRE to their existing recommender ensembles. Firms that lack the data
required by many existing predictors may be able to use or adapt DESIRE for their
particular situations. For example, firms that have substantial item attribute data, but
lack the explicit ratings or browsing history needed for collaborative filtering, may be
able to deploy a recommender system based on DESIRE. In the simplest case,
DESIRE can be implemented to operate in real-time setting. Users can be provided
recommendations after browsing a small number (5-10) of calibration items. Viewing
times and attributes of the calibration items serve as input to DESIRE. The
remaining items are then rated using DESIRE’s rating algorithm. The top-k items
can then be recommended. Moreover, ratings can be updated based on additional
viewing time data gathered as users view additional items. Furthermore, firms may
use techniques including browser cookies to retain item viewing history across user
sessions, facilitating more accurate DESIRE recommendations. More generally,
however, our research adds DESIRE to the pool of known useful predictors, from
which an expert may compose an ensemble of predictors for a specific domain.
Furthermore, developers of of-the-shelf recommender systems may benefit by
adding DESIRE, which uses significantly different data and methods than existing
approaches, as an additional heuristic to improve quality.
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Appendix: DESIRE Algorithm
Rating Estimator
Description: For each viewed item, the rating estimator calculates an implicit rating
equal to the standardized viewing time of that item, in the range [-1,1].
Precondition: The user must have viewed at least one item from the item set
Input: A set of item/viewing time pairs
Output: A set of item/rating pairs
1. For each item, i, set the rating of i, ri, equal to the z-score of the viewing time
of i
2. Limit outliers
a. For each item rating such that ri > 3, set ri = 3
b. For each item rating such that ri < -3, set ri = -3
3. For each ri, set ri = ri /3
Discussion of Variations:
At least three variations on this method are possible. First, outliers may be deleted
instead of limited to the closer boundary of the [-1,1] range. Second, viewing times
can be transformed to fit or approximate any distribution (not just a normal distribu-
tion) as long as the range of the returned values is [-1,1]. Third, a more complex
function of viewing time can be employed; for example, one that adjusts for the
complexity of the item.
User Profile Generator
Description: Given a set of item/rating pairs, generate a description of the user’s
preferences in terms of the attributes of the items. This is computed differently for
numeric attributes than categorical attributes.
Preconditions: The sets of item ratings and item attributes must not be empty; the
positive example threshold must be 0.
Input: 1) A set of n seen items, I, 2) a rating for each item, 3) a set of attributes (e.g.,
color, price) for each item, 4) a set of values (e.g. red, $15), corresponding to the
attributes, for each item, 5) the positive example threshold.
Output: A user preference profile, consisting of ideal values of numeric attributes and
inferred ratings of categorical (non-numeric) attributes.
1. Divide the attributes into two groups, numeric and categorical, as follows.
a. If the data associated with an attribute is not unique to the item (e.g.,
the ISBN of a book), and the attribute is nominal or ordinal, assign
the attribute to the categorical attribute group
b. If the data associated with an attribute is interval or ratio, assign the
attribute to the numeric attribute group
2. Calculate Ideal Values of Numeric Attributes
a. For each item, i, if the rating of i ‘positive example threshold,’ add i
to the set of positive examples.
b. For each numeric attribute found in one or more positive examples,
calculate its “ideal value,” as a weighted average of the attribute’s
value in positive examples, as follows. Here, ri is the rating of the ith
positive example, vai is the value of attribute a in the ith positive ex-
ample and IVa is the ideal value of attribute a.
3. Calculate Ratings of Categorical Attributes
a. For each value, v, of each categorical attribute of each item, calculate
the rating of v as the mean rating of items having v. (e.g., if three
items are red, the rating of red is the mean rating of those three
4. Return the User Profile, consisting of the ideal values of each numeric at-
tribute and the ratings of each categorical attribute value.
Recommendation Engine
Description: Predict ratings of unseen items based on the user profile and recom-
mend items with high predicted ratings.
Input: 1) the User Profile, U, 2) the unseen-item data store, D, consisting of a set of
unseen items and their attributes, 3) a list of “relative importance weights” that indi-
cate the importance of each attribute in determining preference, and 4) the number
of recommendations requested.
Preconditions: 1) The user profile must be non-empty; 2) The unseen-item datastore
must be non-empty; 3) the intersection of attributes in the user profile and attributes
of unseen items must be non-empty; 4) the list of “relative importance weights” must
contain an entry corresponding to each attribute in both the user profile and datas-
tore; 5) The number of recommendations requested must not exceed the number of
unseen items.
Output: A set or recommended items
1. Standardize numeric data. For each numeric attribute in the intersection of U
and D:
a. Replace all values of that attribute in D with their z-scores.
b. Replace the ideal value of that attribute in U with its z-scores.
2. Let R be an empty list of item similarity/pairs.
3. For each unseen item, iu:
a. Let S be a list of attribute/similarity pairs
b. For each categorical attribute, a, in iu:
i. Let s be the similarity of the value to the user profile
ii. Set s as follows, where n is the number of values of a and
U(Vj) is the user profile rating of the jth value of a (i.e., if an
item is red and white, average the rating of red and white from
the user profile, then convert from a [-1,1] range to a [0,1]
iii. Add (a, s) to S
c. For each numeric attribute, a, in iu:
i. Let s be the similarity of the value to the user profile
ii. Set s as follows, where Va is the value of a and Ua is the ideal
value of a from the user profile (i.e., calculate dissimilarity as
the absolute value of the difference between the ideal value
and the actual value, then divide by six to convert to a [0,1]
range, and subtract from one to get similarity).
iii. Add (a, s) to S
d. Let Ri be the overall similarity between the user profile, U and unseen
item, i.
e. Let W be the subset of relative importance weights corresponding to,
and in the same order as, the attributes in S.
f. Set Ri as follows, where Wa is the relative importance of attribute a,
and Sa is the similarity of i to U in terms of a.
g. Add (i, Ri) to R.
4. Let " be the subset of R having the n items with highest similarity, where n
is the number of recommendations desired.
5. Return ".
Discussion of Variations
Many variations on this method are possible. First, numeric attributes could be fit to
distributions other than the standard, normal distribution, as long as they can be
transformed to a [0,1] range. Second, if items could have multiple values for a nu-
meric attribute, one could apply the same averaging technique as used to account
for multiple categorical values per attribute. Third, different techniques for account-
ing for multiple values per attribute could be used; e.g., instead of averaging the
similarity of different values, DESIRE could simply choose the highest or lowest sim-
ilarity. Fourth, instead of returning a set number of recommendations, DESIRE could
return all of items exceeding a given similarity threshold. Fifth, DESIRE can incorpo-
rate a forgetting function - i.e., ignoring viewing data beyond a certain age or giving
additional weight to more recent viewing history – to account for changing prefer-


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