Searchers seldom make use of the advanced searching features that could improve the quality of the search process because they do not know these features exist, do not understand how to use them, or do not believe they are effective or efficient. Information retrieval systems offering automated assistance could greatly improve search effectiveness by suggesting or implementing assistance automatically. A critical issue in designing such systems is determining when the system should intervene in the search process. In this paper, we report the results of an empirical study analyzing when during the search process users seek automated searching assistance from the system and when they implement the assistance. We designed a fully functional, automated assistance application and conducted a study with 30 subjects interacting with the system. The study used a 2G TREC document collection and TREC topics. Approximately 50% of the subjects sought assistance, and over 80% of those implemented that assistance. Results from the evaluation indicate that users are willing to accept automated assistance during the search process, especially after viewing results and locating relevant documents. We discuss implications for interactive information retrieval system design and directions for future research. 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.