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Do your end-users engage in "information foraging"?

Well, another way of asking that question is "To what degree is your organizational intranet site like a news site?"

  1. Do you want to keep employees updated about organization wins? (Build morale!)
  2. Is it important that your colleagues at work be able to converse intelligently about "what's happening at work" in their B2C and B2B conversations? (Build knowledge!)

    If yes, to either of the above, then your intranet serves a "news" function.
  3. And while we're at it, let's include other news-offering websites such as "corporate identity" sites or even news sites. (Build customers!)

Given this focus, what usability methods offer you the best insights into how end-users forage for information?

We can continue with the same old "think out loud" and web analytics methods. They work.

But can we also find new methods of characterizing interaction with information foraging tasks?

This is the question addressed by our researcher, William Gibbs, Associate Professor of Journalism and Multimedia Arts at Duquesne University in Pittsburg, PA.

I found his research particularly interesting because he wanted...

"insight into new uses and incarnations of web devices and applications... This is especially important for news provider websites where users are actively seeking content that changes on a moment-to-moment basis."

Toyota Prius

New methods show "home is where the heart is"

Gibbs evaluated 6 news sites using a variety of old and new methods along with the think-aloud method. He looked at,,,,, and

His new methods include six approaches to what he calls "information seeking behaviors", which we will describe below.

But first, what did he find in his detailed analysis of 8 participant's "information seeking"?

NOTE: half received a "directed task" (find two top news stories about an environmental issue); half received a "semi-directed task" (browse each site freely for interesting stories).

1) Question: when presented with many links on a news site home page, do people search or browse?

Answers: All participants browsed! The directed participants browsed for a minute, then searched. The semi-directed participants pretty much just browsed.

Recommendation: Support browsing on your news home page. "Home is where the heart is."

2) Question: will people scroll a long home page?

Answer: Yes. People scrolled in both tasks.

Recommendation: Scrolling can work if the page looks like a news page. "Home is where the heart is."

3) Question: Does web experience govern willingness to depart far from the home page or search results page?

Answer: No. Regardless of their prior web experience, all news-site visitors tend to only jump 1 page away, then come back right away.

Recommendation: Spend money on your home page and search results design. "Home is where the heart is."

What methods of measuring "information foraging" allowed Professor Gibbs to clearly see these and other findings?

The starter kit: Basic measurements

Professor Gibbs explains that he recorded participant interaction using Morae, a digital recording tool. Standard Morae measurements gave the following outcomes for 31 participants.

  1. Average time per task: 4 minutes – Home page visited for 45 seconds on average. Directed tasks took 3 seconds longer than semi-directed tasks.
    Conclusion: You have 4 minutes of "ad exposure" regardless of task type. Don't worry about task type.
  2. Average number of clicks: 18 – 17 for semi-directed tasks; 19 for directed tasks.
    Conclusion: People exert the same effort regardless of task type. Don't worry about task type.
  3. Back button: 8% of all navigation events – Average of 11 Back-clicks for directed tasks; 7 for semi-directed tasks. (Other research shows the Back button can account for 30% to 40% of navigation.)
    Conclusion: Without clear jump back to Home, directed tasks foster a sense of "back-tracking" the exact path and adds to subjective effort.
  4. Search: 96% – out of 82 searches – occurred after participants browsed an average of 67 seconds during directed task.
    Conclusion: Design for browsing, even when you expect people to search.

Advanced method #1: Code user actions (log "info seeking trails")

Professor Gibbs borrows from the play-book of other researchers. This approach seeks to characterize each participant's actions through "coding" of each action by the researcher. This first example is a simple case of describing a "trail" through a sequence of pages.

Here, Professor Gibbs wants to show what he calls "information seeking trails" – namely, how much time does the end-user spend doing the following (I give the coding here):

Code Behavior Description
B Browse Viewing a page on the click-path flowing away from the start point
S Search Use of a site's search facility
f forward Clicking a hyperlink to a page not previously visited (this action is typically assumed and thus not labeled except for training, below)
b backward User revisits a page on the trail

Sample use of this nomenclature. You could memorize this for your usability test notations.

Code If the user were to...
B Browse the opening page,
f then navigate forward to new page to...
B Browse the second page,
f then navigate forward to new page to...
S use the Search page,
f then navigate forward to a new page to...
B Browse the new page
b then navigate back to the prior page (the search page)...
S another Search

As a convention, this method assumes all transitions are "f" (forward). Therefore, for greater ease, Prof Gibbs suggests the above could be written as follows (dropping the "f"):

B B S B b S

Now that you have this notation, Prof Gibbs suggests you can show how one task might contrast with a re-design of that task. For example, here are the two designs using this "information seeking trails" nomenclature.

Your Coded "Info Seeking Trail" Implication
B B S B b S   ("Before your redesign") This "information seeking trail" shows that the search result entry failed to communicate the content of the Browse page, requiring a return to the Search page.
B B S   ("After your redesign") This second "trail" demonstrates the reduced navigation results from improved search results descriptions.

Here is an example of how your notation could be diagrammed, including the average number of seconds on each page. The timing would come from a time-stamp tool or digital recorder like Morae.

For an alternate approach, Professor Gibbs aggregated "information seeking trail" data from 8 participants for the six news websites, as follows. He characterized the interaction using percent of interactions devoted to the following categories:

(B) Forward to Browse (b B) Backward to Browse (S) Forward to Search (b S) Backward to Search
69% 19% 5% 7%

Different designs will result in different findings. For example, other research shows 21% of interactions as "forward-to-search". If this were on a news site, then we could predict that the ad-revenue will be less than on the current sites. This is because with a higher percentage of searches, fewer pages get seen.

Toyota Prius

Advanced method #2: Web page recurrence

Other researchers have found that some pages on a site get lots of visits (e.g., Home and Search) while other pages get few visits. The best predictor of a "revisit" is the recency with which the page was last visited.

Total pages visited Unique pages visited Recurrence rate
All Users 1472 1069 27%
Directed 707 491 31%
Semi-directed 765 537 30%

Gibbs used this formula to calculate the "Recurrence Rate"

R =(Total URLS visited minus Unique URLS visited) divided by Total URLS visited

Example, for All Users

(1472 - 1069) / 1472 = 27.37% Recurrence Rate of visits

This means that 27% of page visits are repeat visits (non-unique visits). If you are selling ad views, are you getting paid for repeat visits? Furthermore, does a high rate of recurrence or repeat visits indicate that your site visitors find navigation difficult?

While the data can point out these questions, in most cases, you must utilize the "think-aloud" technique to get your insights. See Jenkins, Corritore, and Wiedenbeck, 2003 (cited below) for more examples of information-seeking behaviors on the web.

Toyota Prius

Conclusion: Advanced methods allow advanced site invention

We have looked at three out of about 6 advanced methods Professor Gibbs offers in his paper. Check his paper (below) to see the others.

In certain cases, the methods have revealed differences between directed task and semi-directed tasks. Semi-directed tasks tended to cause end-users to engage in more scrolling, scan more advertisements with their mouse and click on more images compared with the directed tasks.

This is logical. "Directed tasks" mean the end-user has a specific question to answer. Time is money, so they are less inclined to explore.

Therefore, directed tasks were associated with searching (but, remember, after 67 seconds devoted to browsing). Also, directed task end-users tended to use their mouse to scan links while scrolling down a page.

Professor Gibbs indicates that end-users with directed tasks show focused behaviors that are less open to reading ads than participants doing semi-directed tasks. Therefore, the semi-directed end-user is a better candidate for advertising.  He speculates that their behaviors can be detected by a "smart browser" (the presence or absence of mouse movements can be picked up) "and based on their behaviors, the browser displays, highlights, or repositions ads, making them more prominent."

This may be an opportunity to personalize sites based on browsing behaviors. Is your organization interested in heart-pounding "hanging ten" on the surf-board of advanced site development?

Home is where the heart is...

All said, this research verifies how your expectations should vary according to the purpose of your site. If your site indeed has a large component of "news" as a mission, then consider how to make the home page a strong page for revisitation.

Recall, "recurrent URLs" for a news site can mean different things. Therefore, you will need input from your test participants from their "think-aloud" comments.

Does a page revisit mean "I just didn't get it. The navigation was bad."?

Or does the page revisit mean "I love this page. It gets me to the news I want to see."

In both cases, your news-oriented Home page merits a lot of attention.

Are you putting your own heart into designing the page you want to call Home?


Gibbs, W.J., 2008. Examining Users on News Provider Web Sites: A Review of Methodology, Journal of Usability Studies, 3 (3), 129-148.

Jenkins, C., Corritore, C., and Wiedenbeck, S., 2003. Patterns of Information Seeking on the Web: A Qualitative Study of Domain Expertise and Web Expertise, IT & Society, 1 (3), 64-89

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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