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Web Development

The Scent of Information

WebReview.com: The Scent of Information


Call it the Year of the User. As we near the halfway mark for 1998, it's obvious that a shift has occurred in the way designers and Web authors generally are thinking about Web design. We understand the browser-safe palette (thanks in large part to Lynda Weinman and her book, <designing web graphics>). We have tables, frames, style sheets, JavaScript, the promise of downloadable fonts, and more. If this isn't everything a designer could want, it is, at least, enough.

But now that the palette of Web design tools has been admirably expanded. The Web design world is haunted by a voice in the wilderness. Faint but persistent, the voice is saying, "What about me?"

Jared Spool has been listening to that voice -- the voice of Web users -- for some time and through his research at User Interface Engineering, his North Andover, Massachusetts-based consulting firm, he's been tracking users through their paces as they try to find information on Web sites.

And now designers are listening to the voice of the user, too. At c|net's Web.builder conference in April, attendees were standing in the doorway and sitting in the aisles to hear Spool report on his latest study on Web usability.

And what does Spool hear the collective user saying? Just this: "I don't want an experience, I just want to find information." That's a sentiment born out by Brewster Kahle, president of Alexa Inc., and the Internet Archive. Speaking at another Web.builder session, Kahle, who tracks voluntary users' across the Web, reported that roughly two-thirds of users are looking for specific information.

In fact, searching for information is an experience. It's either a good experience -- when you find what you want quickly and painlessly -- or a frustrating one -- when you can't find the information you're looking for at all. This is what usability is all about, says Spool. At the end of the day, any company and any Web site, should want their customers to walk away happy, to say, "Thanks, I'll definitely be back."

So how is the Web doing as a whole? Are Web sites generally creating happy customers, or frustrated ones? "The Web is not doing well," says Spool. "The quantity of information is growing faster than people can find it. The individual pieces of information are not particularly organized so that people can find something on the site."

Spool found that it didn't matter whether a user was advanced or beginning, or even if they were knowledgable about a given subject area. "No amount of user knowledge or sophistication can overcome a poorly designed Web site."

The scent of information

How do people find information on the Web? Basically they sniff it out. According to Spool, information essentially has a "scent," and as users link from page to page they pick up the scent of the data they're searching for. If they somehow lose the scent (often by following a link that doesn't lead where the user thinks it will), they have to loop back to pick up the scent all over again.

(The concept comes from an "information foraging" theory developed by Xerox PARC researcher Peter Pirolli.)

In his research Spool asked people to find specific pieces of information on various Web sites, noting what they did each step of the way. "We asked people to predict what each link would get them and they were very bad at predicting. They would say things like 'I'm hoping this link goes here.' We also asked how confident they were at getting what they're looking for: Are you getting any closer?

"These two questions predicted whether they would find the information. When users are on the scent, they know it, but they can't say why. If we can identify what attributes give people this confidence we can build these things into the links and pages. So we started to tear apart the pages."

Linking strategies

According to Spool there are two kinds of links:

  • Category links, which lead to more links.
  • Content links,which lead to actual content.

While people are more likely to click on category links because there are more of them, it's content links that yield success. That's not surprising, since content is ultimately what people are after.

In a similar finding, longer links are more successful that shorter links. A nine-word link does better than a four-word link. "Content links are twice to three times as long as category links," Spool notes. "When you have a lot of words, the link is more descriptive."

Spool found that the most effective approach was to "flatten" the hierarchy of information by putting many levels on the same page, typically in structured lists. Spool cites the example of CNN, which groups content links by general subject area. The user can get directly to specific content or go to a second-tier home page (for National News, for example, or Travel.) This is the opposite of a traditional hierarchical view (think Yahoo), in which clicking on a link leads you to page of category links. Clicking on one of those links leads to more links, until finally you reach an actual content link. For example, if you were looking on Yahoo for a link to the site "Beethoven: Man of His Word," you would have to click through seven pages before getting that content link.

Categorization woes

According to Spool, many sites fall into a trap of forcing the user to think like the organization. Many corporate Web sites, for instance, organize the site along lines of corporate divisions. Hewlett Packard is one site that's divided this way. The home page offers links to different divisions like Printing & Imaging, and Personal Computing. But the site's creators realized that these internal divisions aren't necessarily meaningful to users. So there are links for desktop printers from the Personal Computing pages; these links go to the Printing & Imaging section, a separate division in HP.

By contrast, Disney.com users looking for information on Disneyland who make the mistake of clicking on the DisneyWorld link will find themselves positively stuck. There's no way to get from DisneyWorld to Disneyland short of backing up to the home page and starting over again.

Backing up to the home page is a sure sign that the user has lost the scent, notes Spool. Interestingly, almost every device Web designers have come up with to provide starting points -- navigational bars, left-hand sidebars, back/forward buttons, site maps -- turn out to hurt not help the user. "They all serve to break the scent, to take the user away from finding what they're looking for."

What's a Web designer to do?

While these findings provide a general roadmap for how to proceed, Spool cautions that each site has a specific audience with specific interests and ways of finding content.

"Pay attention to what your users are doing," he advises. "Do usability testing with your users on your content. Find out who your users are, why they are coming to the site, and which path they would take to find information."

Beyond that, consider your use of content links. Are you making people jump through layers of category links? Push content links up, reduce the number of layers, and make your links longer and more descriptive.

At the end of the day, if Spool is correct, the job of the designer is to facilitate the user's quest for information, to make the site as "smelly" as possible, and to make sure that design isn't getting in the user's way.

Real Implications from Usability Testing
Web Graphic Design: It's Not What You Think
The Scent of Information

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