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Understanding Information Scent

With the advancement of search, Humans no longer need to travel far & wide to find the answer they are looking for. Access to information is one of the biggest advantages we have, with users having the power to find answers to questions that vary from mundane to life-altering.

This leads me to an important question: Why are some websites better at helping users find information than others?

While resources like a bigger budget, better tech or quality talent might be a reason, my argument is that because those are the ones that have a better understanding of their user’s behavior. One key characteristic we will explore is how humans consume information online.

Information Foraging Theory is one of the most important human-computer interaction concepts to come out of Palo Alto, coined in 1993 by Stuart Card and Peter Pirolli to describe the analogy between wild animals gathering food and how users gather information.

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What is the Information Foraging Theory?
Humans are constantly seeking, sharing and consuming information from their environment in an attempt to make sense of the world and achieve their goals/objectives. The theory stipulates that the journey of users following the scent of information to achieve an objective mimics that of an animal following the scent of their prey to satisfy their hunger. The information search process is called “foraging” or following the information scent. Information scent is basically the strength and correlation of the information provided on a site in comparison to the objective of the user who is searching. Information Scent is super correlated to great web design.

Why is Information Scent Important?
It’s important because it identifies the power a great website design or designer can have over a user on what they see and when they see it.

How Does This Reflect On A Website?
First and foremost the role of web designers is to help lead users to their goal. They do this by increasing the strength of information scent while simultaneously decreasing the scent of unrelated or competing information.
Users rely on various cues to ensure they are not wasting their time or effort in the search for their goal. So if the scent gets stronger, the user follows the cues to the goal. If the scent gets weaker, the user abandons the cue and backtracks or abandons the site entirely.

Case Example
Tom is looking to pursue further studies and is searching for institutions that offer the direction he wants to follow, in this case, it’s an MBA. After having several conversations with colleagues who have completed MBA’s, he is much more informed about where he would like to go, in this case, it’s Amsterdam.

Tom initiates a search on Google typing in “Life of MBA students in Amsterdam.” On the first page (SEO game strong), he clicks on a link called “Life at the university of MBA” (totally legit place). Tom finds a lot of interesting information and images about the campus and feels a strong sense of assurance that he is in the right place. But Tom is more interested towards how it’s like living in the city and not just the campus. Before a split second decision to abandon the site and head back to Google, he sees a hyperlink labeled, “Fun places for graduate students to hang out in Amsterdam!” Bingo and the scent got stronger.

So to summarise:
User arrives at homepage or page within the site after search engine query or ad redirect.
User searches for obvious cues that they are in the right place and the next step if they are.
If no strong cues (scent) user leaves the site. If there is, the user follows the path.
If scent gets weaker user back steps or abandons the site.
If at each stage user gets a stronger scent they stick around and continue on the path.
The user now reaches the desired point.

Information Scent in Application
There are plenty of ways to get users from A to B but there also many ways to lose their confidence. Couple things to look out for:

Links That Lie: User clicks on a link and it redirects to an error or to a page that bears no relation to what they clicked on. There must always be a strong correlation between the previous page and directed page through the labels, links and actual content.

Iceberg Syndrome: User assumes the information is not on the site as it is not in their view. Always keep important information for users above the fold.

Here are a couple of resources to brush up on your reading in this:

Also published on Medium.

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