One of the most common complaints about websites is that important information can be difficult to find. Leading users to the content they’re looking for is critical for a successful website visit and encourages previous users to return. Easy in theory but difficult in practice.
Users can easily find information when it’s organized and labeled according to how they think about it. How a user conceptualizes content is part of their mental model, which is how they think about the world around them. Everyone’s mental model is different–potentially very different– which makes this task harder than it might seem on the surface.
Beyond a user’s specific mental model you also need to understand how they’ll go about looking for information. There are seven different information seeking patterns users typically perform when interacting in digital environments. So not only do you need to understand how they think about the content, you need to understand how they will look for it.
The seven patterns include:
- Directed browsing
- Semi-directed browsing
- Undirected browsing
- Known-item search
- Exploratory seeking
- “Don’t Know What You Need to Know”
Let’s explore each one individually.
Directed browsing is when a user has a specific target in mind. It’s fast and systematic, making use of quick scanning and selective focus in the process. Users browsing with directed focus are likely to ignore most content only focusing on content relevant to their target.
A user looking for a Bluetooth speaker might land on an electronics retailer website and quickly scan the page for any pictures of speakers or labels that say “speakers” or “Bluetooth devices.” Any content that doesn’t fit said criteria will be ignored and quickly forgotten even if it has partial relevance, for example a “Wireless Electronics Buyers Guide.”
Semi-directed browsing is similar to directed but is less intense. When a user has a general idea of their need but lacks specific knowledge they’ll scan quickly but consume significantly more content in doing so. Not only are they looking to pursue an information scent they’re attempting to learn more so they can refine their target and move toward directed browsing.
Using our past example a user might know they want a cordless speaker but is unfamiliar of what technologies exist. They’d likely scan for content related to speakers but read more supporting text to learn more about what technologies are available so they could later decide if they want BlueTooth, Wifi, etc…
Sometimes there is no goal and little focus. Consider this “channel-surfing” on the web. A user might be looking for entertainment, serendipitous discovery, or just have indirect curiosity on a topic. There are some sites that have higher levels of undirected browsing. Social media sites for example are often browsed with little direction beyond knowing what’s going on within one’s network.
News sites are much the same. Sometimes users are looking for content surrounding a particular story, but it’s common for users to just browse looking for any story that peaks their interest.
Some users know exactly what they want and can clearly describe it. This behavior pattern is commonly associated with search. Typing in a specific product name is lower effort compared to navigating through product and brand categories.
Users looking for a specific item are likely to take as many shortcuts as they can. Anything that isn’t the specific piece of content they’re targeting is just a roadblock or distraction.
If anyone’s ever told you, “I’ll know it when I see it,” they’re exploratory seeking. This happens when a user has a general idea of their need but lacks the knowledge to articulate it.
Users who are exploring consume a lot more content and spend ample time learning. It takes them more pages and more time to get to their goal. It’s common for their goals to change as they learn more causing them to head in another direction completely.
Where directed, semi-directed, and known-item patterns tend to exhibit a straight line towards a goal exploratory seeking can switch paths multiple times before a goal is met.
Don’t Know What You Need to Know
In some cases users are so green to a subject they don’t know what they need. Alternatively, they might think they need one think when in actuality they need another.
In this case they’re likely to spend the most time trying to familiarize themselves with the subject matter and need the most hand holding. Before they even look at products they’re reading buyers guides, reviews and discussions.
Only after they’ve learned enough to know how to describe what they want will they even conceptualize a target.
We often overlook users who are trying to find content they’ve already seen. It’s common to discuss information seeking from the perspective of a new user, but many sites have a healthy percentage of returning users. While not all will be looking for something they’ve previously come across, some will. In these cases it pays to consider how might users find the information they have now realized they must return to?
Re-finding often consists of retracing steps and search; however, the user might be better educated and look in completely new areas for the same piece of content.
When it comes to organizing and labeling content it’s not enough to consider the user’s mental model. The patterns users are likely to exhibit when looking for content can greatly influence the best approach. Every website is going to have a different mix of behavior patterns, so it pays to do research and uncover which patterns should be prioritized. A site that has predominantly directed seekers would use a different approach compared to a more exploratory site.