What is Browsing?

Browsing is the activity of engaging in a series of glimpses, each of which exposes the browser to objects of potential interest; depending on interest, the browser may or may not examine more closely one or more of the (physical or represented) objects; this examination, depending on interest, may or may not lead the browser to (physically or conceptually) acquire the object.

Marcia J. Bates

Ellis: Information Gathering Behaviour

Ellis (1987, 1989) carried out a study in which he used semi-structured interviews for data collection and Glaser and Strauss’s grounded theory for data analysis. His research resulted in a pattern of information-seeking behavior among social scientists that included six generic features:

  • Starting: comprising those activities characteristic of the initial search for information such as identifying references that could serve as starting points of the research cycle. These references often include sources that have been used before as well as sources that are expected to provide relevant information. Asking colleagues or consulting literature reviews, online catalogs, and indexes and abstracts often initiate starting activities.
  • Chaining: following chains of citations or other forms of referential connection between materials or sources identified during “starting” activities. Chaining can be backward or forward. Backward chaining takes place when references from an initial source are followed. In the reverse direction, forward chaining identifies, and follows up on, other sources that refer to an original source.
  • Browsing: casually looking for information in areas of potential interest. It not only includes scanning of published journals and tables of contents but also of references and abstracts of printouts from retrospective literature searches.
  • Differentiating: using known differences (e.g., author and journal hierarchies or nature and quality of information) between sources as a way of filtering the amount of information obtained.
  • Monitoring: keeping abreast of developments in an area by regularly following particular sources (e.g., core journals, newspapers, conferences, magazines, books, and catalogs).
  • Extracting: activities associated with going through a particular source or sources and selectively identifying relevant material from those sources (e.g., sets of journals, series of monographs, collections of indexes, abstracts or bibliographies, and computer databases).

Lokman I. Meho & Helen R. Tibbo: Modeling the Information-Seeking Behavior of Social Scientists: Ellis’s Study Revisited (PDF)


In other words … (Ellis 1993?):

  1. Starting: identifying sources of interest.
  2. Chaining: following leads from an initial source.
  3. Browsing: scanning documents or sources for interesting information.
  4. Differentiating: assessing and organising sources.
  5. Monitoring: keeping up-to-date on an area of interest by tracking new developments in known sources such as journals.
  6. Extracting: identifying (and using) material of interest in sources.
  7. Verifying: checking the accuracy and reliability of information.
  8. Ending: concluding activities.

Information seeking behaviour

Model of user experience while searching information (six stages):

  1. Initiation: The user becomes concious of a gap in knowledge. Feelings of uncertainty and apprehension are common; the main task is to recognize a need for information.
  2. Selection: Ubncertainty often gives way to feelings of optimism and a readiness to begin searching. The task is to identify and select the topic to be investigated. Thoughts are forward-looking and attempt to predict an outcome.
  3. Exploration: Feelings of uncertainty, confusion, and doubt return. The general inability to precisely express an information need commonly results in an awkward interaction with the system.
  4. Formulation: Rising confidence ion decreasing uncertainty mark a turning point in the process. Forming a focus becomes the chief task as thoughts become clearer.
  5. Collection: Interaction with the information system is most effective and efficient. Decisions about the scope and focus of the topic have been made and a sense of direction sets in. Confidence continues to increase.
  6. Presentation: The goal now is to complete the search and fulfil the information need. A sense of relief is common as well as satisfaction and dissatisfaction (in the case of a negative outcome). Thoughts center on synthesizing and internalizing what was learned.

By Carol C. Kuhlthau, cited in Kalbach (2007, p.47)

David Ellis: Behavioural model of information seeking (8 primary behaviours)

Eight primary behaviour patterns in information seeking:

  1. Starting: identifying relevant sources of interest
  2. Chaining: following and connecting new leads in an initial source
  3. Browsing: scanning content of identified sourcves for subject affinity
  4. Differentiating: filtering and assessing sources for usefulness;
  5. Monitoring: keeping up to date of an area of developments in a given subject area
  6. Extracting: systematically working through a given source for material of interest
  7. Verifying: checking the accuracy and reliability of information.
  8. Ending: concluding activities

David Ellis, cited in Kalbach (2007, p.26)

The pain of pagination

It’s always worth re-visiting ‘best practices’ that are for the most part never being really questioned. Pagination is a good example. While discussing pagination with developers, I got the impression that it is (or it used to be) a best practice for technical reasonsmore than it is based on actual user insight. There are some obvious (technical) benefits of returning database query results in chunks: it allows quick page load, saves bandwidth, server resources, and energy. It allows designers to apply efficient page grids and to send relevant information into the footer. Oh, and it adds some page-impressions to your SEO statistics.

But what about the user? From what I see and hear in usability test session, users don’t like it and don’t really use it. Although modeled on the simple and very familiar pattern of turning book pages (well, may be not that familiar anymore?), pagination works well only for users who are willing to make an effort. Page-turning on the Web is a complex operation involving a series of cognitive and physical steps: understanding the idea of pagination, allocating the pagination bar, understanding the next step required (where am I and where do I want to go), locating and hitting a (more often than not) tiny link.

Most users seem to be satisfied with a limited number of results anyway. This is certainly true for Google-like search results or for all other ‘transient data’ (Scott 2009, p. 155), where data further down the line become less relevant for the user. But what, for example, if you want to check this season’s trendiest trainers that happen to be a list of 123 items in no particular order – and you don’t want to miss any of them? Comparing items across different pages is painful and ineffective. The product pages of the Adidas online shop employ an alternative to pagination that addresses user needs without straining server resources. Content is incrementally loaded on demand, i.e. when the user scrolls through the page. With a bit of buffer, this works very well. Incremental page load (or yahoo-style crolling) requires new thinking around page-layout and meaningful tools, but for many use cases it promises the end of clumsy page poking and the pain of pagination.

Other examples:
Globrix property search
Artists page of Bandcamp (combining incremental page load with pagination)

Three common information needs:

  1. The perfect catch (answers straight away, e.g. telephone numbers, facts and figures) a.k.a. ‘ known-em seeking’
  2. Lobster Trapping (you don’t know much about sth but you are interested) – You are setting out the equivalent of a lobster trap – you hope whatever ambles in will be useful. – a.k.a. ‘exploratory seeking’, typically open-ended,
  3. Indiscriminate Driftnetting (you need to know the complexity of a subject so you need every little fish…) a.k.a. ‘exhaustive research’

From: Morville, Peter and Rosenfeld, Louis (2002), Information Architecture for the World Wide Web – 2nd edition, Sebastopol: O’Reilly, p. 31

Other terms used:

Information foraging (Morville)