Information Patches

Last time we explored the notion of information scent, and in this post we will talk about information patches.  Both are thought provoking ingredients of the Information Foraging model of search behaviour, which says that the way we look for information in any complex situations has characteristics in common with the way an animal forages for food.

In the biological foraging model, a bear foraging for food would search for a berry patch, eat there till the point of diminishing returns, and then look for another patch, but not too soon.  By diminishing returns, we mean that it involves progressively more work to get a mouthful of berries once the patch has been picked over.

Is it plausible that we forage for information this way? Sometimes, yes. When I was learning what’s new in SharePoint 2013 information architecture, distinct topic areas revealed themselves, some examples being content types, hover panels, cross-site publishing, etc. I foraged in each of these until content started to look familiar, which was my point of diminishing returns.  No need to read the same thing a third time if there is nothing new.

Now anyone reading this will challenge the comparison between biological and information foraging, as I did, but I am looking for ideas that are useful.  One big idea for me was the notion that information can be patchy, with implications for defining patches, making them easy to find, and making it easy to search within them. That’s what we’ll explore in this post.

Let’s start with my paperwork. I have a smallish amount on my desk that I use constantly, a bookcase at hand with frequently used books, and lots of books on shelves in the family room, with groups for science fiction and travel, the remainder being a jumble.  This organization is designed to reduce the time to find material.  It doesn’t reduce the time to zero.  I still have to shuffle papers on my desk, or scan the travel books for the one on Istanbul.

So there are two aspects to searching when patches are involved:

  • finding a suitable patch
  • searching within a patch.

If we had woken up from a twenty year sleep and hit the web for the first time, searching for a patch on the internet would be hit-and-miss   After a while, though, we learn authoritative sources, and these become patches, like BBC Food or Microsoft’s TechNet.

Of course, this naming of patches is nothing new.  We have the Periodicals section in libraries, China Town and named neighbourhoods in cities, and the spice, carpet, and gold sections of bazaars.  It is just something under-exploited in web and especially intranet settings. In an intranet setting for example, we typically identify patches through broad navigational labels such as HR, Social Club, etc., but there are many specialized patches we could create, such as microsites and dashboards.

Ecommerce sites have highly structured patches.  A carefully designed faceted structure gets us to the patch of all DVD players made by a certain manufacturer and in a certain price range.  Then we have to browse within the patch.

There is not a rigorous definition of information patch.  Rather it is some level of thematic cohesion. So the following would be considered patches:

  • BBC Food
  • an At-A-Glance page of links for New Employees on an intranet
  • the sales and marketing portal in a corporate intranet.

Patches can contain sub-patches but at some level we reach pages with no information structure implied, for example Calgary weather.

What about a search results page?  Search results can be considered a dynamically generated patch. Those from the big search engines have thousands of hits for even the most unlikely queries, and do not usually indicate their patch structure.  In an intranet setting, where we can control metadata, we can do better and introduce search refiners to filter down to useful (by design) patches.

Pushing this to the extreme, we can omit the search results themselves and just list the patches and how many results there are in each patch.  So if an executive queried “SharePoint” in such a design, the search could identify that the company had done fifty SharePoint projects, there were eighteen employees skilled in SharePoint, we had five documents on corporate licencing, and eighty pieces of content to do with training.  In other words, the search concentrates on the structure of the information rather than detailed instances.

We can see that our main job as designers so far is creating a rich patch structure and helping our clients find the most useful ones.

Once we have found a patch, how do we search within it?  There are several approaches, depending on the content:

  • scan it manually, just like I do with my travel books
  • utilize any internal pathfinding that the designer has provided
  • look for significant scent identified and implemented by the designer.  In the eCommerce world, this might be product images, ratings, reviews, or specifications.

Our main job as designers here is providing scent and/or pathfinding appropriate to searching within a patch rather than finding a patch. Two distinct design exercises!

These concepts from Information Foraging don’t exhaust the range of concepts introduced.  The biggest area remaining is how actually do we as information foragers operate, and make decisions about what how long to stay in a patch, and what information diet to subscribe to.  My approach to the subject when I first encountered it was very much foraging, looking for aspects of the theory that could inform my analysis and design, and it is these aspects that I have shared.

Key names in this field are Peter Pirolli and Stuart K. Card.  They have written many papers; one that I like is called Information Foraging, available at http://act-r.psy.cmu.edu/papers/280/uir-1999-05-pirolli.pdf.

This is no mere blog post, but a seventy-odd page technical report.  The density of new concepts is staggering, some fruitful ones just thrown out offhandedly. Be warned, different parts of the document have different information scents, with some narrative, some mathematical modelling, and some simulation.  But the first twenty pages are accessible to everyone, and the key point of the modelling section is Figure 5 (Charnov’s model).

Stay tuned.

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