Informavores, like Us, Smell Information

People land on your site. They appear as a little red number on Woopra. They come from somewhere.  They are looking for something. They have a reason for being there. Your site can help or hinder this. Turning the knob from hinder to help is the job of the UX’er. Information Foraging theory can help you.

You can look at web users as ‘information foragers’.  They track down information like an animal looking for food, like a terrier after a fox or like a pig hunting a truffle.  They pick up a trail, follow cues from place to place and ultimately find what they are looking for (or give up). Informavores scan and investigate. They multitask and interlace.   They follow the  ‘Scent of Information’ and that’s the topic of this post.

The nose knows! … with hair, don’t look read quic and move on.  sorry

I came across this term ‘scent of information’  in a Human-Computer Interaction course I’m taking from Scott Klemmer.  He introduced the term and set my mind in motion.  I believe it’s a foundational concept of user experience design.  If site visitors are informavores  and completing a quest for information is the reason WHY they are on a site, then this can explain WHAT they do on a site.  Understanding WHY and WHAT can help us design a better … a better user experience.

I’m not pretending I know a ton about this subject but it resonates with me and I’m thinking all designers should know more about it.  So here is some of the evidence of my research.

Design for Information Foraging Terms:

Glanceability – The ability for a visual page to convey meaningful information in a glance or short time frame.  A page must ‘hook’ or convince that more, desirable information is forthcoming.  5 second tests can determine a page’s glanceability.

Informavore – You and Me, dear reader.  An organism that seeks out and consumes information.  A way to describe human behaviour on the web. Coined in 1983 by George Miller, cognitive psychologist. (oh crap, he relates it to entropy.  Call Ben and brace yourselves).  Researched by Drs Ed Chi and Peter Pirolli

Beacon info – Whether or not elements (link text, navigation,etc) broadcast or give clues to the information that can be accessed there.

Trigger Words – Words that signal or beacon information

Flailing Around – This is what happens when a hungry, highly motivated informavore senses information but can’t find it.  I’ve noticed this watching Inspectlet videos of people frantically scrolling up and down the page.  “Sweet Mother of Pete, Why is this guy flailing around my page.  Is he on crack?”

Filters and Confirmers – A way to classify elements in a page design in relation to the scent of information.  Filters present a choice in path. Confirmers affirm the path is the desired one. Discussed at length last fall here on BUX.

Critical Path – The trail that leads the user through the site to desired content or goal.  A site should be designed to allow for easy friction-less completion of the critical path.

‘Speaking Block Navigation’ – Menu items that beacon or ‘speak’ descriptively what exactly is available by following the link.  Smashing magazine writer Vitaly Friedman coined the term.

Writing / Content Strategy– The informavore is after content. The UX’ers job is to put it where they expect it. The Content Strategist is the person who decides WHEN it’s put … ah, I’m not sure how to describe it, but it’s important. Trust me.  Or trust Rosenfeld and Halvorson in this UXbooth article.

‘The banana’ – Listen to Seth Godin and Don’t hide it.  The Banana is what the monkey smells in your suitcase.  So why not open it up and let him have it, for crying out loud. Don’t know what their banana is?  Just ask.

Interlaced browsing – Scanning a twitter feed or SERP, opening a bunch of links in another window and go back and forth reading and scanning.  It’s how you open 25 tabs in a browser and it’s probably what you are doing right now.  You can measure this by idle time on site (Woopra has, GAnalytics does not) and is why time on site is not a good metric (b/c all that idle time skews the data)

Looking for salad? It’s on the floor. God left it there for us. [nod to Louie C.K]


Dr. Ed Chi / PARC – Wired article from 2001 that explains ‘Information foraging’ theory. Very short

Dr. Nielsen / Stanford and Poynter Institute – Article from 2001 that needs to be read again and again

Dr. Jared Spool /UIE – These dudes know the deal. And, they charge for it. But you can still find some cool stuff in the freebie pile.

Dr. Peter Pirolli from PARC – 87 minute video breaking down “Information Foraging theory” for a graduate-level computer science class at Stanford (2009).  First 10 minutes are enough to blow the mind.

(FREE) Human Computer Interface Course – Scott Klemmer’s

How to Improve your Site for Informavores

This ain’t your grandma’s internet.  These principles aren’t new, but are still being ignored.  (I do it all the time. Do as I say, not as I do)

Your site should:

Provide good navigation –  understandable and descriptive with User’s own language and trigger words

Provide good IA – Provide a clear message and path that’s easily scan-able and simply structured

Follow the rules for online reading as established by Nielson and Co –

  • is broken up by headings
  • is shaped into lots of punchy, single idea paragraphs
  • puts key phrases in bold face
  • bullets key points
  • avoids jargon and rhetoric
  • is straightforward, and
  • is short.

Be user tested before, during and after initial development – A five second test, plus some user testing with tasks and ‘think aloud’ will uncover many issues.

RANT ALERT. Skip if you want to maintain your opinion of me. … And, about this photo. That’s Michael Stipe of R.E.M – He is a gay, southern, musician PLUS he is a megastar with a megaphone. It’s about to get real for that audience.

Final, Big Picture Thoughts

While floating in the pristine, non-smelly rivers of the Southeast (which have zero flesh eating bacteria, btw), I’m thinking about ‘The scent of information’ and how we informavores bounce around from topic to topic in a frantic search for the perfect bit of content that will complete the crap out of us.  Informavores? I say Info-hoarders!

Site designers are trying to help, but I fear they are only fueling the fire.  Our caloric diets are filled with junk, empty calories. Quick fuel. Easy to digest. Cheap to eat (cheap to make).  Is this where our information diet is heading?  Are we obese in the sense of information and knowledge?

And, how did we get this way?  I blame the schools.  Schools built on content, rather than context.  Schools built on find the right answers, rather than formulating the right questions.

It’s a teachers job to entice students to learn. An important person said that education isn’t filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.  Who said that?  I don’t know. I’m a product of this jacked up system – reductionist, industrial and hyper-fast.  Gimme the bullet points and lets hope I study the right ones for the test.  Right or wrong – I chose to remember the idea rather than the name.

My point is this… [rant monkey getting tired, needs a snack] There is a bottom to all this ‘make content easy to read’ stuff.  Pretty soon we are going to move towards ‘make users WANT to read’.  We -future thinking – designers must build up motivation and desire. Entice users to stop interlaced browsing. And, slow down. Quit cramming for the test, for the love of Jake.

Writing this down in my #GTD notebook – Find a remedy for information overload.

You can see the hopeful seeds of this future design mentality in “Designing for Emotion” and sites with personality.  Once we got information from people we trusted. I’m thinking of parents, brothers and sisters, crazy uncles and that dude with a walking stick on the trail.  Likewise Food came from people we trusted. Perhaps we need a slow food movement for design and information.  A slow information movement.  Where you know about every element in the design and cultivate it from the seed…

And, I’m done.  I’ll leave you with that.  Happy Summer Yall!

PS:  Join me over at the Udacity course on stats.  Perhaps we’ll find a solution for data overload there.  I trust that crazy, blue pill taking Professor Sebastion Thrun.

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