Once, I had the opportunity to work on a website where people learned about careers and looked for jobs. As part of the project, I did a heuristic evaluation and usability testing, but ultimately the website was hard to use because a fundamental element was missing: the fundamentals of information seeking were not built into the website.

But what is information seeking and why is it important to your website?

What is information seeking?

Wikipedia defines “information seeking” as “the process or activity of attempting to obtain information in both human and technological contexts”. Long story short, “information seeking” means that someone has a question to which she needs an answer, so she goes looking for that answer. She might want to know “What’s the job application process?” or “What degree is required for this career?” She will use any resources available to her to get the answer: friends, family, the internet, career counselors, schools, etc.

Why does information seeking matter to your website?

Information seeking matters to your information-heavy website because people will look for information for different reasons and different outcomes and in different ways. Those reasons and ways need to be supported by the way your website structures and displays information. In other words, the information architecture of a site needs to meet user needs!

Ways to seek information

There are several ways that people look for information and different ways your website can support users. These ways are illustrated through my amazing artwork (should I have signed my name on them?)

Known item searching

I know the subject but I don't know what information is avialable

Known item searching means that someone knows what subject or information they’re looking for, but they don’t necessarily know what information is available or where it’s stored.

These searchers might want to browse through the website navigation, look through a list of topics or subjects, or use a search box to see what comes up. Good use of taxonomy’s related terms and on-page related links can help this searcher find the most information.

Remember: With this user, she knows what she’s looking for in terms of subject or topic and wants to feel that she’s covered all her bases, but she doesn’t want to spend all day looking for the information.

Exploratory search

I want to see what's out thereExploratory search means that someone doesn’t know what information is out there about a subject or topic. In other words, they’re novices to the topic area. Perhaps someone wants to learn about becoming a lawyer. The profession might appeal to him for several reasons, but he doesn’t know what qualifications are needed, the possible career paths, or the available jobs. In this case, the person is looking for maximum exposure to the subject area.

Browsing through the navigation and on-page content, using related links, and A-Z indices can help this person find content. An A-Z index can be useful to someone who doesn’t know what topics are available; he can review a list of topics and read about them instead of using the search box (where he might not know what search term to enter).

Remember: With this user, he isn’t necessarily in a rush to find information and is in the stage of gathering as much information as possible.

Refinding information

I need to find something I've found before, but I can't remember where it is.Some people look for information on your website because they’ve found the information before and want to find it again. For example, on a job site, perhaps someone is casually looking through job postings. They might take a note about the job number or job title, but they’re not logged in and don’t have time to apply for the job at that moment. They might come back a day or two later, type in that job posting number, and go directly to that posting.

When a user is looking for something she’s found before, several tools can be useful: a search box that searches different metadata fields and the page body; quicklinks; wishlists or saved items.

Remember: With this user, the faster the she can get to the information, the more satisfied she will be.

Conclusion

When building an information-heavy website, good information architecture and taxonomy can help users find information. Some people know a topical area but don’t know what information your website has; some people don’t know the topical area and your website is exposing them to new information; some people know what they’re looking for and need to get to the information quickly. These behaviours can be supported through the use of a search box, A-Z indices, quicklinks, navigation, related links, wishlists, and saved items.

Next steps

To receive other exciting articles such as the one you just read, sign up for the Key Pointe Newsletter! You can also follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

To learn more, you can check out the Ambient Findability book.