Marcia Bates – What is Browsing?

Marcia Bates has a new, interesting article in Information Research called “What is browsing— really? A model drawing from behavioural science research.” This is an invited paper, and, as the title suggests, it’s a review of empirical research reported in previous studies. Professor Bates is able to draw conclusions based on others’ research and arrive at a model for browsing.

The opening paragraph itself is quite compelling:

“Though often seen as a casual, incidental behaviour in the general society, browsing, in the information world, is widely recognized as an important information seeking technique. In an academic context, scholars have argued that frequent browsing is often the only way to locate information and resources that cannot be readily described by index terms. Further, some kinds of information are recognized as relevant only upon discovery. In short, there are the things you know you do not know and the things you do not know you do not know. Browsing provides an alternative strategy for locating information of the first kind and may provide one of the crucial ways for information of the second kind to be encountered.”

She goes one to review different definitions and models of browsing and concludes that:

“…browsing can be seen to contain four elements, iterated indefinitely, until the overall episode ends:

  1. glimpsing a field of vision;
  2. selecting or sampling a physical or representational object from the field;
  3. examining the object; and
  4. physically or conceptually acquiring the examined object, or abandoning it.”

Note that the author herself recognizes that this is visually based, and it omits browsing such things as sound files or the type of browsing a blind person might do while listening to a screen reader. So we have to understand “glimpses” as both visual and auditory–and perhaps even as tactile when considering a Braille reader.

Interestingly enough, Bates pins browsing back to a primal urge all animals have to explore their environment. This recalls Peter Pirolli’s and Stuart Card’s Information Foraging Theory work. Bates writes:

“The in-built motivation for this exploratory behaviour can be called curiosity. Because humans are so strongly reliant on vision, bodily motion often mirrors visual search, in that the second stage of browsing often involves physical movement toward items of interest, which movement, of course, also supports closer visual inspection.”

The last paragraph of the article is disappointing, however:

“The design of interactive information systems needs to incorporate an awareness of human browsing characteristics. Specifically, browsing for information in such systems should not be limited to the opportunity to scan, but instead enable the searcher to manifest the instinctive tendency to engage in a browsing sequence: to glimpse, then to examine or not something glimpsed, then to keep or not the things examined.”

Such vague recommendations for someone who isn’t really in the business of desiging systems always makes me cringe. What does this really mean to any of us who actually design interactive information systems? Not much, I’m afraid.

This article is timely for me, though. I’m scheduled to give a talk at the IA Konferenz in Stuttgart in November on the integration of search and browse. I’ll of course be citing berrypicking material from Bates, but there may be more stuff in this article I can use too. My talk is based directly on Chapter 11 from Designing Web Navigation, where I write:

“From a user’s perspective, navigating and searching aren’t necessarily contrasting activities. People just want to find the information they need. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and really different sides of the same coin. Integrating navigation and search, then, better supports how people really look for information.”

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

One comment

  1. Pingback: Browse Is The New Black « Experiencing Information

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