Browse Is The New Black

Search, search, search. Everyone is talking about search these days. Bing, semantic search, site search. That’s all you hear. Don’t get me wrong: search is wildly important to our daily experiences on the web. I’ve written a bit on search on this blog. And I work for LexisNexis, whose core business is based on search.

But at the same time were seeing a lot of new products and interfaces that offer enhanced online browsing experiences. Browsing it totally underrated, I believe. What’s more, looking broadly across human information behavior, we see that browsing is more than an accidental, impulsive activity–it’s not just aimless surfing.

Previously I posted about Marcia Bates’ paper on browsing. Bates writes:

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. …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.

Just to be clear, Bates defines browsing as follows:

…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.

So, there’s a physical aspect to browsing. It’s about scanning and picking up on visual aspects of information and information containers (e.g., a book cover).

I was reminded of this when I saw that LibraryThing just announced an new feature for their library products: “Shelf Browse“. They advertise:

Browse your library’s shelves visually, just as you would do in the physical library. Shelf Browse lets your patrons see where a book sits on your actual shelves, and what’s near it. It includes a “mini-browser” that sits on your detail pages, and a full-screen version, launched from the detail page.

Why bother? With search, you can just query a database or library catalog to find what you need. Well, it turns out that the way in which information is presented is important, too, as well as how we can interact with it. Thomas H. Davenport sums it up for me best in his 12-year-but-still-very-relevant book, Information Ecology:

People prefer information that is timely and rich in contextual cues. We like information that involves sequence and causality (that is, a story), which is presented with humor or given a unique interpretation–information ] visually rich in color, texture, and style, and clearly has relevance for out work and lives. Perhaps this seems obvious. But what we get from computers is usually dated information with little or no context or clues to meaning, devoid of sequence or causality, presented in impoverished formats, in much greater volumes than we care to sift though. (p. 28)

Then there’s a whole range of browsing interfaces that provide rich information experiences. Here are just two things I’ve seen recently that are indicative of what I believe reflect a trend in browse interfaces:

Now we’re getting into the territory of information shape as defined by Andrew Dillon and Misha Vaughan:

…[Information shape is] a property conveyed both by physical form and by information content. Separating these elements completely is perhaps impossible but one can talk of the distinction between the layout and sequencing of information as viewed by the consumer (user or reader) and the cognitive representation of meaning that employs (at least in theoretical terms) knowledge structure such as schemata, mental models and scripts.

Of course, Dillon is quoted as saying, “Data is stored, information is experienced” (which inspired the name of this blog).

Beyond that, browsing also provides a certain semantic peripheral vision into the scope of an information collection. You can get a better sense of what’s there, what’s not there, and how much is there (sometimes). Search, on the other hand, often just teleports you deep into a set of information, and you don’t get an overview of the space. Providing an overview is an important part of browsing, I believe.

Here are two examples of providing overviews I found particularly interesting:

Of course, the holy grail of information architecture is seamlessly combining search and browse. So, although I contend that “search is the new black” here, I want to reiterate the importance of search. 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.

Liv seems to agree with this thought in her post “Search and Browse.” And of course, this is a key goal of faceted navigation: the increase a person’s ability to interact with information post search.

What is the future of search? Maybe it’s more browse.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


  1. I definitely agree that integrating search and browse reflects how we look for info, especially when we don’t have something very specific in mind. For example, on Jinni users can combine or skip between semantic search and visual browse to choose a movie to watch; we think this is the most comfortable and flexible way to explore.

  2. Pingback: Kalbach: Browse Is The New Black

  3. Pingback: Kalbach: Browse Is The New Black

  4. Gail Lynn

    Hi James!

    I am working as a consultant at LexisNexis in Dayton, OH. We are working on the New Lexis platform. We should connect.


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  8. Very interesting blog! I absolutely agree with the sentiment that “Some kinds of information are recognized as relevant only upon discovery.” Search is a great way to find info (or products when shopping online, which is my domain) but how can you search for something you don’t know exists?

    Many e-commerce sites seem to think that search is king and browse is unimportant–too frequently, faceted navigation is only returned when customers search for a product, and not when they browse by category.

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