A few days ago I wrote about exploratory information seeking and commented that I thought that the usability community hadn’t really come to grips with it.
I’ve been thinking more about this, and also about the differences between usability testing for informational and for interactive environments.
The ‘standard’ usability testing approach is to provide a set of scenarios to participants and ask them to work through the scenarios. The scenarios are usually in the form of ‘find something’. Even if they are written in a more descriptive form (such as a short story to provide some context), they are about finding information within a site. So, given that participants are told what they should be finding, the usability test is purely testing known-item information seeking. Even if the testing is on a site that has been designed to meet an exploratory need, this style of usability test leads only to testing known item. The very act of writing a scenario and asking someone to work it does this.
The other thing that these type of usability tests focus on is about ‘findability’. The finding of information is seen as the end of the process. Rarely have I heard about a test that explores whether people can understand the content once they have found it, whether they can use it to make good decisions or gain meaning from it.
I found this a bit scary in itself, realising that this type of usability testing is missing a major part of the information gathering journey.
But then I was also thinking about the various usability gurus, where they get their learnings from and how they create their guidelines etc. And I thought about a couple of gurus in particular, who many of you will know, but this is relevant to a reasonably broad group. I realised that most of the information that is published, and the guidelines that are created and the rhetoric that is spouted primarily comes from undertaking usability tests of sites. The same types of usability testing that I mentioned above – give someone a scenario, ask them to work it through.
So this scared me even more. A very, very large proportion of our body of knowledge about how people approach sites, and about how we should design sites, is based on a very narrow activity of looking for known information. And in most cases finding the information is seen as the end result.
Provided that I’m seeing the world as it really is, this has significant implications for our profession and the way that we design information environments. We may have already gone a significant way along the wrong path, where findability is king, where we spend more time on designing navigation than on designing answers and where we may be missing a major part of information seeking.