Scaling Synthesis

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Search Behavior

Last updated May 20, 2022

Authored By:: Rob Haisfield

When people are under conditions of uncertainty, how do they increase their certainty?

Search behavior tends to fall into a few main categories that exist on a spectrum: information retrieval, focused search, exploratory search, exploratory browsing.

With information retrieval, you know what you’re looking for and where to find it. A search bar or folder system works great in this situation.

With focused search, you know what you’re looking for but not where to find it.

With exploratory search, you know where to find something but you can’t quite articulate what it is you’re looking for. This is what I design my digital garden for.

With exploratory browsing, people aren’t searching for anything in particular, they’re just consuming information.

There are two main theories of search behavior. Information foraging theory and Berrypicking.

It’s important to think about the lens parameters: how likely is the person to know what they are looking for or where to find it? How transparent are things?

# Berrypicking

Berrypicking is modeled off of the author’s experience picking berries on vacation. People meander from information patch to information patch, and they have many different possible search paths.

Critically, as people learn a new domain, their questions evolve. One of the most important things for a searcher is that they learn the right questions to ask as they uncover more information.

People have many different strategies for searching for information, and they flexibly switch between them as demanded by the situation.

# Information Foraging Theory

Information foraging theory is more pragmatic than Berrypicking. Every search for information begins with a goal. People follow an information scent, which gets stronger as people approach their goal. It’s almost like a hunt.

This is based on optimal foraging theory, so people will explore a “patch” of information, and based on how much friction there is to move on to the next patch weighed against the probability that a patch of information contains what they’re looking for, they’ll move on or dive deeper.

In my hypertext notebook, I try to title my notes in such a way that there’s a high information scent to help people determine whether to click on the link or not. I’m planning on implementing hover previews as well in order to reduce the friction to click on a page to open it up.

Some extended sections of the research point to the fact that people will find information faster if they have help from others. Experts can help beginners learn the vocabulary of the domain. For more detail, see Information Foraging Video