Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Search sucks. Foraging rules.

Juan Dürsteler at InfoVis suggests that
The behavior of human beings when searching for information intensively resembles that of the hunter-gatherers of our past and that of the foraging of animals.

The way we present information on the web should acknowledge and exploit what we know about this foraging methodology.

In his article, he points out that biologists believe that animals go after a food target that maximizes ROI, delivering the most nourishment for energy expended; so they will target something young and frail rather than something large and robust, even though the total reward is less. They will move on to fresh hunting grounds when the energy involved in foraging outweighs the probable payback of finding anything to eat. We humans would do that with complex decision-making algorithms; other animals just do it.

The theory goes that data such as hyperlinks have an "information scent" that implies more than is overtly revealed about what lies beneath, and we have to learn to sniff out which paths may be the best for us to search down. Some of us get rather good at it; others flounder.

The lessons for information architects (as they like to be called) are clear: populate your sites with strong but un-confusing information scents, make your search paths clear and inviting, and make sure your information ecosystem provides more easy prey than hunting effort. Clear out the unnecessary information and gratuitous design elements, and build an environment that makes foraging a rewarding experience.

The last line of the piece is interesting.

Maybe we’ll have to begin thinking about the creation of an Information Agriculture.

I used the term "information agriculture" in a debate at a conference in Paris back in 2001, where I criticized then-mainstream approaches to Knowledge Management as unproductive foraging-and-storage rather than productive planned agriculture of information. Of course I was roundly rebuffed by a Knowledge Management professional from the European Commission for failing to understand that the purpose of KM was to gather, catalog, and make accessible the knowledge inherent to an organization -- not to proactively do anything with it. But I think things have changed since then.

Thanks to Maish Nichani of elearningpost for pointing out this article.

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