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Examining Users on News Provider Web Sites: A Review of Methodology

William Gibbs

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 3, Issue 3, May 2008, pp. 129-148

Article Contents


More than fifty million Americans use the Internet daily to obtain online news (Horrigan, 2006). News provider services permeate the Web because the Web offers an efficient means of distributing news in multiple mediated forms that can also be personalized (Liang & Lai, 2002). A convergence of newspaper, television, and interactive (blogging) media is occurring on major news sites. Individuals can watch video on a newspaper site, such as usatoday.com, or read news articles on a television-oriented site, such as CNN.com, as well as participate in blogs about various topics. Coupled with this convergence is increased discussion of "citizen journalism" and proliferation of social media-type sites that deliver news more interactively, rather than being filtered and processed by editors. Blogsites are far more opinion-driven than television and newspaper sites, which tend to adhere to traditional journalistic precepts of objectivity, getting both sides of a story and not taking sides except in a specified columnist section. These trends, shaped by persistent and rapid technological change, will no doubt influence site usability as well as the ways users obtain news information.

Information Seeking

Herbert Simon (1996) noted that frequently designers of information systems wrongly perceive a design problem as information scarcity instead of attention scarcity. Consequently, they build systems that excel at supplying more and more information to people but in actuality what is needed are systems that filter out unimportant or irrelevant information. Marketers (and perhaps journalists) are recognizing that the amount of and quality of a consumer's or reader's attention is an important way to measure the success of a message. Attention scarcity is a serious concern for organizations using the Web as an information distribution channel. According to Nielsen and Loranger (2006), users spend one minute and forty-nine seconds visiting a Web site before they moved on, and they spend between 25 and 35 seconds on a Web site home page before leaving. While Web sites, including major news sites, continue to provide users more and more information in various media formats, one's ability or willingness to attend to that information is limited. The preponderance of online information and the potential of attention deficiency are compounded by a proliferation of animated advertisements, media controls, live news feeds, and a host of other interface elements that compete for user attention and alter interactions.

The Web has grown into an information ecology of billions of documents and a multitude of users and thus understanding the complexity of interactions occurring within this system is an arduous scientific endeavor but one of much practical value (Chi, Pirolli, Chen, & Pitkow, 2001). By understanding user behaviors on Web sites, developers can redesign sites to improve usability, accommodate user needs and tasks more effectively, help users achieve their goals more efficiently, and improve Web designs and services overall (Chi, Pirolli, Chen, & Pitkow, 2001; Heer, & Chi, 2002, p. 243). Studying user information foraging behaviors may provide insight into new uses and incarnations of Web devices and applications (Sellen, Murphy, & Shaw, 2002). This is especially important for news provider Web sites where users are actively seeking content that changes on a moment-to-moment basis.

Information foraging theory examines information-gathering and sense-making strategies from an evolutionary ecological perspective. It attempts to understand adaptations of human information seeking strategies and technologies to the fluidity of information in the environment. According to Card et al. (2001), informational spaces of the Web are disseminated into patches such as a Web site or a Web page that segment into other patches to form an information hierarchy. A Web page can be thought of as an information patch that contains link descriptors, content, advertisements, sidebars and other informational regions. Users usually forage for information by navigating Web links (Chi, Pirolli, Chen, & Pitkow, 2001). During foraging, they visually scan and scroll pages and continuously deliberate about whether to stay within a patch, to navigate between patches, or to move on to new patches (Card et al., 2001). Information scent pertains to cues such as hyperlinks that users employ to assess whether or not to pursue a certain path to an information patch (Pirolli, 2006). Cues that have a high information scent provide users descriptive information about the content they will obtain if they pursue the path. Foraging for information can be difficult as users encounter a multitude of sites with varying designs.

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