Conceptual links trump hyperlinks

By Kimberly Patch, Technology Research News

The art of navigating through physical space has improved considerably in the millennia since people learned to get their bearings from the stars, making getting from point A to point B a fairly straightforward experience. The nascent art of navigating through cyberspace, however, is often much more frustrating.

It's clear that people form some kind of mental model as they click through cyberspace. What's less clear is exactly how the mental model works, and how Web sites can be designed to fit it.

Researchers from Kansas State University have found that some common approaches to Web design contribute to Web users' frustration. The good news is that there's a fairly easy fix -- more closely align the way Web pages link to each other with the way the concepts within Web pages relate to each other. Another study has found that the consistency of navigation options affects how people organize these concepts.

In line with all the old metaphors about the Internet being an information highway, much of today's Web site design assumes these mental models form a type of spatial map. "If this were true, we would expect people would be able to remember where things are located and how the Web site is organized," said J. Shawn Farris, a Kansas State University researcher.

The researchers set out to see how well people could mentally map Web sites by asking 40 subjects to explore one of four versions of a Web site, then getting the subjects to draw a map of how the sites' pages were linked together. The different versions contained the same information, but the page links were organized differently.

The results showed a surprising gap between the organization of the Web sites and the resulting mental models. "According to what is frequently assumed... we expected people to be able to remember how the Web site was organized," said Farris. "We expected them to form a survey-like cognitive map of the Web site. They did not," he said.

Instead of depicting the different ways the pages were linked together, the drawings showed how the information related conceptually, said Farris. In fact, the mental models of people who looked at the four different Web site matched. "All participants drew the same thing," said Farris.

The research showed that people tend not to remember how pages link together, but they do remember how the concepts embodied in the pages relate to one another, said Farris. People "remember how content is organized," he said.

Although the findings do not line up with the conventional wisdom of Web design, they do make sense given what is known about cognitive psychology, said Farris. "When we remember things, we tend to form conceptual associations," he said. "For example, if we have just finished talking about dinosaurs, we tend to more quickly recall the names of specific dinosaurs even though we did not talk about those specific dinosaurs in our conversation."

The researchers are looking into an area that needs to be explored, and the results make sense, according to David Danielson, a researcher at Stanford University. "That navigators conceptualize the Web spatially has long been a common assumption -- there are 'routes' between Web pages, some pages are... 'landmarks', and site 'maps' allow the user to 'survey' the site. Even the widely-used term 'navigate' implies that point of view," he said.

The question is, to what extent does the site designer impose a particular metaphor on the user, said Danielson. "Site designers may have more power over a Web visitor's way of thinking than they are sometimes given credit, or blame, for," Danielson said.

The researchers' challenge to the pervasive, spatial way of thinking "will hopefully open up a more lively debate," said Danielson. The work "reinforces an idea that every information architecture should pay heed to: the site's connectivity should match the way its information is interrelated," he said.

According to Danielson's own work on Web design, the extent to which navigation options change as the user moves through the site also affects her mental model of the site. "A user can view a site as a congregation of loosely-connected facts, tightly related topics, or somewhere in between," he said.

Danielson tracked people as they used the Web to find information, and varied the navigation context of pages while keeping all other site attributes the same. He found that when people's navigation options changed dramatically as they moved through a site, they became more disoriented, and also viewed site topics as less tightly-related.

When the navigation option changes were more subtle, however, they saw connections between pages more easily, said Danielson. "Users [tended] not to notice the option changes, and probably got a chance to see connections rather than differences," he said.

In the end, if Web developers can design pages that more closely align with mental models, people will be better able to find what they want on the Web. "Helping a user develop an accurate mental model of your site answers a few critical questions she'll have when faced with a link: 'Where will it take me? Where will I be able to go from there? Have I already gone down this path? How much of that have I seen?' It gives her predictive power," said Danielson. "When she doesn't have that power, you can see it in her behavior: she backtracks more often," he said.

Farris' research colleagues were Keith S. Jones and Peter D. Elgin. Their paper detailing the research is slated for an upcoming issue of the journal Interacting with Computers. The research was funded by the University.

Timeline:   Now
Funding:   University
TRN Categories:   Computer Science; Human-Computer Interaction; Internet
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:  Technical paper, "Users' Schematic of Hypermedia: What Is so 'Spatial' about a Website?," Interacting with Computers, in press.


July 10/17, 2002

Page One

Photons heft more data

Eavesdropping gets people talking

Self-learning eases quantum programming

Conceptual links trump hyperlinks

Cell parts paint picture


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