How People Approach Finding Information

How People Approach Finding Information

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0152-9.ch012


This chapter does not address the topics typically covered in articles on searching for Web information, such as search engine optimization or how to develop an information architecture (IA). At best it could only touch on those topics, and many more sources give better coverage. Instead, it considers the cognitive processes of how people go about searching for information, which is at the root of any effective IA. It considers the forces which drive people to search for information and what mental processes are involved as they evaluate search results as they work toward a stopping point. For an extensive review article on information search research, see Hsieh-Yee (2001).
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He who would search for pearls must dive below. —John Dryden

Rein, McDue, and Slein (1997) emphasize that the “reader is first a seeker of information. The search process identifies and locates relevant documents. The reader then uses document content for some purpose” (p. 85). The information search process of any text, whether printed page or web site, can be viewed as HII which combines visual perception of the information presentation, the processes of mentally manipulating the information in working memory and long-term memory, and the decision-making processes of defining relevant information and interpreting it with respect to the situation (Wickens, 1992).

Any information search could be considered as follows. People examine the various information elements on the page (Figure 1). There is a visual search coupled with the mental filtering discussed in Chapter 6: How people perform a first glance evaluation. If some information is relevant or interesting, it is read. If that information fits within their goals and information needs, it is mentally integrated into the current situation model. If they cannot find relevant or interesting information, a new search path is chosen. This process repeats until they are satisfied with the amount of information gathered. As part of an iterative search, a mental image of the overall search space is built up which feeds back into mentally tracking the location of information and choosing new or modified search paths (Zhang & Salvendy, 2001).

Figure 1.

HII model – Approaching finding information

It is easy for a design team to consider searching or browsing as an end to itself, but searching or browsing are only the first steps toward obtaining the information required to address the current goal. High quality HII means people must find the information, but they also must then be able to interpret it and use it. Simply ensuring people have the information in hand does not fulfill a design team’s mandate or the user’s goals.

This chapter looks at:

  • Models of how people search: Reviews the models that researchers have developed of how people search for information.

  • Factors of successful searches: Describes how people search information and how their goals directly influence the search strategies they use and the success or failure of those strategies.

  • Finding relevance information: Describes how people evaluate and assess the relevance of found information.

  • Searching graphical images: Considers the factors that are different in searching for information in graphical images from searching for information in text.



The Web contains a vast amount of information relevant to a specific task or goal as well as a vast amount of irrelevant or downright wrong/fraudulent information about a specific task or goal. Finding and interpreting this information requires working within a complex search environment. In many ways, for the web, searching is becoming the only way of finding information and navigating around it.

Search is becoming a navigational interface. The way we use to navigate this vast knowledge, space that exists out there is much larger than anything we could jump up on the computer. This is the computer connected to the rest of the world. We need to find a way to understand how to make a sense of all that, and searches become our way. (The future of online search, 2005).

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