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Science and Technology

Exploradio: Hunter-gatherer Web design
Much like our ancestors tracked game for survival, information foraging and scent tracking theories explain how we find information on the Web.
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Our hunter-gather ancestors survived by scenting out information in the environment. We use those same skills in foraging for information in today's artificial online world.
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With the world at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine life before the Internet.  But modern Web surfers and our hunter-gatherer ancestors have more in common than you might think when it comes to tracking down information.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St. Clair looks at how Web designers borrow ideas from anthropology to make our wired world work better.

Exploradio: Information foraging

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Tracking eye movements
Aaron Rosenberg is manager of ScanPath, part of Kent State University’s off-campus, student-run marketing firm The Tannery.  As a user-experience analyst, Rosenberg tests how easy it is for people to navigate clients' websites.  

The tool he uses is a usability study.  Tiny cameras imbedded in the computer screen lock-in on the user's pupils.  Every mouse click, every movement of the eye, even how long it lingers on a word is recorded by the tracking cameras.

Most searches take just a couple of seconds per page, leading people deeper into a site.  Rosenberg finds that like a hound on the trail, people latch onto hints of the information they seek - “Even if the first couple of results give them a hint, a scent of information, they’re going to continue on the hunt and they’re going to continue on that path until they get what they need.”

Information foraging 
Notice he says people ‘scent’ information and ‘hunt’ for it.  It turns out that our behavior online is not much different than the way our ancestors tracked and hunted game in the wild.  Kent State University's Karl Fast says the way we hunt information on the Web reflects our hunter-gatherer past - “We are not herbivores, we’re not carnivores.  One of the best ways to look at human beings is as creatures that consume information.”

Fast teaches user experience design at Kent State.  He says, even in the artificial world we’ve created, people have retained those traits that allowed us to survive as hunters on the plains, and those same tracking skills operate in the online information space.

Fast says the idea of information foraging on the Web is borrowed from anthropologists’ understanding of how people interact with their environment to gather food.   

Designing websites for the way humans think
All of this means that designers of websites and other human interactions with computers are beginning to pay attention to the underlying ways that humans think and use their bodies.  Fast says even the way people talk with their hands influences design. He says humans are wired to think with our hands and computer interface design needs to acknowledge that motion is, "an output to how we think.  I think and then I do.”   This means devices will continue to evolve toward touch and gestural interfaces. 

One of the pioneers in the study of human and computer interaction, Jared Spool sees a not too distant future in which technology becomes part of our wardrobe, as he says, “closer to the skin.”  Spool says, “Computers will become simultaneously more powerful and more invisible.”

Kent State’s Karl Fast says computer science programs today are not just using technology and engineering to solve problems, they’re integrating psychology and anthropology to learn how to make computers fit with the human mind and body.  He says the goal of designers is not to just make sure it works, but to make you love the way that it works, and that means appealing to our unchanging patterns for gathering information from the world around us.


I’m Jeff St.Clair with this week’s Exploradio.


Related WKSU Stories

Exploradio - The Kinect connection
Monday, November 21, 2011

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