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Reading and Navigating

Navigation is the first point of interaction. This means that making your top line navigation labels stand out to attract users attention is key. This article introduces the concept of information scent and explains how creating strong information scents enables users to confidently find the information they require.



The web is all about hyperlinks and enabling people to find the specific information they require amongst the hundreds of other pieces of content available on a site can be difficult. But, you may wonder, how do users decide which link to click on and which to ignore? The answer is information scent.



What is information scent?

This term is used to describe how people navigate the web and how they interact with different potential sources of information to satisfy a question or information need. When presented with a list of options users will choose the option that gives them the clearest indication (or strongest scent) that it will step them closer to the information they require.


Sites with strong information scents are good at guiding users to content. Conversely, sites with weak information scents cause users to spend longer evaluating the options they have and increase the chance that they will select the wrong option, forcing the user to employ the back button.


The two big components of information scent

According to Nielsen Norman Group, there are two big components of information scent:

  • What the user sees — the representation of the source as perceived from afar (e.g., from a search results page); the representation includes, usually, the link text, but also the immediate and more general context surrounding that link text.

  • What the user knows about that source — any knowledge that the user may have about the search domain, the brand, the author of that source.

When users arrive on the page (or other information sources), they scan it through and search for trigger words and other cues, like relevant images. The first component is largely controllable by designers: we usually can decide how a page will be represented. The second is only indirectly controllable by designers, through the perceived value that they may have constructed in the past for that brand or source of information.



Applying the Information Scent

There are lots of different ways to lead the user along their desired goal path, but there are also many ways to crush their confidence in the information scent. To ensure the user does not lose confidence or patience, it is important to provide informative links that are clearly visible at the appropriate stage of a task. Often, next to a link there may be a short text snippet or a thumbnail intended to present the user with additional information. Even though users may not read all the text associated with a link, they may still scan it and glean additional cues from it. Another component of information scent is the knowledge that the user has accumulated in the past either directly — over her own previous experiences with the company, with the same type of content, or simply from using the web — or indirectly, from word of mouth or recommendations.



Conclusion

Be careful not to take this approach to extremes. Presenting too much information on a page can make the page appear cluttered and decrease the chance users will actually read the information at all. Conducting usability testing alongside the redesign of a homepage and key decision making pages enables an organization to evaluate the impact that stronger information scents have. Findability is one of the most important aspects of usability, and you can improve that by adding strong, meaningful cues, e.g. descriptive button texts and links, short and to-the-point summaries that don’t contain unnecessary jargon.