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Study Finds Patterns in Web Site User Motivations and Questions

By David Poteet, New City Media
December 3, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - At the recent User Interface 9 conference in Boston, User Interface Engineering (UIE) previewed some groundbreaking research into the real questions that motivate people when they come to a Web site. The company studied over 3,000 posts on discussion forums about chronic neurological illnesses and discovered distinct patterns -- patterns that also appeared when they examined financial and other types of forums.

What prompted Middleton, Mass.-based UIE to ask this question?

Realizing that poor, insufficient or improperly placed content is the cause of roughly half of all usability problems, UIE set out to gain a better understanding of content. It started with the hypothesis that there are two kinds of knowledge involved when using a Web site: tool knowledge and domain knowledge.

Tool knowledge is what you know about how to use the Web site -- the tool itself. For example, how well you know how to use a stock portfolio Web application to manage your investments.

Domain knowledge is what you know about the subject matter itself. Following the same example, this would be what you understand about the basic principles of investing and current market trends.

The Knowledge Gap

When users approach a Web site, there is typically a gap between what they know now (current knowledge) and what they need to know in order to accomplish their goals (target knowledge). This is called the knowledge gap. Developers must take this gap into consideration when designing a site or application, and apply content and user interface technology to overcome the gap.

For example, Quicken's online tax-preparation system assumes you know very little about the domain of tax law. It asks simple questions in a questionnaire format that requires almost no learning on the part of the user. On the other hand, software written for professional accountants assumes a much higher knowledge of the tax code and provides an interface that's more efficient while requiring some initial tool training.

Usability testing is especially helpful for finding barriers in a design that keep people from overcoming the gap in tool knowledge. It doesn't always shed light on gaps in domain knowledge.

So UIE asked the question, "Where do people go when they can't find the information they need on your site?" Discussion forums seemed the obvious answer.

14 Topic Perspectives

UIE researchers pored over thousands of posts about different ailments, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and autism. They noticed the emergence of 14 types of posts. The frequency varied, but every forum had all 14 types, and every post fit into one of the 14 categories. Some of the categories



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