Of Sharks and Spiders – Information Architecture with Informavores

Information Architecture
We need information. But sometimes we don’t want it. Sometimes we are fed with information, sometimes we have to search for it and use tricks to get it. Sometimes we need information for survival, sometimes for entertainment; sometimes we understand it and like it, sometimes we hate it.

There are many ways to approach information, and many ways to describe why it is important in our lives. It’s obvious why there are way more ways to have troubles with or without information, than there are kinds of information in nonprofessional information relations:We don’t position our messages clearly, we don’t clarify the assumptions and we tend to argue too fast: We think it might be nice that the other want understands us, but everything we do to achieve that, it that we talk faster and sometimes even louder: Once we have said everything, the other will get the big picture.
The same occurs in thought-to-be professional environments: Media tend to be too talkative.
The online equivalent of talking faster and louder is putting a huge load of texts, contents, pictures, banners on a page and leaving the user alone with that.
The miracle with this: Sometimes, that works.

Structuring large amounts of content as a matter of faith

Information overload is not a problem by itself. Some sites have huge amounts of content that does not become outdated, and much of that content has to be visible on not too many pages.
This is were it’s always a question of faith: Deep or broad menus? Pulldowns or not? Mouseover-information or click only? And what actually belongs together, which contents form a common topic and which not? That’s the daily bread of information architecture, mixed with usability and salted with a bit of writing skills. – It’s a more than fulltime job to design a big scale website or, even worse, intranet, once you go beyond designing and start to figure out how to spread your content so that the site might really work. The good news: It can be done in a few weeks.

There is no magic behind it: Especially with big amounts of rather static content (as in intranets, help systems for large scale applications,or productcatalogues), you have to go through it one by one. Write down every link, every headline, and arrange them with paper and pins (or glue, if you dare).
If you start doing this, you wil be lost pretty fast and just put anything anywhere. You need to find your guiding principles in advance, and it should be principles that work on a content level (how to name things) as well as on a structural level (what elements and components to use).

The theory of Sharks and Spiders

A theory that I found very useful is the concept of sharks and spiders, derived from the information foraging concept („Information Foraging“) as presented by Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card. Sharks and spiders are both hunting animals, their survival depends from doing their job well, but they have very different hunting techniques.
A shark is always traveling, prowling through the ocean and eating more or less everything that appears to be somehow suitable.
Spiders on the other side are rather homely animals. They build their web, and then they just sit and wait. They position themselves or strategically optimised places, and then they wait for what the day will bring.
You as the information owner are supposed to take care of both – so who is easier to feed?
Sharks are just not there. You don’t see them, they might be right under you, or swimming somewhere through the ocean. The presence of a spider is quite obvious; you don’t even have to see the spider and it’s already easy to see where it will appear.
But sharks are actively looking for food – if you throw something in the water, they will come, maybe, even if it’s only one piece of meat. They will look for more, or just go on. They are used to having nothing, their supply chain is not very efficient, so they are more likely to taste something new.
One fly will not make a spider build a new web, there are only quite few places where spiders can build webs. It’s way harder to make them try something new.

Hunting or Lurking for Information?

What does this have to do with users and websites? Some users are sharks, they use websites as vast oceans that contain lots of information; in their view, you just have to move on and you will find something useful.
Other users are spiders: They don’t want to explore large areas, they prefer just to look at only one place. If something new is there, they will digest it. If not, they will come later, until, some day, they build a new web somewhere else, where they hope for more prey.
Sharks and spiders have quite different diets. You are supposed to feed them; so the first thing to do is to have a guess who your users might be.
Sharks and spiders are not bound to any sociodemographic criteria; both can be of any age, education, sex, or have any kind of interests. The only thing that might help you is a close look on statistics: Where do users go, which links do they use to proceed from the homepage? Are links in the menu the most common thing to click on, is it some top stories you put in the content area, or is it some banners and teasers? I’m afraid the clickshare will be pretty similar with similar sites, so that will not provide really helpful insights.
Does that mean we can only guess? – I suggest to also analyse the content: Is it something that encourages drive-by-reading (“Nice, story, I’ll have to tell my friend in the evening“), or is it rather encyclopedic content with not too many updates and hardly anything that really catches your attention?
Big tasty bits of information that are published on the same sport on a regular basis will attract spiders – this is a place that’s worth to build a web on. They will attract sharks, too, but they are more likely to move on, they are probably looking for more information, for something else to click on – and you want that to be something on your page.

Sharks are probably easier to attract, spiders are easier to keep. Spiders are perfect customers if you are in a high ticket business selling small numbers of expensive products. Sharks are more likely to accompany your media or products into new areas.

Hunting Habits determine Page-Layout

Why, after all, should this be important? Sharks and spiders have different preferences on how they want to consume information or what they actually consider to be information at all. Spiders are more likely to react on big teasers with nice pictures. They want to know already before clicking what it is they will see next. And they expect immediate results – that’s probably even more important: They are less likely to click twice. If the next page does not immediately display the expected result, spiders are confused, and they rather tend to go back than forward.
Sharks, on the other hand, don’t like to have information already there, ready for digestion. They feel molested by teasers and banners that just obviously try to attract them. They are more likely to use links in the menu, to browse through directories and category listings – or to simply use the search.

Sharks and spiders have very different ideas about how screen real estate in websites should be used – this is what you should take care of when you are designing your menus and your information architecture. Take care for a spider part – usually in the center of the page, where it’s easy to find -, and dedicate the rest of the screen to the sharks by putting menus, link lists or other navigational items like tag clouds on your page. Hybrids are not unusual: An example is to create a teaser that attracts spiders (with a picture, a catchy headline and a clear description) and links to a detail page, but to add links like “More on Sharkfood“ and “All about Animalfood“ that take the sharks to further overview-pages.

Pull on Sharks, Push on Spiders

The shark-spider-ratio should also change with the levels in your menu: The homepage and the first level pages need to contain spider-elements; further down the hierarchy, you will be better off with shark-components. But as a concession to spiders (and as one of the most important rules of usability for any type od users), a very well visible and easily accessible link to the homepage and the first level menu items should be on every page.

The latter – having the homepage easily accessible – is especially important as you never know who’s coming for dinner – or where the users actually come from: They may have subscribed to an RSS-feed, just clicked on any link in a blog, discussion or another reference where your site is quoted, or they may just be first time visitors sent by a search engine (one of the most valuable user types). It’s just critically important to never let them be confused.

The user typology of sharks and spiders can also be regarded as a partial analogy to push- vs. pull-marketing. Spiders don’t object push-marketing that much, they accept „click me“- and “come here“-stimuli, as long as they get something they feel it’s worth it. Sharks hate that. They can be attracted with pull mechanisms: Give them an overview of what is there, and they will sort our for themselves what they are interested in.
A great discussion of push- and pull-strategies in webpages can be found in Peter Morville’s “Ambient Findability“.

Essentials for a healthy Spider-Shark-Ratio

To sum up, we can summarize some basic rules that should help to keep a good spider-shark-ratio:

  • Spiders like homepages, and they like easy structures: The important news are always here.
  • Spiders are one-click-users: every click needs to deliver immediate results. If they expect a detail page and are taken to another overview – they are gone.
  • It must be easy to go back to spider-mode from everywhere on the page: Homepage and first level menus must be accessible at one click.
  • Shark save the easy bites for later – they don’t click on top-story-teasers that much, for them it’s more important to understand how a page is structured, where they can find more of this kind of information. They want to have more choices, and they want to choose on their own.
  • Sharks often skip the homepage and go deeper immediately – you need to give them additional overviews, menus (after all clicking possibilities) also on the lowest levels.
  • Sharks don’t need your guidance. But if you guide them well, so that it’s easy for them to understand where they are, what they can do here, where they can find similar information – they are more likely to stay, and they will explore much more from your page than spiders will ever do.
  • Spiders need entertainment – or they are bored soon. Providing information is not enough; you need to aggressively offer and sell it piece by piece. Sharks entertain themselves. The best way to guide them is to offer vast choices.

Getting back with this in mind to our information-architecture wireframes and storyboards, we have additional criteria that help us to be consistent in our decisions.

  • What’s the estimated spider-ratio we have to care for?
  • How can you keep the spider-area of your screen small, but efficient?
  • What information is left that still makes sense in the spider-part, that’s really attractive and fits to the need even of passive users?
  • Is there enough space for sharks?
  • Does the content quality really fit to what sharks need, are the labels in your menu clear and understandable?
  • Do you have a clear difference between links in the menu and other links (to internal articles or external pages), so that the users can guess what will happen if they click?
  • Do you always keep a minimum of two options, so that users can either browse through the menu hierarchically or access contents directly?

These guidelines may sound very abstract, but after all, they are just another story you can make up for yourself, a story to explain and visualize you users – while you need every help you can get…

PS: Sharks are an endangered species. Please support them (sharkproject.org , sharkprotect.com).

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Of Sharks and Spiders – Information Architecture with Informavores

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