3. The Web Environment

The author subdivides the concept of environment into user environment (the physical/cognitive space in which the user accesses the Web) and the site environment (the space provided by the site owner in which the user will interact.

3.1 The User Environment

The author uses the term "Web Ecology" to include both the physical and environmental space in which the user resides.

3.1.1 The Physical Space

The physical space in which a user accesses the Internet can vary: home, school, office, cafe, mobile location. This can have a direct impact on the way in which the user interacts with a Web site.

The author defines four elements to consider:

  1. Physical space objects - The objects in the user's environment, including the furniture (an office desk or a restaurant table) and various paraphernalia in their view. The author states that these objects "are potential cues that can trigger thought processes" but provides no examples to support or illustrate this assertion.
  2. Interrelationships of objects - How the physical items (#1 above) are arranged. Another assertion is that the way in which the objects are arranged or organized "can influence how users perform Web tasks" - this is likewise unsupported.
  3. Characteristics of objects - The qualities of the objects in the space: color, shape, size, etc. No indication what this has to do with anything pertaining to the Web
  4. Physical location - Seems to deal with geography: a user in a specific city may have interests specific to that location (example: weather) as opposed to other locations.

On environment, the author cites a study that indicates that it affects memory: if the user learns a task in a specific environment, he performs it best in that environment, as compared to any other environment. However, the study pertains to tasks done in the environment rather than Web tasks, in which the environment is more incidental.

EN: the author really seems to be stretching here. The basic concept of environment is good, and it seems important to consider the locations in which a site will be used, but he seems to be getting into details without explaining their relevance.

3.1.2 The Cognitive Space

The author does not define this, but gives some examples: thought processes, impressions, perspectives, plans, goals, and concerns that are specific to an individual. Again, four elements:

  1. Thoughts triggered by the physical space - This deals with the cognitive phenomena (thoughts, memories, emotions, etc.) that arise due to association with the physical space. Simply stated, people may think and feel differently in different environments.
  2. Current situation-induced thoughts - These are cognitive phenomena triggered by intangible conditions (sensory stimulation, as well as interaction of other people)
  3. User intentions and goals - Includes cognitive phenomena linked to conscious intention of the user (what they wish to accomplish) and how they use the Web to serve those intentions.
  4. Information processing - Relates to the cognitive capacity of the user: their intelligence, ability to focus attention, and short- and long-term memory.

In each instance, the author stresses the element is "important for Web design" but assumes that to be self-evident.

Selective attention: A person will purposefully ignore sensory data, to focus on a task.

Short-term memory: People are limited (in varying degrees) in their capacity to learn and recall specific details in the short term.

EN: The Miller "study" is widely accepted by many who have never read it. It is, in fact, not a study, but an article that notes a mathematical anomaly in other studies of memory, sense perception, etc.

Long-term memory: This memory has "probably unlimited" capacity and possibly infinite persistence, but a slower recall rate than short-term memory.

3.2 The Site Environment

The site environment relates to the organization of information (pages/interface) within the environment of a Web site. This is of particular importance to design (constructing a site, adding new information to an existing site, changing information on a site), as it can be completely controlled.

For any site or system of information, users develop both structural and functional knowledge. Structural knowledge pertains to the way in which the pages/interfaces are arranged, whereas functional knowledge pertains to the way in which the user interacts with the site (e.g., how to navigate the structure to arrive at a specific bit of content or perform a specific task).

There is also some reference to similarity among environments. Web sites can be similar to physical environments (mimic the structure of a library or a store), subject to the capabilities of the medium. We sites can be similar to other sites of the same genre, such that a library site capitalizes on the user's functional knowledge gained by using other library sites.

EN: The author seems to focus overmuch on making the Web experience more usable by mimicking the physical environment - but I must disagree with him here: not only would that lead us to design sites that fail to take advantage of the specific capabilities of the medium, but it also fails to account for users' experience. For example, I would venture to guess that most experienced users have greater experience with online bookstores than a physical ones, so to base a new site upon the physical model would seem to be counterintuitive.

3.2.1 Scenarios

The author presents four scenarios demonstrating how a user might seek to interact with a supermarket Web site based on the processes they use in a physical supermarket.

Scenario 1: Shopper new to store and searching for a single item

Shopper enters the store and goes to the left side (based on experience of where the item is usually located), then walks down the end of the aisles inspecting the signage to find the correct one, then enters an aisle and uses the general shapes and colors of shelved merchandise to arrive at the correct section, then reads the labels of merchandise, top to bottom, left to right, to find the desired item.

Scenario 2: Shopper new to store who has a list of items

Will skip the elaborate detail (there's a lot of it). Basically, it's similar to the previous scenario, but involves a lot of repetition as the user searches for each individual item. The user starts with the item he feels most confident of being able to find, then chooses each proceeding item based on its expected proximity to the previous one.

Scenario 3: Shopper familiar with store and searching for one item

Similar to the first scenario, only the shopper's familiarity leads him to go to the right aisle, section, and even shelf space without having to do any investigation or decision-making.

Scenario 4: Shopper familiar with store who has a list of items

In this instance, the shopper has a specific pattern in which she travels the store: she is able to go through aisles in sequence to gather items based on their location, as she knows what is located where. Shelved goods first, then frozen, then perishables, with little guesswork or problem-solving.

EN: I'm a bit concerned, as this is not a comprehensive set of scenarios, and as I recall from studies of retail consumer behavior, they are not the most common patters of behavior. I think the author can be forgiven for this, given his intent is to show a number of scenarios as a hypothetical example - but it does raise a valid concern: that the scenarios you test by should reflect actual consumer behavior, not something made up based upon what you would assume behavior to be.

3.2.2 Designing from Scenarios

The author uses scenario 4 (a shopper familiar with a supermarket who needs a number of items) to suggest how a site should be designed to accommodate their mental processes. Specifically:

EN: This has the semblence of a logical analysis, though I wonder if it's entirely correct: merchandising taxonomies, as well as the layout of aisles, varies among markets, and there may be a more efficient way to shop, in the online medium, the economy of which would eventually make the task more efficient (hence usable) as users become accustomed to the online experience and leave behind the paradigm of the physical one.

3.3 Simple versus Enriched Site Environments

The author suggests that the closer a Web site mirrors the physical world, the more usable it will be, but a designer is limited to what is feasible given the limitations of the medium.

He cites a study (Badre and Jacobs, 1999) that compared users' ability to locate items in a QTVR reproduction of a museum to their ability to find them in a text-based site. The study concluded that most (72%) users found the text-based site made it easier to accomplish their goal, but that most (75%) users preferred the "experience" of the VR reproduction. The author concludes that there is a balance to be struck between a experience and utility.

EN: This is a bad conclusion - users find gimmickry like this to be "click" and "cool" for a very short time, but eventually become frustrated by the difficulty of using gimmicky interfaces. It can attract attention, but is damaging to long-term success.