Information Foraging, or the confessions of an “Informavore”

foragingThe following has been taken,unashamedly, from Wikipedia… I openly admit it. I just love their article on Information foraging

Information foraging

Information foraging is a theory that applies the ideas from optimal foraging theory to understand how human users search for information. The theory is based on the assumption that, when searching for information, humans use “built-in” foraging mechanisms that evolved to help our animal ancestors find food. Importantly, better understanding of human search behaviour can improve the usability of websites or any other user interface.

History of the theory

In the 1970s optimal foraging theory was developed by anthropologists and ecologists to explain how animals hunt for food. It suggested that the eating habits of animals revolve around maximizing energy intake over a given amount of time. For every predator, certain prey are worth pursuing, while others would result in a net loss of energy.

In the early 1990s, Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card from PARC noticed the similarities between users’ information searching patterns and animal food foraging strategies. Working together with psychologists to analyse users’ actions and the information landscape that they navigated (links, descriptions, and other data), they showed that information seekers use the same strategies as food foragers.

In the late 1990s, Ed H. Chi worked with Pirolli, Card and others at PARC further developed information scent ideas and algorithm to actually use these concepts in real interactive systems, including the modeling of web user browsing behavior, the inference of information needs from web visit log files, and the use of information scent concepts in reading and browsing interfaces.

Details of the theory

Informavores” constantly make decisions on what kind of information to look for, whether to stay at the current site to try to find additional information or whether they should move on to another site, which path or link to follow to the next information site, and when to finally stop the search. Although human cognition is not a result of evolutionary pressure to improve Web use, survival-related traits to respond quickly on partial information and reduce energy expenditures force them to optimise their searching behaviour and, simultaneously, to minimize the thinking required.

Information scent

The most important concept in the information foraging theory is information scent.[1] As animals rely on scents to indicate the chances of finding prey in current area and guide them to other promising patches, so do humans rely on various cues in the information environment to get similar answers. Human users estimate how much useful information they are likely to get on a given path, and after seeking information compare the actual outcome with their predictions. When the information scent stops getting stronger (i.e., when users no longer expect to find useful additional information), the users move to a different information source.

Information snacking

Some tendencies in the behaviour of web users are easily understood from the information foraging theory standpoint. On the Web, each site is a patch and information is the prey. Leaving a site is easy, but finding good sites has not always been as easy. Advanced search engines have changed this fact by reliably providing relevant links, altering the foraging strategies of the users. When users expect that sites with lots of information are easy to find, they have less incentive to stay in one place. The growing availability of broadband connections may have a similar effect: always-on connections encourage “information snacking”, short online visits to get specific answers.

Models of information foraging

Attempts have been made to develop computational cognitive models to characterize information foraging behavior on the Web.These models assume that users perceive relevance of information based on some measures of information scent, which are usually derived based on statistical techniques that extract semantic relatedness of words from large text databases. Recently these information foraging models have been extended to explain social information behavior.

Cultural Dimensions – How people from different countries and cultures are…different

This is part of my “Working with Global Teams” series.

cultural differences

I’ve been reading Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers“. In part of it, he delves into a study that a dutchman had done into different cultures.

I found this fascinating and looked into it further. The dutchman was Geert Hofstede and he had built a model that described different cultures using six different dimensions.

Now – ever since moving to a foreign country, and then starting work for an international company, I have been trying to find a way that would help me understand, and to describe, the differences in the cultures of the people I live with, and work with.

And, it seems that Hofstede’s model certainly helped with that.

The six dimensions are:

  • Power distance index (PDI): This dimension refers to how people perceive those with power. For example – is the head of the country honoured and revered, or seen as “no different than us”.
  • Individualism (IDV) vs. collectivism: – “The degree to which individuals are integrated into groups”.
  • Uncertainty avoidance index (UAI):  – Best summed up as “how many rules and regulations are in place to ensure that things happen as they should.”
  • Masculinity (MAS), vs. femininity: Is there a big difference between what are perceived as the “male” role, and the “female” role.
  • Long term orientation (LTO), vs. short term orientation: – This dimension measures how much importance a culture puts on “the future”, as opposed to how important they hold onto traditions, and the past.
  • Indulgence, vs. restraint: Hedonistic behaviour, or not.

This made it so clear for me – looking at the different cultures I have lived in, as well as the different cultures I have worked with, I was able to finally get some clarity on how the cultures differed. To be able to categorize behaviours I had seen.

Hofstede’s work is still widely use, and very relevant. In fact, here is a quote from wikipedia:

Why is it important to be aware of cultural differences?

“Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”

Despite the evidence that groups are different from each other, we tend to believe that deep inside all people are the same. In fact, as we are generally not aware of other countries’ cultures, we tend to minimize cultural differences. This leads to misunderstandings and misinterpretations between people from different countries.

Instead of the convergence phenomena we expected with information technologies availability (the “global village culture”), cultural differences are still significant today and diversity tends to increase. So, in order to be able to have cross-cultural relations, we have to be aware of these cultural differences.

With his five (the Indulgence dimension was added recently) dimensions model, Geert Hofstede has lighted on these differences. Therefore, it is a great tool to use in order to have a general overview and an approximate understanding of other cultures and, to know how to behave towards individuals from other countries. Because, we still need to cooperate with members of other cultures, and maybe more than ever with the new problems which have arisen for several decades like environmental issues. Therefore cross-cultural understanding is indispensable.

Geert Hofstede has a site where you can compare two cultures against each other, as well as learn more. Go and see how much difference there is between the cultures. (http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_dimensions.php?culture1=&culture2=7#compare)

Other great references: