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What does information scent mean?

Sheza Naveed

The information scent of a source of information refers to the user’s estimate of the value that the source will deliver by seeing its representation, relative to the information needs of the user. The source referred to here is usually a hyperlink on a webpage. People visit a page based on two factors when they have a query:

  • how likely the page is to answer their query

  • how soon the page will give them the answer

Users decide whether to click on a link or not based on:

  • the label of the link

  • the context in which the link has appeared

  • the content presented with the link

  • the background knowledge that the user may have

Information scent is not absolute. Instead, it is a relative concept based on the user’s needs. The same source of information can have different information scents for different needs. For example, a link with the title ‘type of cars’ may have a high information scent for someone looking to purchase cars but a low information scent for someone looking for furniture online.

Four concepts constitute information scent:

  • actual source - the webpage where the link will take the user

  • remote representation of actual source - a link that takes the user to the source

  • true value - what the source offers; this is unknown until the source has been consumed/opened

  • estimated value - the value used to decide whether to proceed to the source or not; this is assumed before consumption

Source: NN group

The label of the hyperlink, i.e., the remote representation of the actual source, must offer a concise yet clear description of the source so that the user can make a decision easily. Labels such as ‘learn more’ or ‘more information’ are not very helpful as they provide a very broad explanation of where the link might take the user. The user cannot decipher if they will find useful information upon clicking the link.

The content that accompanies the link in the form of short text or a thumbnail to inform the user regarding the source is essential. The text should provide a good summary of what the link contains and any accompanying images must be representative and descriptive of the content. The images should illustrate what the source contains and not just focus on aesthetics. As shown below, the image in the middle of the bottom row does not clearly communicate where the link will take the user despite being aesthetic. Thus, it does not serve the right purpose.

Source: Al Fatah

The context in which the link appears matters, as the word donation may have a high information scent on a social welfare website but have a low information scent on an e-commerce website. Moreover, the context may be hidden on small interfaces or the user may not pay much attention to it, so it is essential to design descriptive link labels. Additionally, context should be provided early enough that the user can decide whether to use the link or not.

The last factor is the user’s prior knowledge about the source, their trust in it, and familiarity with the particular domain.

While all these factors are important components of information scent, the link label plays the most important role.

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Sheza Naveed
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