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Thoughtwander – Product Research, Hypertext Cycles, and Decision Making

Back in the day, I used to take many a thoughtwander. As I’m getting old and boring, they come fewer and farther between.

Recently I’ve found a couple threads that might tie together. The first deals with how people research product information online. The second concerns a hypertext pattern known as “The Cycle”.

I have been particularly keen on product research since I worked at, and watching numerous people try to find the right product to buy.

In our user tests, the archetypal task was to have people research digital cameras. Digital cameras are great because a) they’re common, b) not cheap, and c) somewhat complex.

Back in the day, fewer people knew much about them. We assumed that, given the task of finding an appropriate digital camera, people would whittle down the attributes such as price, megapixel count, and brand, and arrive at the few options best suited to them. If they had questions along the way, they could read helpful guides that would define terms, suggest comparison strategies, etc.

Again and again in our observations, that didn’t happen. People who knew little about digital cameras made no attempt to bone up. Instead they’d barrel through the taxonomy, usually beginning with a familiar brand, and get to a product page as quick as possible. It was only then, when looking at a specific item, and seeing what it’s basic specifications were, did they pause, sit back, and think, “Hmmm. This has 2 megapixels. I wonder how many I want?” Some would look for glossaries or guides, others would read reviews, and some just guessed by comparing the various products.

They would go through this cycle — looking at a product, reflect on their needs, understand concepts, look at another product, reflect again, etc. — a few times. Todd and I came up with a conceptual model, where the user is something like a bouncing ball, falling straight onto a product, then bouncing up, getting a lay of the land, falling onto another product, bouncing up again, but not as high since they’re starting to figure it out, falling onto another product, and repeating until they’ve found the right one.

Product Bounce Diagram

Three years later, and I’m researching how people acquire financial products, and I’m seeing the exact same things. People looking for a loan will head straight for the rates, even though they have no real understanding of what the rates mean, because they need something concrete to get their head around. Only then do they try to take this information and develop context for it.

The second thread in this thoughtwander comes from the world of hypertext theory, specifically Mark Bernstein’s Patterns of Hypertext. And specifically within that, The Cycle, where a reader returns to a previously visited node and departs on a new path. In a hypertext, this is how readers build their experience of context. By definition, you don’t read a hypertext from beginning to end, nor in some broad-to-narrow hierarchical fashion. You piece together an experience through exposure to its elements, and their relationships. Understanding relationships requires cycling through the material, returning to the same point more than once, and seeing how it’s all connected.

Well, that resonates with the behavior I’ve seen in product research. Websites tend to be designed rather rigidly and hierarchically, assuming visitors will be good little shoppers, and get a sense of all the basic concepts first (learn about megapixels, memory cards, battery life), then figure out their specific needs (I need a camera with 3 megapixels, using CompactFlash, that can take 50 pictures on a single charge), then find the products that meet those needs, and then choose one and be done. My observations suggest that the process is in fact much messier, and requires constant re-orientation on the part of the shopper to remember which variables are important and which qualities they want. (Something takes advantage of, whether intentionally or not.)

Tying these two together led me to wonder (wander?) whether something more fundamental is at play. At the most essential level, we’re seeing the behavior of decision making. How do I figure out what to do next? And decision making seems to rely on the piecemeal gathering of information and the contextualization of that information through their relationships. So, I did some searching on the web for “decision making” and quickly got overwhelmed. It turns out to be a vast and rich field, combining social psychology, applied psychology, economics, business, and lord knows what else. I had trouble understanding just where to begin.

Maybe you can help?


  1. Since Peter didn’t delete my last comment, maybe he’ll let this one stay put as well…

    As Peter’s already found, there’s a vast amount of literature on decision making. Two phrases may help narrow your search: “satisficing behavior” and “influencing decisions”.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Two things:

    1) Based on your observations, perhaps it would be useful if shopping sites offered a ‘scratch pad’ where users could put down their findings as they go along as a memory and comparison aid(possible products, relevant concepts, costs). This kind of thing would actually be better incorporated into the broswer.

    2) I did a decision making course when I did my Psychology degree. I seem to remember two key players were Kahnaman & Tversky – I think they demonstrated that people don’t rationally evaluate options but rather all sorts of other things such as sunk-cost and effort come into play. When I get a moment, I’ll e-mail you some proper references if you send me your e-mail address.


  3. Another thread that I almost added to my post, but decided against so as not to overload with even more abstraction, was that of information foraging.

    I’ve been wondering if information foraging (IF) could help me. Victor’s links are a good place to start.

    And the more I delved into it, the less I found it helpful. Information foraging seems to assume a more progressive path through information — that, when information seeking, you keep going until you’ve found your goal, and that you would never return to a prior point, because you would have exhausted that resource. (Compare it to real-world foraging … if you’ve plucked all the berries off a bush, you won’t return to that bush for more berries, at least, not for a long long time).

    This runs contrary to the use of information landmarks as reorienting devices, which is what I’ve seen, and what is described in the Cycle.

  4. This is such an important topic. We(at least at my company)tend to treat product seekers as folks with very well defined missions that they must execute. What we actually have, especially if you follow clickpaths or observe, are people often following a process somewhat like this:
    “I want X because this source I trust told me about it and it sounded like something that would help me.” So user finds X. What is it composed of? What makes X good? In fact, what are my criteria to determine what’s good or bad about X? What’s most important to me (prioritizing criteria)? Sooo, what’s good or bad about X, and thus, do I want it? Does X need anything else to be “good” (accessories or aparticular context to work in)?

    In the process of this building of a model against which to make a decision, X could be left far behind. It involves research, comparison, reevaluation of goals, prioritization of goals. The user may leave if suddenly the work needed to decide with confidence now exceeds the time they have available, or if their perception of the level of effort to finalize their decision by making a purchase is excessive, or they may be overwhelmed by new information about the factors they should consider. But I also wonder how many shopping carts are abandoned by users whose decision-making model for that product was never completely built, thus leaving them too insecure about making the commitment.

  5. Decision making is a key area in management theory. Most of the research however has focussed on how decisions should be made rather than how decisions are made which I believe is what interests you.

    The notion of “Bounded Rationality” [commonly referred as satisficing] throws some light in this regard. It was first proposed by Herbert Simon in his seminal work – Administrative Behavior.

    “Because the capacity of the human mind for formulating and solving complex problems is far too small to meet the requirements for full rationality, individuals operate within the confines of bounded rationality. They construct simplified models that extract the essential features from problems without capturing all their complexity.”

    Administrative Behavior on Amazon
    Bounded Rationality” on Google

  6. I would second that last recommendation. Gerald Zaltman is the right guy to read. He pioneered an interesting market research technique called ZMET, which is based on the premise that consumers don’t know what they think. The tool taps on the consumers’ subconscious to arrive an understanding of their behaviour.

    Zaltman also believes what usability professionals have known all along – most of the consumer surveys and focus groups don’t work.

    See interview “Hidden Minds” in HBR June 2002.

  7. a wonderful wander, merholz. in terms of dull stabs at supporting the human mind in its decision making with web doohickeys, an interaction designer (Priya Prakash) on my current project has come up with an adaption of the ‘crumb-trail’ that is often seen on Wikis amongst other places (I’ve seen it on the MoinMoin flavour of wiki) where a user’s most recent links are reflected back to them – giving them a ‘scratchpad’ of navigation associated to the cycle they are going through.

  8. I should clarify – I don’t think Priya’s solution is ‘dull’… just that the web / ICTs in general can ‘make us act stupid in order to make them look smart’ in the words of Jaron Lanier.

  9. Peter, you continue to wander into interesting connections. I was planning to explore decision-making in this month’s Information Flow, but it’s now for next month or beyond.

    A quick something to point at right now that utterly rings with my sense of “how things really are” is the work of Gary Klein. The work goes under the rubric of naturalistic decision making and involves near 20 years of fieldwork with many collaborators. They study decision making by fire fighters, military commanders, paramedics, and so on in challenging, split-second, life-or-death kind of situations.

    This work, a bit like the Flow work, produces great thick description, as opposed to a bunch of elegant non-linear equations 🙂 And no surprise, the key finding is that decision makers don’t follow a formal flowchart or rigid procedures but rather tend to pick an answer and look for holes through a process of simulating. Intuition, experience, starting with answers, sensing issues, and the like play major roles. You would think that these critical scenes would be quite different from trying to buy a digital camera from a nice cool cubicle in San Francisco. But time is time, and nobody has enough of it. Klein, does also study, cooler kinds of decision-making.

    Klein’s MIT Press title called Sources of Power is good reading, despite adhering to scholarly conventions. He also has a title more aimed at the business set called Intuition at Work.

  10. Ev Roger’s book _Diffusion of Innovations_ is another good place to get some insights about consumer decision making w/regard to new technologies. His theoretical framework debunks that whole rational choice model thing in favor of a social network approach, where early adopter/opinion leaders play an instrumental role in influencing the adoption patterns of the majority of consumers for a given product or service. Rogers writes more about aggregate behavior than about the individual consumer, but his insights have helped inform my understanding of the consumer decision making process.

  11. Peter hi,
    When you worked in, the vision was to create a “product buying guide”.
    Prior to the merge with DealTime, did they also supply price comparison or any pricing information? Or was it just consumer reviews platform along with the products’ details?


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