In the last 20 odd years, the internet has changed almost unrecognisably for those of us who were using it back then. And the changes in the internet has, by necessity, changed the way the people interact with it, and search for information with it. And as it evolves, those behaviours will continue to change in order to take advantage of the new features and functionality that develops.

The Norman Nielsen Group recently released a study in which they replicated a 1997 study, in order to determine how extensively user behaviour had changed alongside the web, and asked users to relate instances in which they found critical information online that led to a significant action or decision.

A Different Internet

To begin with, they identified the 3 biggest changes since the original study that were likely to affect how people used the internet, as follows:

1) Internet Penetration: In 1997, only 2% or the worlds population had access to the internet, compared to 54% in 2019. (In the US, this increase is even more marked, with 87% of the population currently having online access, compared to 36% in 1997.

2) Internet Devices: There are currently far more internet-accessible devices than ever before, with mobile phones and tablets being the most common. In fact, last year, searches on mobile devices overtook searches on desktop for the first time, and that’s unlikely to change.

3) Service Proliferation: In 1997, there were far fewer services that could be accessed online than there are today. Just the number of websites available has frown from around 1 million in 1997, to 183 million last year. (And that excludes millions of apps available through various platforms.)

Since the internet is more readily accessible today, it’s natural to expect that people’s behaviour when they look for important information has changed as well.

Information Seeking Behaviour

Researchers identified 3 categories of information-seeking behaviour online, which they described as follows:

1) Compare / Choose: Users evaluate multiple products or information sources in order to make a decision.

2) Understand: Users gain understanding about a particular topic.

3) Acquire: Users look for specific facts, find product information, or downloads something. (This study was not interested in purchasing behaviour, only information seeking, so “acquire” does not refer to the material acquisition of items.)

Results

Based on their (close) replication of the study, the group concluded that today, users engage more in the “Understand” category, and less in the “Compare / Choose” category than they did in the past. The majority, (40%) of responses fell into this category in 2019, compared to only 24% in 1997. This increase may be due to the incredible growth in online content, as it becomes more comprehensive, and easier to access.

Similarly, the category which previously saw the most responses, (51% in 1997), was “Compare / Choose,” which in contrast received only 36% of responses in 2019. However, the researches have warned that this may be due to how the results were coded and collated, with many respondents treating this phase as simply a smaller step in the overall process of finding information. The study however allowed only for the primary purpose of the users activity.

The final category, “Acquire” did not see a significant change between the two studies, coming in at 25% in 1997, and 24% in 2019.

The researchers concluded that rather than comparison-related activities having decreased though, what has actually happened is that they have become such a fundamental part of the “understand” activity, that they are often an immediate result thereof.

Growth of Content Types

In line with the above conclusion, the study found that the kind of content that people were likely to consider as “critical” has become broader, with researchers having to add an additional 4 content categories, into which 14% of the response fell.

They identified the following categories as being “critical content” for users:

Education

Work

Finance Entertainment (new)
Health (former Medical) Hobbies & Interests (new)
News & Politics

 Home & Families (new)

People

 Pets (new)

Planning (including Travel) Miscellaneous (content that does not fall in other categories)
Product Info & Purchase  

 

The same two categories in both studies received almost half of all responses. Product Information and Purchase, and Health.

Social Patterns

In an addition to the 2019 study, researchers also asked respondents whether they had interacted with anybody during the reported incident. This included collaborating with others on a search for information, enquiring for more information from somebody uninvolved in the final decision (like sending an email or a form to a company), being informed by others via online platforms, sharing the information they had found, or carrying out an action through social interactions.

28% of respondents reported accompanying their information seeking with social interactions, when making important decisions based on online information. Making an enquiry was the most reported activity at 15%, while all other activities were relatively low. The vast majority however reported no social interaction accompanying their information search. (Therefore, providing detailed product etc. information is essential.)

Devices

Another additional segment added to the study in 2019 was the question of which devices people were using. 42% of the critical incidents occurred on mobile phones, 32% on desktops or laptops, and 20% on multiple devices. (Search begun on a phone for example, and more research done on a desktop.)

Content also appears to be associated with specific devices, with most Health activities were based on phones, while most work activities were carried out on desktops.

In Conclusion

The researchers concluded that the internet has become an important source of highly influential information, and while internet activity in the past primarily revolved around comparing different products or sources to make a decision, today those same activities are frequently as a result of educating ourselves and improving our understanding of topics which interest us, and the world around us.

In addition, “critical” internet use has become a much more social activity, often involving more than one person, thanks largely to the prevalence of smart phones and similar connected devices, and platforms where people can quickly and easily participate with an anecdote or opinion or related bit of information.

With the growing importance of information seeking and related activities, it’s clear that sites need to do more than simply supply a product…they need to educate their users through high quality content which fulfils the users need for information. However appealing the design of your ecommerce site is, it is the information about the products and process that will sell the user.

In order to be successful, you will need to design with the most important needs of the user in mind, not just the superficial needs, even though those will occur more frequently.