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The Why Files Users Match Profile
Who uses the World Wide Web? How do they use it?
Knowing the answers to these questions helps Web site designers to appeal to specific audiences and to structure their sites to make users' visits most profitable and memorable.
The Why Files is the National Institute for Science Education’s (NISE) award-winning Web site that communicates science information to the public. Every two weeks, The Why Files posts a new science-related feature story package that contains a feature article, a bibliography page, a glossary of terms, a credits page, and a "story map" or index page. About 20,000 individuals access The Why Files during each two-week content cycle.
NISE researchers William Eveland and Sharon Dunwoody have studied who visits the site and how visitors make their way through the site's contents. Dunwoody, a UW-Madison professor of journalism and mass communication, and Eveland, an associate researcher, knew that Internet users as a whole are nearly 60 percent male and over two-thirds have at least attended college. To determine whether The Why Files users generally match or diverge from that profile, they conducted two studies. One used survey data from a sample of about 400 The Why Files users and another used a database of site use, called an audit trail.
What Dunwoody and Eveland learned about The Why Files visitors agrees with past evidence from the literature on diffusion of innovations. The data show that users who repeatedly visit tend to be well educated and male--very much like the "typical" Web user, if unlike the "typical" American. Similarly, considering that education is strongly related to the use of popular printed science magazines, and that twice as many men as women read these magazines, it's no surprise that educated men are most likely to be repeat users of The Why Files.
The average respondent to Dunwoody and Eveland's user survey was between 36 and 37 years old and a heavy Web user, reporting using the Web on average about once a day in the month before the survey. As expected, repeat users were very interested in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology topics. They rated these subjects around 8.25 on a 1-to-10 scale with 10 representing "extremely interested."
"As the Web becomes a more democratic place in the future," Dunwoody says, "we’ll have a chance to see if the demographics of Why Files users changes, too. If it does become more eclectic, that suggests that the Web may be a good way of getting science information to segments of the population who don’t typically seek science information. If it doesn’t, that will mean that science sites like The Why Files will continue to preach to the converted. Time will tell."
Choosing among many paths
In addition to showing who uses The Why Files, the data show how users maneuver through the site. Each page of a Why Files package can be reached from any other page in the package via a navigation bar. Movement between pages is also available via in-text links, with the last sentence of each page--a teaser for the next page--always including an in-text link to the next page. In addition, the previous and next pages are accessible through prominent buttons at the bottom of each page.
Most Web sites allow visitors to navigate through them either in linear fashion or randomly, as the spirit moves them. Forward and backward buttons, hypertext links, and colorful images all beckon the visitor to a multitude of informative pages within each site. This flexibility is part of the value the Web offers learners. But the Dunwoody/Eveland study shows that visitors to The Why Files site tend to read pages in sequential order, as if they were flipping through a magazine.
Users did not make much use of the site navigation features such as page-turning buttons and page numbers. Instead, visitors tended to read a page and then click on a hypertext word or phrase in the story to move on to the next page. Similarly, little use was made of additional information in the glossary and bibliography or of links to other sites on the Web.
"The linear navigation pattern may be a function of several things," Dunwoody says. "One is that the strong narrative structure of a Why Files story is spectacularly successful. Another is that most Web users are recent converts to the Web and may have not yet adopted nonlinear use patterns. Again, looking at navigation patterns over time will tell us if the second reason is at work. The success of a strong narrative could be a good thing, as narratives can enhance learning."
The Why Files site has the potential to serve as a useful template for future SMET-related sites," says Eveland. "Our study is too descriptive to provide an answer to the question, 'Can a Web site such as The Why Files help users become more scientifically literate?' But our study gives us a foundation for designing the research to answer that question."
Eveland and Dunwoody are collecting and analyzing data from "think aloud" protocols (individual sessions at a computer in which individuals expresses their thoughts as they navigate the site) and from detailed interviews of novice and experienced Web users. Results will allow Eveland and Dunwoody to design a series of experiments to better understand what aspects of hypermedia documents will promote learning about science.
The Why Files can be reached at http://whyfiles.news.wisc.edu.