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May 29, 1997

SIS prof studies how people navigate the Net

Lost in cyberspace? Maybe it's because so much information on the Internet looks the same.

Just as landmarks and familiar neighborhoods make it easier for people to find their way in real space, comparable tools should help people navigate the information superhighway, says Stephen Hirtle, associate professor and chairperson of information science and telecommunications.

"Standardization is a real problem on the Internet," he said. "The analogy I like to use is that Web pages tend to be like those big housing developments of the 1950s where every house looks a little different from the one next to it but the neighborhoods as a whole aren't distinctive from one another.

"It's much harder to get lost in older neighborhoods that grew up organically, where you have landmarks like church steeples and individual-looking buildings and streets." Maps and "you-are-here" pointers could also be adapted to electronic worlds, he said. Even simple color-coding could make it easier to differentiate Web sites from one another, Hirtle said, in much the same way that assigning colors to different levels of a parking garage helps to remind customers where they parked.

Because real space has real constraints and cyberspace does not, there are no physical correlations between the two — and therefore, no easy metaphors, Hirtle noted. In designing tools intended to ease Internet navigation, researchers must carefully consider users' own preferences. Hirtle and his team (faculty member Paul Monro and six information science graduate students) are observing how Web users themselves surf from one point to another.

Hirtle's cyberspace research currently is unfunded ("That's one of my projects for the summer," he said, "getting external funding") but industry executives are eager to ease Internet navigation, he said. Microsoft officials have sat in on recent academic meetings on the subject, he noted.

Hirtle's main research interest is understanding human navigation. "It's basic research that happens to have potential for applications in hyperspace," he said.

Like many of his fellow navigation researchers — cartographers, cognitive scientists, urban planners and fellow information scientists — Hirtle believes that people take a multimedia approach to finding their way around: They use landmarks, maps and sequential directions in varying combinations, depending on their own cognitive strengths and what they're trying to find.

"For example, if you're in Oakland and you're looking for the Cathedral of Learning, it would be very helpful to have a picture of it because it's so tall and so distinctive-looking. But if you're trying to find Langley Hall, a visual image probably wouldn't do you much good. It would be more helpful to have a map or directions," Hirtle said.

In a project related to his Internet research, Hirtle is collaborating with staff from the Office of Computing and Information Services on a new, on-line guide to finding Pitt libraries. The guide will feature a photo of each library, directions for finding it, and where the library appears on a campus map. But the emphasis among those tools will vary depending on the library. "To find the mathematics library in Thackeray Hall, it's important to know which door of the building to enter. That's hard to illustrate on a map or by giving directions, but showing a photograph of the door makes it very clear," Hirtle said. Likewise, he added, the best way to direct someone to the music library, located downstairs in the Music Building, is by tracing the route with arrows on a map.

Hirtle said he hopes to complete the library mapping project this fall.

— Bruce Steele

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