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The Whys of the Why Files

December 17, 1997

Study reveals patterns in how readers use Web site

The World Wide Web is a rapidly growing medium in search of its audience.

With tens of thousands of sites and millions of users, the Web is largely uncharted territory when it comes to understanding the people who use it, how it’s used, and to what effect.

Visit the Why Files!

But a new multi-method study of The Why Files, a popular science Web site produced on campus, is helping to put flesh on the bones of Web demographics and use. And while the study focused on a single topical site, its findings promise a broader view of who uses the Web and how, and may have practical application for Web site design and navigation.

Conducted by UW–Madison researchers William Eveland and Sharon Dunwoody, the ongoing study’s first findings were presented recently at the International Conference on the Public Understanding of Science and Technology in Chicago.

One of the potentially more interesting implications of the study is its findings concerning hot links, which give users ability to set their own navigational path through material. Despite the opportunity to explore related information through this feature, the study found readers of The Why Files, a science magazine written solely for the Web and produced under the auspices of the National Institute for Science Education, rarely make detours, instead progressing through a multi-page narrative in linear fashion.

“Our initial evidence suggests that Why Files users eschew the nonlinear options — navigational aids like buttons and navigation bars — and read the Why Files in much the same way that people read newspapers and other paper text sources,” says Eveland, an associate researcher with NISE and the UW–Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“When users are in a package (a multi-page feature with text, graphics and hot links), the overwhelming tendency is to move to the next page in the site rather than to examine bibliographic sources, check definitions of words, or follow links to other pages in the site or links to pages outside the site,” Eveland and Dunwoody report.

Among other findings:

  • Users of The Why Files mirror the demographics of those who use traditional science media such as science magazines written for popular audiences.
  • Users of The Why Files are also much like users of the Web as a whole. They are nearly 70 percent male, highly educated with 70 percent having at least two years of college education. The majority use the World Wide Web heavily.

“While Why Files users are unlike the ‘typical’ American, they are very much like the ‘typical’ Web user,” says Dunwoody, a professor of journalism and mass communication.

Recent surveys by Nielsen Media Research and others reveal a rapidly growing Web audience, with more than 17 percent of people age 16 and older using the Web in a given month. While the medium is still in its infancy, its pattern and rate of growth is comparable to the early days of television and radio, Dunwoody notes.

Although precise readership figures for The Why Files are unknown, at least 20,000 different computers are tapping into the site every two weeks. Findings for the new study were drawn from a survey of 400 repeat users of The Why Files, and from computer-collected audits that tracked users and recorded how they navigated the site.

The next phase of research, says Eveland, will explore — through more detailed surveys and experiments — the issue of whether or not a site like The Why Files can help users become more scientifically literate.

Tags: research