Four Modes of Seeking Information and How to Design for Them

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“Observe how your users approach information, consider what it means, and design to allow them to achieve what they need.”

I discovered the concepts in this article while preparing material for an introductory information architecture workshop. In the workshop, I thought it important to highlight that one aspect of designing for users was to understand the ways in which they may approach an information task. I was already familiar with the concepts of known-item and exploratory information seeking: they are common in the library and information science literature and are also discussed in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.

In my work on intranets and complex websites, I noticed a range of situations where people didn’t necessarily know what they needed to know. Additionally, when I opened my browser history to look for examples from recently-visited sites, I noticed that the majority of my own time was spent trying to find things that I had already discovered. These two modes didn’t fit into the concepts of known-item and exploratory information seeking. I call these “don’t know what you need to know” and re-finding.

I spent a while letting this rattle around my head, talking with IAs and designers, and realized that most only thought in terms of known-item searching. When discussing the other types of tasks, they’d ask with a horrified look, “So how do you design for that?”

Let’s look at the modes of seeking information in some depth and their implications for web design.

1. Known-item
Known-item information seeking is the easiest to understand. In a known-item task, the user:

  • Knows what they want
  • Knows what words to use to describe it
  • May have a fairly good understanding of where to start

In addition, the user may be happy with the first answer they find (though not always) and the task may not change significantly during the process of finding the answer.

Some examples include finding out whether Katharine Kerr has a new novel, learning about how the CSS color:transparent attribute works, and getting a copy of the travel form. These are all clearly defined, easy to describe, and the starting point is straightforward.

There are a number of design approaches to help with this type of task:

  • Search. This is a particularly good solution: people can articulate what they need and are able to type it into a search box. As long as the search results show the word in context or show a clear description of results, they are likely to recognise suitable pages from the search results.
  • A-Z indexes. These are great at supporting this mode, as users are able to articulate the word that they are looking for. As long as the A-Z contains the word the user is thinking of, all they need to do is read down the list and spot the right item. One way to make sure that the list of terms in an A-Z index matches the words that users think of is to look at the terms used during user research or in the search logs.
  • Quick links. Links to frequently used items allow easy access to them. Again, the terms in the list must match the users’ terms.
  • Navigation. Browsing via navigation can support this behavior. It is most likely to be effective when the user can clearly identify which navigation heading to choose from.

For this mode, it is important that people are able to answer their question quickly.

2. Exploratory
In an exploratory task, people have some idea of what they need to know. However, they may or may not know how to articulate it and, if they can, may not yet know the right words to use. They may not know where to start to look. They will usually recognise when they have found the right answer, but may not know whether they have found enough information.

In this mode, the information need will almost certainly change as they discover information and learn, and the gap between their current knowledge and their target knowledge narrows.

As an example, a few years ago I was looking for information on the cognitive mechanisms that allow people to navigate the physical world (I was comparing the concept of online and physical navigation). I knew what I was after, but couldn’t describe it (‘navigation’ in a search engine would return results for web navigation). I had no idea where to start. I tried a number of places and didn’t succeed at all. (Six months later I stumbled across some wayfinding papers and realised that was the term I needed).

Other examples of exploratory tasks include looking for history on the technique of card sorting, finding examples of sites with complex forms laid out using CSS, and finding music I like.

The first challenge can be getting the user to a good starting point (this was the main problem in the navigation example). This is less of a problem on an intranet as staff may only have one place to explore. Portal sites, subject-based directories, or sites with a wide range of content (such as Wikipedia) can provide avenues to follow on the open Web.

Design approaches for this mode include:

  • Navigation. The most successful design solution will be browse, via navigation of all types. Browsing allows people to take some chances and follow a path, exploring, discovering, and learning as they go. Users may go deeper or broader in a hierarchy, or to related information.
  • Related information. Related links may be created from a list of related topics, a manually created list of relevant pages, or lists based on items purchased or recommended by other users. Contextual links may also be included in the body of the content.
  • Search. Search can be useful for exploratory tasks, but can be problematic due to the user’s inability to articulate what they are after. An initial search can help the user to learn about the domain and get some ideas for keywords. It can also be useful to provide synonyms for the search term as they may help the user to better articulate their query.
    For this mode, it is critical that there are always avenues for exploration and that the visitor never reaches a dead end.

3. Don’t know what you need to know
The key concept behind this mode is that people often don’t know exactly what they need to know. They may think they need one thing but need another; or, they may be looking at a website without a specific goal in mind.

This mode of seeking information occurs in a number of situations:

  • Complex domains such as legal, policy, or financial. For example, a staff member may want to know how many weeks maternity leave they are entitled to, but may need to know the conditions surrounding that leave. We should read the terms and conditions of new products and services as there maybe important restrictions, but they are too often buried in legal garble that we don’t read.
  • Any time we wish to persuade the user. For example, we would love people to know more about information architecture and usability, but they often don’t know that the concepts even exist. They may think they want to know how to make an accessible nested fly-out menu; we think they need to know more about organising the content properly.
  • Unknown domains. For example, when someone is told by friends that he or she should check out a new service, product or website, but does not yet know why he or she would want to know about it.
  • Keeping up to date. People often want to make sure they keep up to date with what is happening within an industry or topic, but are not looking for a specific answer.

The challenge is providing an answer while exposing people to the necessary information, thus showing what they may need to know. This can be achieved by:

  • Straightforward answers. Simple, concise answers allow people to have their initial information need met. For example, in the four situations above the websites could include a summary of the maternity leave benefit, the key issues of concern in the terms and conditions, an outline of the benefits of the new website or service, and a list of latest releases respectively.
  • More detailed information. Make more detailed information easily available. This may take the form of related links or contextual links in the body of the content.

The solutions allow people the satisfaction of getting an answer and then the opportunity to get additional information.

4. Re-finding
This mode is relatively straightforward—people looking for things they have already seen. They may remember exactly where it is, remember what site it was on, or have little idea about where it was. A lot of my personal information seeking is hunting down information I have already seen. I don’t know how prevalent this is, but discussions with others indicate that I am not alone.

Design solutions can be active (where the user takes explicit action to remember an item) or passive (where the user takes no action but items are remembered).

Active solutions exist on many web sites: wishlists (, “save for later” (emusic), and favorites (Pandora). These solutions work well but require a conscious effort from the user, who needs to know they will want to return to an item in the future. is another example of an active solution for the web as a whole.

A good passive solution allows users to see items they have seen before, order them by frequency of use, easily get to the content, and the information within it persists over time (longer than the current session).

Domains where passive solutions offer value include the following:

  • Shopping sites. Users may look at a number of products and may comparison shop before purchasing (e.g. Target,, Anthropologie, Classy Groundcovers, Expansys).
  • Weblogs. Readers may revisit favorite posts and watch comments on a post.
  • Article sites. Sites like Boxes and Arrows may have readers returning to their favorite articles frequently.
  • Support sites. Readers need to return to the same help topics.
  • Real estate sites. Potential buyers look at their favorite house over and over.
  • Complex search facilities. Users may wish to retain their search, modify it, or rerun it.
“The most important issue is not whether you notice a mode of seeking information that fits into one of these categories, but that a range of modes exist.”

Identifying the modes
Once you understand the modes, examples are easy to spot during user research.

Known-items show up in heavy use of search with accurate keywords, when users can easily list what they need from the site and support e-mail will ask for specific content.

Exploratory information seeking shows up in search when vague phrases or repeated searches for similar keywords are used; when users express that they are researching, looking for background information, or “finding out about” something; and when support e-mails ask for general information.

“Don’t know what you need to know” is a little harder to identify. In interviews, users may express that they just want to keep up with things. It may also be clear that users do not have sufficient background knowledge or have not read information they should have. You can identify gaps in content by walking through the content, acting out a scenario from the user perspective, and checking that sufficient information is available.

Re-finding is easy to identify if your site has user registration and the logs show what pages people visit. You can also look at the number of items in wish lists.

The most important issue is not whether you notice a mode of seeking information that fits into one of these categories, but that a range of modes exist. Observe how your users approach information, consider what it means, and design to allow them to achieve what they need.

Note: Thank you to IAI members for suggestions for sites that offer navigation for the re-finding task.


  1. Donna, exploratory and don’t know… seem like very similar behaviors. Is the distinction between the two simply that exploratory has no specific intent where don’t know’s have a fuzzy intent? Or is there a brighter line you’re drawing?

  2. ‘Don’t know’ is a little different in that they may think they want one thing, but something that they don’t yet know about is more important. Like the terms and conditions example – you want to sign up, but there might be something in the t&c that you just need to know because it is really important. But you don’t go on an exploratory journey to which terms and conditions is the end result.

    Looking at the design solutions too, short, simple answers don’t necessarily satisfy an exploratory seek, but will satisfy a ‘don’t know’. Getting them to related material helps both.

    Keep asking me to clarify – it helps me to think about how to make my fuzzy thoughts clearer!

  3. Re-finding: You’re *definitely* not alone in this!

    There have been countless times when my brain has taken in information from one of the many books or websites I’ve seen, conversations I’ve had, TV programs I’ve watched etc. but I didn’t make a concious decision at the time to log it somewhere so I could find it again. Then, 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years later, I’ll find myself in a conversation about that topic or situation where I need the info but I can’t remember where I found it the first time round.

    Can be really frustrating!

  4. “Don’t know what you need to know” has another twist. I train technical support/ customer service. Quite often my company has a policy or solution that would be a perfect fit for the customer, but the agent isn’t aware it exists, and so, doesn’t begin to search for it. We use weekly reading time to get caught up on corporate headlines, but there’s always oodles that’s missed. I’m beginning to experiment with a hierarchal search that displays an index of sub-catagories to a product or system, similar in feel to Windows Explorer. My hope is to have it used as a roadmap for a process flow during a call. I would welcome any suggestions to make it effective.
    Excellent article. Very thought provoking.

  5. Good article.
    I’m not too clear on one point however.
    It seems to me that ‘Re-finding’ and ‘Known-Item’ modes are quite similar.
    I’m not sure I see the distinction.

  6. Great example Eddie. So think about how to answer the questions they do know about, and show what you need them to learn.

    C. Sanchez – refinding is a sometimes a known item task, but sometimes not. Eg on boxes and arrows, I often look for my own articles (so I know exactly what I am looking for and they are easy to find) but sometimes want the one that has info about page description diagrams (I go back to this a lot, but never remember the title or whether it was Dan Brown or someone else). A list of my most-visited articles would help in both examples. But yes, there is definitely overlap.

  7. Thank you for the interesting article. I’m new to the field, and these are new concepts to me.

    After reading this article, I’m wondering if it is possible to classify information seeking behavior according to two facets: 1) precise-vague, 2) aware-unaware.

    Specific meaning the user knows exactly what he or she wants to look for; such as tomorrow’s weather in Taipei. An example of vague could be “how is it like to live in Taipei”.

    In terms of design parameters, maybe the precise-vague axis maps crudely to a search-browse axis.

    I’m not sure what the aware-unaware axis can map to. Maybe a passive-active axis? A passive feature would be like my browser’s record of my history and Google’s Desktop Search. Passive in the sense that the user initiates the use of these to seek for information. An active feature would be like showing related news headlines beside a news article. Active in the sense that information is being pushed to the user.

    Perhaps an active-search feature could be my Firefox’s Google Suggest extension, and an active-browse feature could be a list of “most viewed”?

    I’m not sure if these make any sense.

  8. I work part of my week at a library reference desk and I see these modes every day. But it’s a truism of reference that people never ask you their real question, so getting to their true mode often requires some negotiating. A user looking for a known item will often start out with a very broad question that looks exploratory – “do you have information about cancer” when s/he really has a specific article to find. When I start to answer the expressed question, I can see the mismatch on the user’s face… how do we see it in our systems?

  9. Scientifically, it looks hard to differentiate between

    * 1. Known-item and
    * 4. Re-finding

    Why did you differentiate between them?

    btw: the “finding and reminding” paper by bonnie and nardi is related.

  10. Nice article! 🙂

    My first impression was that re-finding might be a special case of of Known Item searching. What would you say are some of the searching approaches or UI requirements that would differentiate them?

    For any re-finding task, a history of visited pages or previous searches would help.

    You can also use the approaches to generate more specific design guidelines. See this article that my wife and I wrote for User Experience.

  11. Enjoyed the Article, Though provoking:)

    Would it be fair to say that the way search engines operate has affected the way that we search, making exploratory search more common, even for known item.

    To take the example of the known item, if using a web search engine, my experience is that even if you know what you are searching for you enter one or two words related to your requirements, see what you get, refine the search terms slightly and so on. This is because entering a very precise query often either returns no results or the, engine is “confused” by other words in the string and returns many only loosely related items. Therefore you are using “exploratory” methods to find or re-find known items.

    Regardless of how you seek the information, I think that the most effective way of meeting search requirements is a degree of personalisation. If you know who a person is in terms of what they have searched for previously, how they search and can derive an understanding of the intent of the query, but also understand the relationship between query and answer you can deliver a much better answer much quicker.

  12. Google Desktop has a (big_brother_type) feature that keeps track of EVERYTHING you do on your computer – this can be sliced by whatever (mainly date) – very powerful. I thought of that while I was reading about “re-finding.” What can we learn from Google? (and no, I don’t work there) 🙂

  13. Super read!

    Much of the “3. Don’t know what you need to know” can be helped my developing product pages that are written in ways that the users understand. There are still so many product pages that are too technical in nature and dont assist a purchase process. Examples include: banking, insurance, computing, telecommunications product pages.

  14. Quite clear thoughts Donna. Thanks for sharing them.
    I would like to add my thoughts to it. The ‘don’t know what they want’ also might include ‘what we want them to know’ or may be a separate section all together. It would include things like warnings and special offers ( in case of shopping ).

  15. I so love you guys. Thanks for enhancing the article with great thinking and examples!

  16. Great insight about how “search” can mean different things to different people. We’ve extended the idea a little bit on our blog to show the value of using personas. In our example, we show how “status update” means different things to different people too.

    Persona grata

    While it isn’t purely an IA followup, it is an interaction design extension of your insights.

    Scott Sehlhorst

  17. I’m not sure I agree Desiree– I’m guessing your users are often people diagonosed with an illness. They are the perfect examples of don’t-know-what-I-need-to-know, along with shoppers of high tech gadgets, and travellers planning vacations.

    From Peter Morville’s work with the cancer society, as well as personal & professional insights I’ve had, illness follows the same odd pattern that shopping does… someone gets a specific diagonis, searches for that, then realizes that they need to know more and go outward to collect the context. It looks like known-item, but it’s really #3.
    In shopping, it’s someone seeking a digital camera, who suddenly realizes they don’t know what matters– size? megapixels? optics? and then they start to find out what they need to know. Just a thought…

  18. Great article Donna. I just wished I had it about 2 years ago when I was looking for research about the kinds of users a typical site would get. Re-findability is becoming a very critical issue on the web especially with the increase in the number of blogs that offer little for re-finding information. Our jobs as information architects should make information more managable, not more overwhelming. We have a lot of ground we still need to cover but we’re getting there. Some days I feel like we’re only keeping up with the amount of information inputs the average person gets (emails, newsletters, rss feeds, post notification emails, phone calls, drive by instant messages, amazon recommendations, etc etc)

  19. I think it’s very relevant article. I’m especially interested in the #3 “Don’t know what you need to know” which is very similar to any (constructivist) learning process. It’s long discussion what is going on when people learn, but I think viewing #3 as a feedback learning process will be a very rewarding attitude.

    Recently I proposed an article about ‘Ironist’ and ‘Common Sense’ Users – proposed for Boxes and Arrow – which may be read as a comment to this article. Basically I don’t take for granted that users apply catagories when searching. The article can be viewed under ‘Suggestions’.

  20. The problem, examples and solutions have been well described but readers have found that the distinctions in the modes of seeking information are not crisp enough. Actually the problem is complex. It calls for rigor and precision in 1 Classification and 2 Organization of the body of knowledge of a subject, 3 Query formulation, 4 Processing of query and finally, 5 Presentation of the results.

    Any attempt to improve Information Seeking which relates directly to 3, cannot bring precision to 5 without 1 and 2 being defined with the expected precision and 4 capable of processing the query. Dynamic Taxonomy (more appropriately Ontology) with metadata takes care of 1 and 2. Different modes of seeking information determine how the query is formed (number of fields selected, values of metadata selected, conditions set etc). If that metadata are properly processed (4), then, 5 results will have the required precision.

    Resource Description Framework, Semantic Web and OWL Ontology Language have conceptually addressed the requirement. We can hope to see some practical solutions. The experts in knowledge / content management may be in a position to report on the exact progress.

  21. I LOVE your article
    I hadn’t ever thought of differing search methods other then “exploratory and know items”
    I have an idea that might help with “known items” using navigation in a new way.
    Because of this article I plan to redesign the site I am working on right now to include an extra footer
    With a bunch of linked hit words that will take the “re-finder” and the “know item” user right to the article they want

    I hope this will be especially helpful to this site when the owner opens his laptop and shows a working example
    Of the item his is talking about

    Thank you Donna 🙂

    From Owen.

  22. Donna,
    Looked up your article after finding you on p. 134 of ‘Designing the Obvious’. I am currently reorganising my company’s intranet and the 4 modes are a really simple and useful way of keeping user’s information seeking behaviour in the front of my mind while I carry this out.


  23. Donna, great story! I was just wondering if you are able to drop some pointers to the information you found regarding the cognitive mechanisms that allow people to navigate the physical world. Kudos for the insights! We´{ve used your article as the base for the mental models we defined for our site search feature.

  24. A-Z Indexes also support the “Don’t know what you need to know” by means of cross-references. In the example you gave a properly compiled index would include:
    maternity leave _see also_ parental leave
    The reader might not know that parental leave might be unpaid leave and can be taken by either parent (and is certainly different from maternity leave) but may be relevant.

  25. Donna, I come across your article accidently when i was searching for information architectures in order to give me feedback on my PhD work. Your article is great but it reflects only half of the picture because it only focuses on the demanded information that people want to have in order to satisfy their information needs. In other words, it is consistent with the available literature although it increase the “don’t know what they want to know”. however, there is another half of the picture which include the undemanded information that people do want to have and they in turn may not seek that information although they may satisfy these needs by their own knowledge for example.

    I have been working for the last 2.5 years on my PhD in order to understand first the information need because it is important step before understanding the information seeking behaviour. This is true because having an information need does not necessarily mean that you will seek information to satisfy this need and vise versa (seeking information does not mean you have information need).

    I have developed a framework in order to understand the information need in general as a first step to understand not only the information behaviours that people engage in to satisfy the information need but also to understand the design feature that assist in facilitating the access to this information and the information sources that people interact with to satisfy their information needs. This framework serves two goals the first it can be used as a methodology to identify the information needs and second it can be used as an organising tool (map) to understand the information needs which in turn affect the design feature, behaviours and sources. The framework consists of four dimensions of information needs as below:
    1. Unrecognised Undemanded Information Needs (URUD)
    2. Unrecognised Demanded Information Needs (URD)
    3. Recognised Demanded Information Needs (RD)
    4. Recognised Undemanded Information Needs (RUD)

    My propositions were 1- these four dimensions are exist 2- each dimension has its design features, behaviours and sources.

    I have applied the above framework on informal carers in order to understand their information needs and it is work successfully (the existence of these dimensions and each dimension has its information sources). However as the above framework can only provide the depth view of the information needs of carers so I have developed another framework to understand the breadth of the information needs of carers which includes also four major groups of information needs that are fit in the above general framework of information needs (depth view).

    Currently I want to test the second proposition which is, each dimension has its design features, so I am writing to you (and all commenters) in order to help me testing this proposition and tell me how you (as information architecture) are going to use this framework in your work.

  26. Terrific article. Thanks much. I’m reminded of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous quote:

    “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”

  27. Following Mike Starr’s post…

    Rumsfeld’s “known knowns” presumaby equate to Donna’s Known-Item seeking; his “known unknowns” to Exploratory seeking; and his “unknown unknowns” map onto “Don’t know what you need to know”.

    Of course he is missing Donna’s Re-finding behaviour, but perhaps all he needs to do the next time he uses the quote (and he has said it on more than one occasion) is to add:

    “And there are unknown knowns. These are things we used to know, but don’t know right now.”

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