Recently, we conducted alarge-scale surveyto understand how people make important decisions based on online information. The survey replicated and expandeda study conducted by Xerox PARC researchersin 1997.

Compared to the original study, we found that critical internet usage today involves more activities directed towards gaining an understanding of a topic than 22 years ago. We also noted that a fair percentage of the critical information was acquired passively, meaning that the user did not set out to find that information.

In this article, we focus onpassive information acquisition和how it differs from active information acquisition (where users had a prior intent to locate certain information). Our study revealed that over 22 years,passive information acquisition increased from 4% to 14% of all incidents leading to significant decisions or actions.


  • Explore: information was found accidentally while browsing
  • Notified:信息包含在电子邮件、短信或推送通知中

Active vs. Passive Information Acquisition

We found 5 differences between active and passive acquisition of information involved in critical decisions. Compared to active information acquisition, we observed that instances of passive information acquisition had:

  • More social interaction
  • Different user expectations
  • Fewer content types covered
  • A stronger influence of ads
  • Fewer devices used

More Social Interaction During Passive Information Acquisition

We observed thatpeople were significantly more likely to interact with others when they gathered critical information passively than when they engaged in active information acquisition(p<.01). In other words, when people discovered important information without looking for it, they were more likely to want to interact with others.

Frequency of Accompanying Social-Interaction Behaviors

As described inour methodology article, our analysis of the critical-incident data identified 5 types of social interaction:

  • Collaborate:work together with others to reach a decision
  • Inquire:ask someone else for additional information
  • Informed:get information from others (without asking for it)
  • 分享:share info with others
  • Execute:通过社会交往(例如,打电话购买物品)完成一项行动或目标
Accompanying Social-Interaction Behavior Types
During passive acquisition, people were much more likely to share information with others than during active information acquisition.

For passive information acquisition,Sharewas the main type of accompanying social interaction. People shared significantly more during passive information gathering than during active information gathering (21% vs. 2%).

For instance, a respondent browsed the news, saw a report of tornados in Indiana, and then she shared it with friends to warn them. Another user praised the convenientSharefunctionality in Yelp, as her friends could quickly suggest where to eat in Miami.

The Sharing Feature of Yelp
Yelp mobile app: People could easily share restaurant information with others.

相比之下,在积极寻求信息,the most common social interaction (15%) wasInquire— usually to get more information in order to finalize the decision. For example, a respondent comparing different mortgage options “called the bank with follow-up questions and settled on the loan and grant option that fit [her] best.”

The BestBuy site allowed immediate communication between shop representatives and buyers, through aHelp产品页面上提供的按钮。与产品有关的具体问题可由专家直接回答。

The BestBuy site allowed immediate communication between users and shop specialists. This feature supports Inquire-type of social interaction.


We asked people if there was anything that they would like to change on the sites or apps they used for passive information acquisition. Usingthematic analysis,我们确定了人们提到的首要问题,并比较了主动和被动信息获取的期望。

Related and Credible Information Were Valued for Passive Information Acquisition

Though content issues were the most reported category for both active and passive critical incidents, users valued different aspects of content during the two types of activities.

Active information seekers wanted detailed information presented in multiple formats (e.g.,文本和视频)以及捕捉各种视角(包括内容提供商和用户)。他们还希望信息清晰易懂。例如,一个用户研究并购买了一个洗衣机-烘干机组合,他想要产品各方面的图像。另一位了解游戏规则的受访者希望信息“更直接、更中肯”

But during passive information acquisition,the main issue was lack of context因为用户经常遇到范围有限information accidentally and in isolation — for example, they encountered a piece of news or a single product shown by itself, without surrounding context. They wanted to learn more about it or view more options. For instance, a user who had browsed an article regarding the mistreatment of animals and decided to become vegan wished that the article had “links to more information.” Another user who was reading about CBD oil wanted to be able to easily order the products mentioned in the article.

Thus,providing contextual information可以帮助用户根据意外发现的内容进行操作。至少,提供links to related content, though more extensive contextual features like对照表orpolyhierarchical information architecturecan also help, depending on the nature of your content and product space.

Users also emphasized the importance of contentcredibility and transparencywhile receiving critical information passively. One user reported reading an article that convinced her against voting for a certain politician; she wanted the article to “cite sources clearly.” Another user who saw an article about the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper recall reported, “I wish there was less sensational news or click bait.”

尽管许多人是根据被动获得的信息做出决定的,但这并不意味着欺骗他们是可以的。链接诱饵和煽动性标题可能会增加转换率in the short term, but in the long run, such tactics will diminish the users’trustin your sites.

Customization Valued for Passive Information Acquisition

通知have shown a profound impact on user behaviors. Users mentioned the need topersonalize and customizethe experience, instead of being overwhelmed by tons of notifications that didn’t meet their interests. For instance, a person who browsed news about a baby-product recall and was concerned about it reported, “I would like to be able to follow news about that product.” Another user wrote, “I want only important news and weather to send me push notifications.”

(In general, the ability to be informed about future events and other forms of follow-up information is extraordinarily poorly provided on today’s internet. This means that doing so well is a major opportunity for individual sites to stand out and establish direct connections with customers that bypass search engines and social-media sites.)

A Narrower Content Scope for Passive Information Acquisition

If we take a closer look at the categories of information that people passively acquired, we could Interestingly find that they were less diverse, compared to the information acquired actively:Product Info & Purchase,News & Politics,和Peoplecovered 81% of all passive info acquisition. This finding may be due in part to the smaller number of passive info-acquisition incidents in our study (71 responses vs. 427 responses in the category of active information seeking).

However, these three categories are also commonly explored during browsing activities. When users scroll through social media or read the news, they may not have a specific goal in mind, so they may be open to switch to a different task if they stumble upon unexpected information passively.

Product Info & Purchase是主动和被动信息获取报告最多的内容类别。人们更容易发现批评Health主动信息(p<0.001),这是有意义的-大多数人积极寻求健康问题的答案。另一方面,被动活动的比例较高News & Politics(p< 0.001), andPeople类别(p< 0.001), compared with the respective proportions of active incidents.

Top Content Categories
Similar proportions of critical information in theProduct Info & Purchasewere gathered both actively and passively. On the other hand, critical information related toHealthwas more likely to be gathered actively, whereas important content related toNews & PoliticsPeoplewere more likely to be gathered passively. (Note: We only show the 4 content types which were either most reported or showed statistically significant differences. There were 13 content categories in total. For the 9 rest categories, there were either no significant differences or the number of passive incidents was too small for a meaningful comparison.)

Paid Content Can Have a Strong Influence on Decision Making in Passive Information Acquisition

We’ve been reporting for years that users instinctively避免广告; 这种行为会导致如下现象banner blindness。However, while people find most ads annoying and unhelpful, that doesn’t mean ads are always ineffective. When an ad is correctly targeted, relevant, and carefully presented, it can have the desired effect on its users.

Paid content, including ads (31%) and promotional emails or notifications (6%), accounted for 37% of the critical passive information acquisition that we observed. In contrast, only 1 out of 427 respondents mentioned being influenced by ads during active information gathering.


The sources that people reported for critical paid content support these assumptions: social-networking sites (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) and browsing-oriented services (e.g., Hulu, Reddit).

  • “I saw an ad on Facebook for discounts on running shoes, and I ended up buying the shoes.”
  • “Buying my current phone, Google Pixel 2 XL. Kept seeing commercials on Hulu about it. Usually avoid commercials like the plague.”

Thus, it isimportant to将你的广告与你的用户的潜在目标和兴趣联系起来, but try not to disrupt them.当我们询问用户对他们用来查找关键信息的网站或应用程序是否有任何建议时,进行被动信息获取的用户并没有对广告抱怨太多。但积极获取信息的受访者通常会提到,他们对放在内容中间的破坏性广告感到沮丧(毫不奇怪,因为在另一项研究中,我们发现这种类型的ad是most disliked ads用于桌面。)

More Mobile Use During Passive Information Acquisitions

Compared to active information seeking, people wereless likely to use large deviceslike desktops and laptops when performing passive information acquisition. The difference was marginally significant (p= 0.06).

Also, when critical information was acquired passively, people wereless likely to use multiple devices for one task。22%的人表现积极的信息eeking reported using more than one type of device, but only 10% did so for the passive information acquisition (the difference was statistically significant,p< 0.05).

When passively acquiring critical information, people were less likely to use large devices like laptops and desktop computers.
Percentage of One vs. More Devices

This result seems straightforward. The passive information acquisition is unplanned and accidental and often occurs when people are killing time on their devices — mostly on their smartphones. The other devices may not be available to them or the information received through a notification or an email may create asense of urgency和encourage them to make decisions quickly.

想象一下,现在是晚上8点,晚饭后你随便浏览社交媒体。社交媒体上的广告告诉你,你喜欢的护肤品有折扣。你点击广告,会看到短时间内有50%的折扣。所以你马上用手机购买产品。这是调查中几位参与者报告的情况。行动是由一种紧迫感和scarcity,和people are less likely to switch devices during these sessions — they areafraid of “losing”the deal.


Our research shows that an increasing number of peoplefind critical information accidentally, without specifically looking for it. Emails and push notifications, as well as content discovered through browsing, can serve as a basis for decision making — provided that the content is sound, self-explanatory, contains sufficient details, and is tailored to the users’ general interest.

Designers have the responsibility of making their content discoverable, by creating stronginformation scentfor that content. Good, accurate summaries for articles, clear calls to action that take people into the right workflow, seamless transitions across differentchannels(例如从电子邮件到网站)都可以确保用户从网络上意外遇到的相关信息中充分受益。

我们已经看到,被认为相关的内容(包括广告)很可能会受到用户的欣赏。但只有了解用户并了解他们的兴趣和行为,才能确定什么是相关的。一方面,这意味着将我们的受众作为一个群体进行探索——进行用户研究,以确定总体目标和任务。但这也意味着要了解个人层面的人,要考虑到他们的历史和他们以前的互动——随着时间的推移,这一壮举变得越来越容易实现machine-learning technologies提高采用率和可访问性。