Why shopping while surfing the Net could get easier

Dr. Jeff Parsons is trying to make it easier to search databases and cruise stores on the Internet.

By Gina Pecore

Have you ever sat down to use a database and found yourself bombarded with data, except of course for that little tidbit you actually needed?

Or perhaps you are one of a growing number who have experimented with shopping on the Internet but found that browsing through a 50,000-item catalogue was a bit too much to do over the lunch hour?

Dr. Jeff Parsons, an assistant professor of information systems in the Faculty of Business Administration, recognized these and other problems associated with using databases. About five years ago he decided there might be something he could do to improve the situation. "The problem with most information systems is that they have been built by people who are very strong technically," Dr. Parsons said. "Systems have been designed from that point of view, not from an ease-of-use or understanding point of view."

Dr. Parsons is using cognitive psychology to research more user-friendly ways to store information electronically. Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that all people do not categorize information in the same manner. For example, one person might assume "support services" means emotional support, while another might think it refers to financial support. Where databases are concerned, this means the user is restricted to how the designer of the database interpreted each category.

"When you start combining information into larger files, the individual users who have a particular point of view on what data they need find that they either get a lot of superfluous data, or that the whole way it's put together doesn't make any sense," Dr. Parsons explained. He's researching the usefulness of assigning attributes, or descriptions, to items instead of categorizing them based on the designer's perceptions. Together with Dr. Jerry Lohse of the University of Pennsylvania, he is examining the application of this theory to on-line catalogues. Instead of using an index to find a particular item, the shopper would tell the computer the general features of the type of item they want.

A shopper looking for a gift might tell the system some characteristics of what they had in mind -- for example, that it's inexpensive, practical, suitable for someone interested in gardening. The system would do a quick search of its database and respond with a selection of items. The end result would be an improved service offered by the seller plus a more efficient use of an electronic shopper's time.

The theory proposed by Dr. Parsons seems to be an obvious step towards improving the user-friendliness of information systems, and he has started receiving positive feedback on his idea.

"It's taken a long time to convince people that this is interesting. For years and years we've asked people to adjust to the way computers process things...This is quite different from the way people have thought about database problems...but the academic community is recognizing that this is important, both for the theory of database design and for improving our practical ability to extract useful information from large databases in a variety of ways," Dr. Parsons said.

Companies are also starting to pay attention to their work. A few months ago, Dr. Parsons and Dr. Lohse started working with a large mail-order clothing retailer in the United States. The company publishes a catalogue on the Internet and is interested in moving into this area. Dr. Parsons said it's a good testing ground -- both for the company and themselves.

For now, research is continuing, with Dr. Lohse operating from Pennsylvania and Dr. Parsons from Memorial. If they are successful in proving the usefulness of their research, the way we shop on the Internet and use databases could change drastically.

In the meantime, we may see results from some of Dr. Parsons' other related research projects, including a study with his colleague, Dr. Katherine Gallagher, into a more effective means of targeting advertising on the Internet.