An Introduction to Custom WebBrowsers for the Qualitative Study of Hypertext Navigation

Article excerpt

For the benefit of researchers new to custom programming, this article presents a discussion of the advantages of custom applications and an example of such a program with a description and explanation of some of the programming code used to create it. Visual Basic 6.0 is an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) that allows researchers to Custom design interface forms using standard window controls and to code routines using the Visual Basic programming language. Visual Basic 6.0 (Professional Edition) also includes specialized controls such as the WebBrowser Control that enables researchers to add hypertext navigation to an application with a highly adaptable browser interface. This collection of functions provides a particularly valuable tool for investigating hypertext navigation and user interactions with document features.

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The term "hypertext" refers to any electronic document or document collection of interconnected units of information. A prominent example of a large hypertext system is the World Wide Web (WWW or Web). On a smaller scale, customized, constrained systems of hypertext documents (intranet systems) have become commonplace in work and educational environments.

Unfortunately, the cognitive processes involved in navigating through even a single hypertext document are not understood clearly. This is largely because the task of navigating in hypertext involves the integration of many complex cognitive processes within a very multifaceted environment. The multitudes of variables that a navigation task presents demands methodologies that control the interface users see and provides flexibility for collecting diverse types of data. This article outlines a custom application, programmed using Visual Basic 6.0 that provides both of these benefits.

Controlling the Interface

The Visual Basic ActiveX WebBrowser Control included in Visual Basic 6.0 creates a highly adaptable web browser that allows for the management of options available to users of hypertext documents. This is important for two reasons. First, to access information about the cognitions involved in hypertext use, a pared-down, sparse version of browsers and hypermedia pages may be desirable. Custom programming allows researchers to introduce new elements to the browser controls as well as eliminate unwanted controls resulting in interface elements that are specifically applicable to the question of interest. For example, for some research questions, the elimination of options such as the back, forward, or print buttons from the browser menu may be favorable.

Second, a custom browser ensures a novel environment for every user regardless of their prior experiences with standard browsers. Pretesting users on previous computer use is helpful but these measures usually rely on general information such as how often a computer is used within a certain timeframe or the number of activities a user engages in on a regular basis (e.g., e-mail, word processing). Questionnaires can result in ambiguous responses depending on the questions asked and a user's interpretations of the questions. Ensuring that every user begins the research task with an equal level of familiarity with the browser eliminates one extraneous variable.

Collecting Appropriate Data

Often, hypertext researchers are interested in tracking very quantitative navigation responses such as time spent on pages, number of pages accessed, and order of pages. A custom program can provide procedures for data collection that are strictly controlled by a researcher, eliminating any impact of features inherent in other standard tracking mechanisms such as browser history lists or server logs.

For example, browser history lists make use of a variety of procedures for recording page access. To optimize the history list, some methods erase prior revisits and only retain the most recent instance of access (for further description of history lists see Tauscher & Greenberg, 1997). …