Last week I posted an article on Information Seeking Fundamentals: An Overview. This week I want to follow up that article with some more concrete examples. This might be a more introductory article for some more seasoned IAs, but it might also be a nice reminder of the approach we can take when it comes to the usability of information.

Information usability has been on my mind lately as I don’t think many people are thinking about this. (Correct me if I’m wrong; happy to learn more.) Many companies tend to focus on the usability of interaction design where slight changes can be easier to notice and measure. The usability of a taxonomy, of a site map, of content on a page may be much harder to measure than an interactive design. While someone may be able to successfully navigate through an interaction, what qualifies for successful use of a taxonomy?

Information Seeking

To start off, last week’s article talked about the information seeking process. It’s non-linear; people start with an incomplete understanding of what they need to know and they make somewhat random stabs at finding information.

This week, UX Mag posted an article on Cognition and the Intrinsic User Experience. The conclusion of this article states,

UX has a lot to do with how users find and consume content. Understanding the cognitive processes and nuances people go through when finding and consuming content is important to architecting an ideal experience or, at least, to architecting a set of conventions that support a user having an ideal experience.

Understanding the information seeking process can help us design experiences that fit into the user’s cognitive processes. How do we know what the information seeking process of our users is? Through user research, such as interviews, focus groups, observation we can learn how people are looking for information. I want to be clear that by “information” I don’t just mean content on an Intranet or website. I mean information in the “information bearing object” way where anything that is informative can be information. This can be another person, an object, a printed image, a magazine, a handbook, a website, a video, a podcast. (If you want to know more about information bearing objects, read Buckland’s Information as Thing. It’s one of my favourite papers.)

As a concrete example of knowing the information seeking process of your users, while I was working on an Intranet redesign project for a mutual funds company, it became clear that the way employees sought information was from their managers. As it turns out, the company had a very hierarchical culture where employees were trained to go to their managers to ask questions. That was the definitive source. Managers encouraged this structure and new employees were indoctrinated into this way of thinking. While the IT department thought that a redesign Intranet was the answer to a lot of problems, for the Intranet to work well and contain definitive content, the company culture had to change. That’s asking a lot from an Intranet…

The information architecture would need to understand that in the information seeking process of employees, the first step was to ask managers, not to look on the Intranet. This user feedback from the interviews could be reported back to managers with a recommended improvement. As a partial improvement, managers could start posting definitive content on the Intranet, allowing employees to share this information with each other. If multiple employees have the same questions, why not post the information on the Intranet?

As another technique, mental models can be used to illustrate someone’s information world and to explore how technology can be used to support this information world.

Information Avoidance

One aspect to information seeking is information avoidance. How do information architects design for information avoidance? If someone doesn’t want new information, how do we get them exposed to this information? Chatman did a groundbreaking study on the Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders. Some of her research focused on janitors working in a university and how information-poor these janitors were. Although they worked with highly educated professors, the culture ensured these professors and janitors did not interact with each other. Janitors also did not have access to the technology that would allow them to get more information. As a result, these outsiders shared misinformation with each other, rarely moving outside the group to expand their knowledge. Typically they were distrustful of information coming from other people.

As information architects, we may not be able to do a lot to bring information to others, but we can educate others about information avoidance. I think this is really important as we in IT tend to think that everyone has access to the same technology and is equally savvy at navigating through information. People that we work with can be educated on information avoidance. Managers might find this particularly useful if they are trying to get their employees to do better in their work, learn more, and excel within the company.

Information Overload

Another aspect that can hinder information seeking is information overload. While this matters to our information designs, it’s something we’re not talking about. Nathaniel Davis talks about information overload in his post on UX Matters. I highly recommend reading it for a better understanding of information overload.

As an information architect or UX designer, how often have you had a professional conversation about information overload with your clients or peers? For many of us, I’m guessing the answer is seldom to never. Yet, information overload is the elephant in the room that acts against the success of every project we take on. Maybe it’s because we have a hard time recognizing the signatures of information overload through the work that we typically do.

Davis gives a great overview of the types of information overload and how we as information architects can help negate these in our information designs. As someone interested in information literacy, the one that stands out for me is the Literacy Gap, or “The degree of education that a user needs to effectively use and contribute to a knowledge system and information architecture.” The strategy to counteract this Literacy Gap is to think about, “What affordances can you provide to promote digital literacy for information architecture? To what degree can you automate the creation of new navigation, information organization, and content relationships on behalf of your users?” (Both quotes from Davis’ article.)

Conclusion

Understanding these strategies that Davis illustrates, as well as information seeking processes and information avoidance, is incredibly useful and helpful in integrating information seeking strategies into our designs. As corporations produce more information, vie for more of their users’ head space and ask people to do something with the information provided, it will become more important to reflect the users’ mental models and information seeking processes in our designs. If we want to make information actionable, it needs to be findable and comprehensible.