People seek information to fulfill a greater need: to meet a tight deadline, keep the boss happy, keep the job, solve the medical problem, stand up for human rights. This might seem obvious, but when I first started my MLIS program, this was a new and profound paradigm shift in my thinking of why people use and need information. With a background as a technical writer, I admittedly thought that people would come to my documentation to solve a problem and would see how good the documentation was and keep reading. I imaged that power user who wanted to know everything about the software and would devour the help files.

Fulfilling a Greater Need

But as I said, these were just my imaginings and as it turns out, people probably didn’t devour the help files. “Information workers consider information seeking as a necessary, but preliminary activity, to the more significant endeavor of using information for constructing new knowledge to accomplish the tasks and goals that encompass their work” (Kuhlthau & Tama, 2001, p. 26). Information seeking is one task in a series of activities performed to fulfill a greater need. While we may talk about “information need,” the greater need might be not to lose a job, become a better parent, save people’s lives by adhering to safety standards. Having gone through this MLIS, I’ve had the opportunity to devour more works by Kuhlthau (and others) to opened my eyes to the reasons why people seek information and made me think about how this might affect their information seeking behaviors.

Berrypicking

Marcia Bates discusses berrypicking as one way that people navigate through the information maze. Understanding this technique can be extremely useful to understand and incorporate into the design of information systems. By understanding how people might use berrypicking techniques such as footnotes chasing, area scanning, subject searches, author searches, or any combination of these techniques, it become easier to adapt information systems to meet these techniques.

Bates uses the term “footnote chasing,” which is more applicable to an academic environment, but we also do this on the web with hyperlinks. If I reading an article that references another article, I’ll click on that link to read that other article. Area scanning is more easily done in a physical environment, such as a library or bookstore, but sites such as Amazon build in content navigation by giving us sections on the page that say, “People who bought this also bought this” and “If you like this you might like that.” These types of sites also give us the categorization for the product, allowing us to go up a level to the category to see everything else in the category. Subject and author searches probably go without description; a subject search can be done with a thesaurus or taxonomy allowing the user to search and browse through a certain topic, very much like area scanning. Author searches is simply a way to see everything written by a certain author.

Non-Linear Process

It is important to note that the information seeking process isn’t necessarily linear. At the beginning of our process, we only kind of know what we’re looking for. Bates discusses that the information seeking process is not necessarily well-formed at the start, but might concentrate on one aspect of the research question. People start with this question, then find more encompassing ideas, different references and authors, and modify and continue their search according to the information currently on hand. Information seeking behavior isn’t necessarily linear but can lead people through a maze until they are able to pinpoint their information needs (Bates, 1989).

Information Avoidance

While people have certain information seeking behaviors that lead them to new information, there are also certain behaviors that restrict people from obtaining as much information as possible. For me, this is one of the more fascinating aspects of information seeking. Wilson (1997) discussed two barriers to information seeking. The first barrier was “cognitive dissonance.” When people encounter conflicting ideas, they typically try to resolve this conflict by seeking information that supports their current opinion. The second barrier is “cognitive avoidance.” People mostly get exposure to ideas that match their own beliefs and opinions and tend to ignore information that does not support their current beliefs and opinions. This really illustrates that although information can be available and accessible by the target audience, it isn’t necessarily used. In fact, it might be avoided.

Conclusion

As an information architecture consultant, these three aspects of information seeking behaviors were the most prominent and helpful to understand corporate audiences. I was able to change my understanding of why people seek information; the techniques used to find information; and the reasons why people might avoid information. If you want to learn more about information seeking, reading Bates and Kuhlthau are two great places to start. Kuhlthau’s best book is Seeking Meaning.

References

Bates, M. (1999). The invisible substrate of information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 50(12), 1043-1050.
Kuhlthau, C.C. & Tama, S.L. (2001). Information search process of lawyers: A call for ‘just for me’ information services. Journal of Documentation, 57(1), 25-43.
Wilson, T.D. (1997). Information behavior: An interdisciplinary perspective. Information Processing & Management. 33(4), 551-572.