Information Seeking Behavior and Information Architecture
Unit 1, Section 3, Overview
Before moving on to the rest of the content head over to the Unit 1, Section 3, assessment page to answer a few quiz questions.
In this module we will delve into what exactly information is, how people seek information, and how to engineer information-seeking environments by building information spaces that are intuitive and easy to use.
Let us begin. In the field there really is not one accepted formal definition for information. For the sake of our module, however, within the context of information seeking on the web, we will use Webster’s dictionary’s definition that information is knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction.
More important than the finding what exactly information is, however, is understanding why and how we seek information in digital environments. That is what we are going to do in this module.
So why do we seek information? Well, because it helps us. It helps us answer a question we have, close a gap in our existing knowledge, resolve an internal conflict, empower us with the information we want and need and the ability to find it ourselves as opposed to having to ask someone else. With such urgency behind our information-seeking behavior in general, we have little patience for not finding what we are looking for quickly, especially on the web.
Let us look at some formal definitions of information-seeking behavior:
- Taylor in 1968 defined it as a cognitive need or vague sense of dissatisfaction.
- Belkin, Oddy, and Brooks in 1982 referred to the state in which we seek information as an anomalous state of knowledge or asking.
- Derwin in 1983 called our search for information sense-making or desire to understand what we do not yet understand.
- Pirolli and Card in 1999 developed their adaptive control of thought and information forging, or ACT-IF Theory, that used the analogy of hunter and prey to describe our desire to hunt for information as a way to feed our information hunger.
The analogy of hunter and prey is a poignant and clear way to understand both the desire and search for information. We seek information to close a cognitive or mental gap in our existing knowledge. And as informavores on the hunt for the information, which is our prey, there indeed is a sense of urgency to find what we are looking for.
Using this analogy, we can then extend it to the creation of information environments that have clear information sense and allow the informavores that visit them quick and easy access to what they are hunting for. When traveling along on a hike in the woods with our goal to reach the mountaintop before the sun goes down, nothing is as disconcerting as when we are faced with a fork in the road. Time is ticking, and we are faced with a possibility of making the wrong choice, which will take us away from our goal.
Unclear information sent to digital environments in the form of unclear links, use of jargon, poorly organized information, et cetera, cause users to pause, wonder, and in general be indecisive, which engenders frustration and confusion. This is not effective, efficient, or satisfying.
What should we do? What can we do? Well, a big blue arrow pointing in the right direction, of course, shouting, “This way. This way,” surely helps. Indecision falls away, and we are quickly back on our way.
Clear information sends you the same thing for information seekers. It allows them to make better informed decisions before they decide on a course of action. This will mean that no indecision occurs in the first place. Remember, effective, efficient, and satisfaction defines usability. What is more usable than finding high quality information or services in an effective and efficient fashion? To the pinnacle of the mountain we go.
Creating well organized information environments with clear information sense now leads us to a discussion about information architecture. Before we begin, let us establish two big caveats. One, on average, users will spend only twenty-five to thirty seconds on webpages before deciding if the webpage they are on will help them or not. Two, Poole’s Principle of Least Effort proposes that humans will take the path of least effort. If you make the information-seeking process too difficult, they will go elsewhere.
Information architecture then can be formally defined as a science of making sure users find what they are looking for as quickly as possible. Morville and Rosenfeld in 2008, authors of the famous book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, speak directly to Pirolli and Card’s informavore analogy and believe that, in fact, creating information scents that are especially strong is the fundamental underpinning of the science of information architecture.
In other words, our job in building the information architecture is to make it as easy as possible to find the information they are looking for. Simply put, make it as high in usability as possible.
This is an example of a user feature checklist, which creates a user-to-feature matrix in priority order. The columns reflect the potential users and the rows reflect the type of information we surmise they will be looking for. This matrix serves as a checklist to ensure our information designs are organized around the information users want. The process of vetting this so that both the users and information they need and want that are identified is as valid as possible is a topic for Unit 2, Section 4.
I would recommend, however, that you follow the module sequentially in order to better understand both the terms and the context in which these terms are applied. This is an example of a preliminary information architecture or wire frame for the university academic department. You can see that instead of organizing information around types of users, we instead organize it around function. We will go into detail on how to do this in Unit 2.
That is it for this module. Please be sure to go through the five review questions, answer the questions in the discussion area, and do the Section 3 hands-on activity.