Information Search Experience Revisted

The name of this blog–Experiencing Information–was inspired by two people.

  • First, Andrew Dillon is quoted as saying “data is stored, information is experienced.” He’s done a lot of work on the concept of information shape and document genre to show that how we encounter and interact with information is an important part of understanding information.
  • Second, the work of Professor Carol Kuhlthau has influenced my thinking on information seeking. In particular, she included emotions in her information seeking model. Actually, considering actions, thoughts, and emotions simultaneously–which Kuhlthau does–is a key part of my definition of “user experience” in general.

In 2004 I gave a presentation at the IA Summit in Austin, TX entitled Information Search Experience: Emotions in Information Seeking (ISX). This basically took the work of Kuhlthau and others and put forth a framework for a diagnostic tool that could be used in conceiving of information systems. A significant part of this model is that it takes user emotions into account. Parts of this framework have also appeared in other places, namely in an article in interactions and in my book.

Recently, Kuhlthau and company re-examined her framework for the Information Search Process (ISP) model. See “The ‘information search process’ revisited: is the model still useful?“. Not surprisingly, the authors (including Kuhlthau) find the ISP model to still be valid, even across different information seeking contexts:

The information search process model describes feelings, thoughts and actions in an information seeking task with a discreet beginning and end, where considerable construction of knowledge takes place. The description of the stages of affective, cognitive and physical experience of users continued to be found in this study. This indicates that the model continues to be a useful theoretical and explanatory framework for user studies in librarianship and information science.

In addition, the model continues to be instructive when designing user centred information services and systems. Its consecutive stages can form the basis for timed interventions in order to support users throughout the progress of a project. This research indicates that a crucial stage for interventions is the exploratory middle part where the formulation of focus is developed.

It’s this last part that has always interested me and that stands at the heart of my ISX model. But rather than necessarily taking Kuhlthau’s ISP stages as is, I suggest that you first need to uncover the seeking stages your particular user group actually goes through. This can be inspired from the ISP, but may have important variations. And of course the inclusion of actions, thoughts, and feelings in my ISX is directly inspired from Kuhlthau.

Not too long ago, I had the privilege of working with the good folks at the University College of London Interaction Centre (UCLIC). At the time, Stephann Makri was finishing up his doctoral work, and he visited LexisNexis to get feedback and valid a tool for designing information systems for legal researchers. See his forthcoming JASIST article on the method.

Stephann doesn’t include feelings in his tool, and it’s really more based on Ellis’ behavioral model of information seeking. But at a high level there are similarities between his approach, my ISX, and Kuhlthau’s ISP, I think. Basically, in conceiving of information systems, it’s helpful to understand the phases people go through in a systematic way. Then, you need to ensure that you match the features, functionality, and design of the system to support the user’s actions, though process, and feelings.

Sounds simple and obvious (which is good), but I’m not convinced project teams do this, and they certainly don’t do it explicitely. The tools (either mine or Stephann’s) provide important insight, I believe. But we’ve not used Stephann’s tool at LexisNexis, and I’ve never had success bringing the ISX model to a broader project team. (I’ve really only used it for myself.) So maybe as diagnostic tools the models are limited in their impact in practical settings.

Still, I think there is potential for theory to inform practice in this area. Maybe I need to revisit my ISX and formalize it (and package it) better.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Success at MURAL

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