I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the role of paper and offline information resources in our overall information experience as humans interact with information. Some recent projects and research at work put the topic back on my plate. It was also part of my talk at the Euro IA conference (see Commercial Ethnography: Innovating Information Experiences).

A while back, I published a short essay on the potential importance of a creating print-friendly web pages. See Printing the Web in Boxes and Arrows (2003). The motivation for that article came from the observation that people quite like to print things from the web, as well as printing things like email. It seemed to me at the time that perhaps there is even a higher use of paper in offices since the web came along than before. So, our experience with a website may extend offline as well, and designers should consider how to best create print-friendly content.

Then, while at the CHI conference this year, I came across two fascinating exhibits related to paper. The first was digital paper, also called interactive paper. The second was iCandy, a program that allows you to print from your iTunes collections. Both of these stood out, particularly at a conference where digital interfaces are the focus of attention. With iCandy, for instance, the inventor was taking something that wasn’t originally available offline–iTunes–and making it available in paper format. Why bother, I thought? Is the experience with iTunes not sufficient? Is there something missing or something better than interacting with my music collection with iTunes? These two exhibits, as well as my own observations, suggest that yes–there is something with experiencing information on paper that gets completely lost in electronic formats.

Even more recently, I came across a post from innovation guru Scott Anthony about Plastic Logic’s new reader device. Interestingly, the hurdle he sees for Plastic Logic with their new reader is an experiential one:

But think about that target user. Hassled executives have defined patterns of behavior about how they interact with documents. They are used to flipping, scribbling, and shuffling through those documents. Sure, the weight of the paper can be cumbersome, but Plastic Logic faces an uphill climb if its device makes it harder rather than easier to review and comment on documents.

The experience we have with print materials is, in Anthony’s opinion, a potential showstopper for widespread acceptance of new reading devices. But it’s not just a matter of habit that we gravitate to read things on paper: there are real benefits of working with a multi-dimensional medium like paper that get lost in electronic formats.

Finally, Peter Merholz just posted about the paperless office again. He reaches back to a previous posting of his in which he disagrees with Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker in 2002 on the topic. Peter makes some good points, but he’s also a little myopic on this one, particularly when making conclusions based on what he sees at his office. The habits of a cutting-edge, digital design office (Adaptive Path) hardly represent how people in other industries and businesses use paper.

I personally don’t foresee the complete disappearance of paper in the office in the near future, but I believe the time will come when online information experiences are rich enough to make it truly more advantageous to read a document from a computer screen than from paper. But even then, paper resources will still have a role. As noted at the end of an article entitled “On its way, at last” in The Economist–the catalyst for Peter’s post–we’ll probably see a re-purposing of paper. And Peter himself mentions such a shift as well in the Adaptive Path office.

Paradigm shifts with other types of media have also seen this type of re-purposing of old, incumbent media. As the radio became widespread, for instance, the initial reporting of a news event stopped being  communicate by lads standing on the corner shouting “Extra, Extra.” As a result, newspapers become more process-oriented. In other words, radio took over the announcing role, and people then got the details of the event from the newspaper. But newspapers didn’t go away.

So I don’t think we’ll see the completely paperless office, at least not on a widespread basis. Sure, some companies may actually achieve a paperless office, but they will be the exception rather than the norm. Instead, paper will come to serve a different role. It will be used for informal communication and extra-work events, or for brainstorming session and other creative exercises, or for official documents that require a signature and a company seal, for instance. There will be less of it, for sure–particularly for administrative things–but a completely paperLESS office is not only NOT in our future, but probably a bad idea.

As David Gelernter said back in 2000 in his Computer Manifesto:

“The ‘paperless office’ is a bad idea because paper is one of the most useful and valuable media ever invented.”

In Designing Web Navigation, I have a whole chapter on integrating search and browse. The point is that from a user’s perspective navigating and searching aren’t different things. People just want to find information. And we know from berrypicking theory that people can switch their seeking strategies rapidly while looking for information online.

Google introduced Sitelinks in their search results back in 2006. These are automatically generated based on an analysis of the target site’s structure. Often, the links naturally reflect the main navigation options of the site. With this, the scenario is: you do a search on Google, and from the results can directly navigate the target site. (BTW, the introduction of Sitelinks is another good reason to make sure your site is well structured and has a meaningful navigation system.)

Recently, Google also introduced a site search features embedded right in the results list:

Google Sitelinks and In-Site Search

So now the scenario is: do a keyword search on Google, browse the results list which includes navigation from target sites, and now you can even do a keyword search on specific site. The line between search and browse is really blurred here. And that’s a good thing, I believe.

Just came across the results of a new study commissioned by the British Library and JISC about information behavior of the “Google generation.” These are people born after around 1993. Here is a direct link to the full report.

Broadly, the intent is to see if younger people search for information in new ways and the consequences that might have on their own research behavior later as well as on how information system get developed.

“The untested assumption is that this generation is somehow qualitatively `different’ from what went before: that they have different aptitudes, attitudes, expectations and even different communication and information ‘literacies’ and that these will somehow transfer to their use of libraries and information services as they enter higher education and research careers.”

Since a longitudinal study (the optimal method) was not feasible, the researchers first reviewed literature on information behavior of young people from the last 30 years. This was supplement with fresh data by looking at online search behavior, profiling users by age.

The study identifies six key characteristics of digital information seeking. These should ring a bell to you, but I’ve not quite seen them formulated like this:

  • Horizontal information seeking – Skimming lots of information quickly
  • Navigation – “People in virtual libraries spend a lot of time simply finding their way around: in fact they spend as much time finding their bearings as actually viewing what they find.” (Note that “time” is the critical aspect of this behavior).
  • Viewers – People don’t spend nearly as much time reading online as in the traditional sense. The researchers call this “power browsing.”
  • Squirreling behavior – Stashing away information in forms of downloads for later use, particularly free content (though it’s rarely re-visited by the downloader).
  • Diverse users – One size does not fit all for any one system.
  • Checkers – “Users assess authority and trust for themselves in a matter of seconds by dipping and cross-checking across different sites and by relying on favoured brands (e.g. Google).” Note here the emphasis on “brand” in relationship to Google.

Some observations made in the study about the Google generation:

  • Information literacy is not higher among young people. Their adeptness with computer may actually hide a deeper, more-troubling illiteracy.
  • Young searchers find information fast, but spend very little time assessing the quality and authority of information found.
  • Active contemplation of information needs is often low, and young searchers prefer to express themselves in natural language.
  • Determining relevance in a long list of documents is difficult for younger searchers.

They sum up: “There is little direct evidence that young people’s information literacy is any better or worse than before.”

This suggests to me that things like brand and ease of use will become more important for this generation. But that’s not necessarily a good thing, now, is it? Still, the design of systems in the future will change and become much more critical than the technologies that drive them alone.

While the Google generation is generally better with technology, there are some myths around this group. For instance, they are not expert searchers, and they may not find their peers (i.e., social networks) more credible than traditional sources of authority. Nor does the Google generation necessarily prefer smaller bits of information to full text compared to an older generation.

Further, increase in reliance on the internet for information is changing across all generations, even the Silver Surfers:

“In many ways the Google generation label is increasingly unhelpful: recent research finds that it is not even accurate within the cohort of young people that it seeks to stereotype.”

Getting information skills is as critical as even with the Google generation.


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