Information Behaviour

Of all the topics in Information Plus this is probably the most important and the most challenging to summarise in one web page. There are hundreds, of not thousands, of research papers and a number of books on the subject. Why is it so important? Because good information-based applications cannot be designed, implemented, managed and improved without an understanding of how people interface with information. In the most recent of books specifically on information behaviour (see below) Nigel Ford suggests that an understanding of information behaviour can add value to

  • The design of information systems to enable effective exploration, navigation and retrieval of information
  • The way that information is organised and managed by individuals and organisations
  • Training and education designed to help people develop the ability to find, evaluation and use information in relation to their needs
  • The way information is communicated by authors and information service providers

We invariably make the assumption that others have the same information behaviours as ourselves, and so we design information systems such as intranets to meet our needs on the basis that these will scale across the organisation. However thirty years of research suggests that the factors that affect information behaviour are very complex indeed. A reasonable metaphor is to consider human behaviour and long-haul airline food. In principle we have the same physiology in the aircraft as on the ground. In reality the lower cabin pressure, the dryness of the air, the use of ovens and having to eat meals in a seat with arm rests mean that the food has to be prepared, flavoured, presented and  in a way that overcomes these restrictions. Most of the passengers on a long-haul flight have no appreciation of these factors but are inadvertently benefiting from the research and practice involved in creating edible food at 35,000ft. It is the same with information behaviours.

There are three clusters of information behaviour activity and these are perceiving information needs, information seeking and information use. Information seeking is discussed elsewhere in Information Plus. The interest in information behaviour is not new. Tom Wilson, in a seminal review paper, points out that there were papers on this subject at the 1948 Royal Society Scientific Information Conference and many of core models for information behaviour were developed in the 1980s and 1990s. There is an Information Plus page on information seeking.

Probably the best place to start in understanding the nature of information behaviour and its implications is the book “Introduction to Information Behaviour” by Nigel Ford, formerly on the staff of the Information School, University of Sheffield where Tom Wilson was a distinguished former head of department. More recently Chun Wei Choo, who has been researching information behaviour and information cultures for many years has written an outstanding book “The Inquiring Organisation” in which Chapter 8 considers some of the key models and their implications for organisations. Many universities offer courses in information behavour studies and the course description from Rutgers gives a good sense of the scope of the subject as well as listing out some important references. One of the most distinguished academics in this area is Reijo Savolainen, at the University of Tampere.

None of these references offer a handbook on how to identify information behaviours that can be used to develop better intranets and digital workplaces. Despite all the research we are still some way from a consensus view on categorising these behaviours. However they will highlight the importance of understanding how people use information beyond the useful, but simplistic, personas that are now widely used to define information requirements. Understanding that there are a range of information behaviours will help with the analysis of the outcomes of user research and lead directly to better systems.

See also Information Culture, Information Needs, Information Quality, Information Relevance, Information Seeking, Information Sharing

Martin White

October 2016

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