Information needs and uses

Dervin and Nilan (1986) trace the paradigm shift in information needs research away from systems-centered and toward a more user-centered approach. I was particularly intrigued by those user-centered studies that examined information needs: (1) by the different kinds of information needed at different stages in research; (2) by eliciting statements of problematic situational activities; and (3) as observable behavioral indicators.

The first is key for web designers: so many of the sites I design need to be designed for both experts and novices, as well as people who can’t do all their research at one time.

I’ve seen the second demonstrated in usability studies where you don’t create tasks for the users. It’s amazing what actionable insights one can acquire from simply asking users about the problems or needs they’ve had on a particular web site.

The third appeals to me because it attempts to complement the self-reported internal cognitive state with observable behaviors. After all, sometimes the two conflict. And it is often in that state of disagreement between perception and behavior that some of the best usability insights lie.

Dervin, B., and Nilan, M. (1986). Information needs and uses. In Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 21, 3‑33. White Plains, NY: Knowledge Industry Publications.