Research insights for User Experience professionals into human information behavior

How are the topics of Human Information Behavior (HIB) research, and user research into the influence of occupation, social role, and demographics relevant in the web development, IA and UX fields? Read these summaries and reflections on part 5 in Donald Case's book on Human Information Behavior (HIB) to find out.

Chapter 10: HIB's shifting topics

Abstract: The pool of HIB research is HUGE and is growing increasingly specialized - I know: shocking! Case mentions that,. although past research often focused more on the use of channels and sources, today's research is focused on information seeking and behavior (i.e. people, not systems).

Aside from the volumns of research on specific groups (see chapters 11 & 12), current research also tends to explore concepts like "context" or themes like "browsing."

Review: I was most intrigued in this chapter by his outline of Johnson's (2003) three, increasingly-complex senses of context:

  1. positivist: equivalent to the situation in which a process is immersed, which specifies factors that moderate relationships
  2. post-positivist: contingency aspects of situations that have specific effects, which emphasizes the prediction of outcomes
  3. post-modern: frameworks of meaning, in which the individual is inseparable from the context.

I suspect that, if I understood this better, it might offer insights into why market research is shifting focus away from demographics and toward a view of customers that is more concerned with their worldview and attitudes.

Also, I find myself a bit in this boat, as I am very intrigued by the concept (or theme?) of information foraging: a somewhat evolutionary and food-driven model applied to information seeking.

Chapter 11: HIB by occupation

Abstract: Alongside the trend toward more context-centered HIB research, is inquiry into people's HIB by job or role. The two major players in this line of inquiry are those seeking health information and students.  Nonetheless, occupational research still pays attention to the system-centered side of research, as well, maintaining a healthy curiosity about sources and channels. Interestingly, there is a very human distinction made between interpersonal and non-personal types of channels. These studies frequently find that people often turn to other people (their friends and neighbors) for information first.

Review: This chapter prompts us to remember the human dimension in online answer-seeking, with its implications for social networks and peer-provided question and answer sites. I suspect that the insights of anthropology and social psychology would be particularly apropos to designing the structures of these types of sites.

I wonder: could studying how the best UX and IAs improve their professional skills online be useful as a modelling tool for we semi-novices? Perhaps there's a place for learning theory, as well.

Chapter 12: HIB by social role and demographic group

Review: Very similar to chapter 11, this chapter is mostly helpful as a summary of research on particular groups and exhibits a statistically ambiguous tendency to study small numbers of people in very specific roles.  I was, however, struck by the limited research on gender differences, especially given the proliferation of pop psychology books on Mars and Venus, as well as the research on the differences in gendered communication styles.

Mostly, I found this chapter a helpful starting place when researching a specific group's (voters') information behavior.

Chapter 13: Take aways

Abstract: Case ends (pp.326-28) this excellent book with a list of eight take-aways:

  1. Formal sources and rationalized searches reflect only one side of HIB. Informal searches and the "law of least effort" are very common.
  2. More information is not always better.
  3. Context is central to the transfer of information.
  4. Sometimes information doesn't help, as humans often have different needs. This is especially true of generalized packages of information.
  5. Sometimes it's not possible to make information available or accessible.
  6. Information seeking is a dynamic process: it's seldom simple or done.
  7. Information seeking is not always about a "problem" or "problematic situation"; sometimes it's a creative process.
  8. Information behavior is not always about "sense-making" either. It can still be helpful to think in terms of source preference and audience segmentation.

Review: These are great milestones by which to chart the path of HIB and UX for the future...or to argue against on that same journey.

Appendix A: Glossary

Review: I highly recommend this relatively-short (pp.329-33), excellently-explained list of HIB terms.



Case, D. (2008). Looking for information: a survey of research on information seeking, needs, and behaviors, 2nd Edition. Emerald Group Publishing Limited. ISBN: 978-0123694300.