Information Diet

Information foraging theory gives us fruitful insights into how users interact with information, and we have looked at the concepts of information scent and information patches. Another concept from information foraging theory is that of information diet, which is today’s subject.

The popular version of the concept is that people looking for information have a variety of options for meeting their information needs, and that they choose which ones to use based on some notion of cost/benefit (profitability), guided by information scent. Again, this concept has biological origins, in which animals choose food based on nutritional, energetic and even medicinal values, trying to minimize the costs and maximize value.

The authors of the concept take this further, by saying that there is a strategic component to this, that the user will create a diet of the most profitable resources available, then progressively less profitable ones, but will stop including other types of resource when their profitability become quantifiably too low.

The user’s notion of profitability is highly situational and unknowable to an individual web page or document, but the diet model encourages us to think about the whole set of resources we could offer to meet a user’s information needs, with various characteristics, rather than just focussing on one resource at a time.

Let’s take a real world example, namely me learning about information foraging. There was an abundance of resources and no way that I could read them all. I had the options of reading blog posts, original papers, books by leading researchers, watching a YouTube video, or attending international conferences, to name a new.

Which did I choose, and why? The following extended example might seem a bit conversational, but please regard it as an example of user research that has already been done for you.

Initially, I was looking for quality information or resources, a high level understanding of the information space, and an early assessment of whether I could use these in my work. I also wanted to pursue my investigation right away, and subsequently at times of my convenience, so I chose to start with web resources.

I trust my ability to skim, and didn’t want to spend too much time, so I ruled out videos (can’t skim).

I ruled out SlideShare presentations (at this time) which often lack the presenter’s commentary and make me work too hard.

I searched for “information foraging” and the search results had a good information scent, specifically the presence of some of the leading authorities in the user experience world. Good, this is not just a an academic discipline. I looked for practitioner blogs talking about applications of the theory, and found several.  Their presence indicated I had found a likely patch, and I decided to press on.

My focus was now quite different. As a practising consultant, I was looking for two things:

  • are there examples or case studies I can utilize when working with clients, and
  • are there general principles that I can apply in my analysis and design work, and teach to others.

I was prepared to spend more time, effort, and money to find out.

I bought and read parts of Designing The Search Experience: The Information Architecture of Discovery by Tony Russell-Rose & Tyler Tate. This gave me lots of concepts, examples, and stimulation. It didn’t provide guiding principles quite the way that I like them. Great, there’s room for me to make a contribution.

I read several practitioner blogs, and very soon ran into diminishing returns. There was a recurring pattern of naming the ingredients of the theory, providing a biological example, and giving some valid but generally the same examples, such as the importance of good names for links. A few blogs drilled a bit deeper and I bookmarked them, but I essentially ruled blogs out as a resource class.

SlideShare presentations did become an eligible and productive resource class. Based on this work, I felt there was a lot more to be learned and applied, and was prepared to work harder and longer to find out.

My focus became different again. This time, I was looking for a deep understanding of information foraging, with a view to developing some guiding principles for my solutions design. I selected the 1999 paper on Information Foraging by Pirolli and Brand, and read chunks of it, some many times. This paper has a very high density of useful concepts, and I spent a lot of time making sense of what I was reading, primarily from the perspective of how I apply it in my work.

Now, I’m at the point where I’m integrating these concepts into my practice, and am not searching for additional resources. I have been left with strong go-forward scents. Pirolli has written a book on Information Foraging Theory, and has published a paper on social information foraging (search for “pirolli social information foraging”). The latter is especially high-scent for me, as I do a lot of work on collaboration.

The key things that this example points out are:

  • users think about resources in classes
  • users utilize these classes based on notions of profitability
  • there are some classes that will be highly used
  • there are some classes that might never be used
  • these notions of profitability are individual and situational
  • the user’s notions of profitability are heuristic and will be incorrect in cases.

These concepts apply not just to online activities. As a segue into an upcoming discussion of cross-channel information foraging, you might want to look at the following exercise.

Exercise for the reader: describe the following story from the point of view of information foraging.

“Information Architect John is on a phone call with a colleague Sally who wants help redesigning their part of the intranet. Half way through the call, when they want to walk through the current site, they realize that John doesn’t have access. They decide to use their corporate web conferencing solution. Neither John nor Sally knows how to set up the call. John does a search on the intranet. A lot of the search results are past meeting notes with conferencing details. There is some self-help material, but it is a ten-minute video. John rushes down the corridor and bursts in on a colleague, Nancy, asking if she can help. Nancy can and does, real time, saving the day.”

Think about the information foraging perspective, and any thoughts that arise for solutions design.

Stay tuned.

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