A conceptual framework for explaining information behavior

Diane Nahl
University of Hawaii

Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education
Volume 1, Issue 2 (May 2001) © University of Toronto Press
Article number: 6


Three congruent theoretical approaches to defining and measuring information behaviors are reviewed, representing three compatible theories within the behavioral tradition in social and information sciences. The taxonomic approach focuses on identifying the levels and sub-components of information behaviors in the affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor domains. The psychodynamic approach focuses on conflict resolution within the self between affective uncertainty and cognitive incomprehension. The ethnomethodological approach focuses on the communicative meaning of new information and its role in the lives of users. These three behavioral approaches provide the context for new insights in the study of information environments. Two applications are described, dealing with the taxonomy of technophobia and with information counseling.

* * *

In the information fields, the behavioral approach has been dominant in relation to identifying what users do when. In other words, how they search, what errors they make, what they consider relevant, what they know or comprehend, what choices they make, which feelings they express or how much value they attach to some outcome. A common theme in the past few decades has been a new awareness of the importance of the affective behavior of users (Nahl, 1995, 1996a). User dissatisfaction, lack of self-confidence, lack of interest and technophobia threatened to arrest the computer revolution, limiting it to a few techno-savvy individuals. However, researchers have realized that viable information environments designed for every person must provide for the fact that cognitive skills cannot develop without the simultaneous development of affective skills. Formerly, it was expected that information specialists would supply the cognitive elements users need, while the users themselves would supply their own affective elements such as sufficient motivation, positive attitude, and effective coping skills. [1]

The nature of affective skills needed in the electronic information environment is revealed in the affective reactions to the cognitive elements. In the user's cognitive world, uncertainty increases with growing complexity. Many users lack motivation for becoming technologically literate and develop an aversion to it. The necessity thrust upon designers and managers of information environments is to understand how cognitive and affective skills of users coordinate with each other or inhibit each other in information environments. Research has shown that acquiring information is an interactive, affective-cognitive skill where the motivation to learn is the affective component and the knowledge itself is the cognitive component. The crucial directive influence that motivation exerts on learning is well known and is formally incorporated in most behavior theories (Bandura, 1986; Beck, 1976; Hebb, 1955; Hull, 1943; Mischel, 1993). [2]

As a result of the work on behavioral objectives in education (Astleitner, 2000; Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Walker, & Krathwohl, 1956/1975; Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1964; Martin & Briggs, 1986; Merrill, 1972; Small, 2000), it is widely recognized that affective and sensorimotor objectives are important in instruction. Nevertheless, there has been insufficient recognition that the affective-cognitive connection is not merely a general motivational influence on learners, but operates in each sub-skill that constitutes a task performance. In information science, this integrated approach was first formally recognized in the taxonomic work of Jakobovits and Nahl (1987, 1990), Nahl (1993, 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c), Nahl and Harada (1996), Nahl and Jakobovits (1985, 1993), and Nahl and Tenopir (1996). This research on the thoughts and feelings of searchers revealed that information behavior is an integrated hierarchy of sub-behaviors organized into hierarchical levels and domains. Awareness of the crucial importance of the affective domain in information science is demonstrated in the work of Picard (1997). The integration of the affective and cognitive domains may allow humans to interact with computers in new ways that could be easier, more natural, more productive, and entertaining. [3]

Many users who struggle to become technologically literate in the current information environment have experienced information overload, information anxiety, technophobia, computer aversion, library avoidance, depressing uncertainty, and even information rage. These affective behaviors do not result from insufficient motivation to learn and cannot be explained by a general relation between the affective and the cognitive since affective information problems are also present in highly motivated individuals. Maintaining a motivation to learn is a general affective behavior that influences information behaviors at a general level such as "demonstrating willingness" to practice, to pay attention, to avoid interruptions, to take notes, to keep going, to postpone quitting, and to commit to memory. But within this general affective umbrella there are hundreds of specific sub-tasks to be initiated, maintained, and sequenced appropriately. Each sub-task involves an affective-cognitive connection that may either help or hinder learning. For example, inspecting a list of retrievals to locate a desired item is not always an automatic or easy task. A user may look several times and miss it, or may look only once and consider it done, or look several times but always ignoring one corner of the display where the information is located, and the like. Each of these sub-behaviors has a cognitive and affective component, and the sub-skill will not be acquired unless affective and cognitive elements are integrated in that sub-skill. The task of identifying and cataloging all of the elements of information behavior in the three domains is the taxonomic approach (Jakobovits & Nahl, 1987; James & Nahl, 1996; Nahl, 1997). [4]

To create user-friendly information environments, it is necessary to develop appropriate affective support for each cognitive task to be acquired. A central issue for information specialists has become: what kind of affective information management must we provide along with cognitive knowledge so that the combination of the two facilitates and enhances sensorimotor access and use? This integrated focus connects the three behavioral domains dynamically, acknowledging that affective behavior exerts a facilitating or motivating influence over the cognitive at all levels of information behaviors, whether general or specific. The three behavioral approaches reviewed below provide some insight into the principles of affective information management and instruction. All three have a behavioral focus and assign a determining role to the affective domain. Together they form a conceptual framework that drives us further into the user-centered revolution (Nahl, 1996b). [5]

The Taxonomic Approach to Information Behavior

The taxonomic behavioral approach provides a methodology that allows objective measurement procedures for the feelings (affective information behaviors), thoughts (cognitive information behaviors), and perceptual actions of searchers (sensorimotor information behaviors). The affective domain of feelings includes a user's motives, and is closely associated with evaluation or ranking of preferences and choices in the sequence of search behaviors. For instance, the motive to find an article on a desired topic provides a continuous but broad directional force to keep going in the search activity. As soon as this affective power diminishes, the motive is no longer effective and the search behavior ends. This motive also provides an evaluation standard that determines relevance ratings when something of value is found. The degree of relevance of information, or its interest to the searcher, is proportional to its perceived relation to the goal. There are overriding goals in the taxonomic hierarchy, such as the motive to keep going and postpone quitting, which serve to support motivation throughout the entire sequence of sub-activities in a search process or a learning unit. Lower goals have specific end points such as examining a screen before pressing Page Down. If a user is searching for a particular piece of information, such as a link to click on, the motive to continue looking is determined by the sub-goal that is attained when information is located that the user evaluates as relevant. [6]

The affective-motivational system directs decisions and overt actions throughout the sequence of activities that occur in a search session or learning unit. This directive function of affect is exerted within a hierarchy of motives shown through goals and sub-goals. Affective information behaviors include timing features such as when to go on and when to stop, as well as acceptance features such as what to avoid and what to mark for inclusion or exclusion. This directional function of the affect over a searcher's sensorimotor acts is made operational through the mediation of cognitive information behaviors such as how the information is interpreted, how it is classified, and how it is related to other information (Belkin, 1984; Belkin, Brooks, & Oddy, 1982; Ingwersen, 1992; Wilson, 1984). The integrated description of information behavior reveals an ordered sequence: [affectiveącognitiveąsensorimotor]. This sequence arises because a particular motive (affective behavior) selects the interpretation that is consistent with it (cognitive behavior), which in turn determines an overt act (sensorimotor behavior). This basic ACS information unit has been described in Jakobovits and Nahl (1990). [7]

General or broad information behaviors that act throughout an instructional lesson are constructed as an ACS unit. An example of this is: [exercising willingness (affective behavior) ą to process the given information (cognitive behavior)ą in order to confirm or practice it (sensorimotor behavior)]. Within these broader goals are embedded many ACS information units or loops such as: exercising preference (affective behavior) ą over an array of options to be interpreted (cognitive behavior) ą and pressing a key (sensorimotor behavior). All three domains of information behavior can be measured using an appropriate scale for each (Jakobovits & Nahl, 1990; Nahl, 2001). For affective behaviors, the scales or test items are bipolar, reflecting the evaluative aspect of feelings, preferences, and values. In contrast, cognitive behaviors are measured with test items that list various possibilities to be figured out or that require users to produce the answer from memory. Measuring sensorimotor behaviors may involve presenting items on a screen or display whose elements need to be identified. Objective information on all three domains can be obtained through a quantifiable questionnaire, scale, performance test, or quiz (Nahl, 2001). [8]

The Psychodynamic Approach to Information Behavior

Relying on the writings of George Kelly, Jerome Bruner, and Lev Vygotsky, Kuhlthau (1993) locates the information search activity within the basic personality structure of the developing individual. In this approach, the affective domain drives the information search process through one's awareness of an information need. A person is driven to seek answers, and when information is perceived as personally relevant (affective behavior), it is seized upon by the cognitive domain and acquired as part of one's personality structure. A new facet of personality has been "constructed" and the person is now globally changed, since different thoughts and feelings occur after the information has been made one's own or incorporated. As a result, one's conclusions are different, or else they are reconfirmed and strengthened. One's outlook and mood have changed. In this view, information behavior has psychodynamic consequences for the user. [9]

This process of personality involvement in information seeking entails certain feelings and thoughts that are universal to all information behaviors. They include feelings of uncertainty or hesitance and doubt (affective behavior), confused thoughts (cognitive behavior), resistance to new information (affective behavior), frustration and anxiety (affective behavior), not reading instructions and procrastinating using the library, or not manipulating the physical elements of the information environment (sensorimotor behavior). Along with negative affect, there are positive affective behaviors in information seeking, such as experiencing feelings of victory and elation, strengthening one's feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem, confirming one's feelings of acceptance of and valuing the information world, feeling the reward of joy after satisfying an information need, and so on. Each of these affective behaviors must meet its appropriate cognitive mate to produce the effective sensorimotor outcome. [10]

For instance, feelings of doubt or uncertainty interact with confused thoughts to produce avoidance behavior such as postponing going to the library. Alternately, feelings of excitement or delight interact with newly found information elements that lead the searcher to continue, renew, or extend information behaviors. Individual differences exist in how intense or enduring these processes are, and how well the individual is equipped to cope with challenge and information stress with appropriate affective and cognitive literacy skills. A supportive and nurturing information environment provides specific help in resolving challenges and information anxiety throughout the search process. The inventory of elements to be addressed within any particular information setting may be established by reference to the taxonomy of information behaviors available for that setting, and if not yet available, it may be built through strategic research in that setting (Nahl, 2001). [11]

Kuhlthau (1993) recommends various strategies for implementing "a process approach" to information counseling. One important step at the beginning is to help users become aware of the stages of information seeking, especially the affective components of uncertainty, doubt, and discouragement that interact with the cognitive component of lack of meaning, vagueness, and confusion. A strategy of "charting" or using Kuhlthau's stages diagram helps users visualize the entire research process. This helps users to develop more realistic and less threatening expectations. Seeking meaning is a "constructive process" and ignorance of this process frequently limits the choices of individuals. This fits with the idea that helplessness and pessimism are learned affective habits (Seligman, 1992). Further, it fits with the notion that self-efficacy evaluations by a searcher are stable personality components that interact with and influence cognitive modes of explanation in one's thinking and coping strategies (Nahl, 1993, 1996a; Nahl & Harada, 1996). Kuhlthau (1993) emphasizes the importance of "conversing" or discussing with users their research steps throughout the process and not just in an initial consultation period. She points to the need to discover what stages information searchers are passing through in order to facilitate their progress by addressing cognitive and affective information needs as they evolve in the course of their search. [12]

The Ethnomethodological Approach to Information Behavior

A significant new phase of theory building has been developing at the intersection of the field of communication and the psychology of information retrieval. This approach has been formulated by Dervin (1977, 1983, 1989, 1994). In Dervin's approach, information retrieval is information transfer, which is a communicative act. Information is not neutral in society but reflects its power structure in terms of what information is accessible to whom. The value of information is social and political, and information retrieval skills become major determining factors in one's position in society because they determine the level of access to various types of information. Information content, structure, and packaging reflect the values and subject categories in use by social institutions. These values and categories often inhibit information access by segments of society who have not been socialized into the existing information framework. Dervin's research has focused on how everyday communicative acts embody the process of information transfer and diffusion. This is what places her approach in the behavioral and ethnomethodological camp (Garfinkel, 1968; Garfinkel & Sacks, 1970). Dervin's special focus has been to investigate the contrasts between, on the one hand, institutional subject categories or meanings and, on the other hand, individual personal meaning. These two can be barriers to each other; as a result, the information specialist needs to be aware of how they interact. [13]

For example, a speaker in a social exchange and a user in an information retrieval task are both in a similar situation. That is to say, they are engaged in the process of formulating and performing some communicative intention or goal. There is a shared theoretical and methodological focus "on the psychological or motivational aspects of communicative situations" (Burleson, 1989, p. 38). Dervin (1991, 1992) defines information seeking and retrieval as "communicative acts" within a social context in which information transfer takes place and acquires value as personal knowledge. It is clear that affective concerns are of paramount importance in communicative exchanges. Hence, it also follows that affective issues are significant in information transfer and knowledge acquisition. [14]

Dervin's "sense making" theory is thoroughly user-centered; it is also grounded in constructivist assumptions about information seekers and users (Savolainen, 1993). It is related to Kuhlthau's constructivist approach to information counseling, as well as to the work of Taylor (1986) and Belkin (1984), who understand searchers as going through an information-seeking loop that reiterates with each new re-structuring of the topic as a search proceeds. Information is defined as the use created for it by the user, and user questions represent user information needs (Dervin, 1983, 1992). Sense making focuses on behavior, as exemplified by the phrase "information act." But sense making also involves a transfer of meaning. As a result, the information act-or sense making-is also a communicative act. In the constructivist view, there is no information apart from this constructive creating and using process. [15]

Information is therefore a personal construct, subjective and contextual, since it exists only in a mentally processed form. All of the information in reference works and databases is treated as data. Information structure and personality structure necessarily overlap, either supporting or hindering the acquisition of new information. User-centered strategies are adaptive mechanisms that include "browsing, formatting, grouping, highlighting, indexing, citing, digesting, abstracting, formulating, transmitting, interpreting, connecting, and skimming" (Dervin, 1989, p. 225). To be effective, user-assistance efforts ought to be organized to accommodate user-categories such as the following:

Solomon (1997a, 1997b) used Dervin's sense making approach to analyze the social elements that govern information behavior in the annual planning meetings of a unit of a public agency. He concluded that individuals in the work setting did not think of information collection and use apart from the specific demands that needed to be solved in order to progress with the work. He found that "what, where, when, why, and how information behaviors" are directed by how the personalities of the participants attempt to cope with the demands of the planning process. Information becomes relevant and attains sense when it fits and satisfies the goal that is being pursued. This affective force persists, directs, and gives structure and meaning to the information. Information that does not fit the affective structure is devalued, ignored, and left unattended as irrelevant or meaningless. Solomon's (1997c) analysis of ethnographic data in an information environment over an extended period led him to conclude that the information behavior of individuals cannot be understood solely by looking at their cognitive behaviors, but that the affective elements must also be understood and managed. [17]

The issues raised by the sense making approach reflect its direction of inquiry, methodology, and philosophy, illustrating its compatibility with Kuhlthau's focus on research stages and information counseling and Nahl's focus on how the taxonomy of feelings and thoughts present in information seeking helps define information management solutions. These approaches maintain a self-reflexive interest about the process users see themselves going through in order to bridge the information gap and, in a sense, to be healed or made whole. Information supplies the commodity users need to change their affective state from anomalous to normalcy, from uncertainty to confidence, and their cognitive state from gap to sense, from ignorance to understanding. [18]

Exploring a Common Conceptual Framework

Table 1 summarizes the main concepts of three researchers who have independently evolved a behavioral and self-reflexive orientation toward user-centeredness. The lists are not meant to be exhaustive and other researchers on information behavior should be included whose work and ideas are compatible (e.g., Fidel, 1993; Ingwersen, 1992; Marchionini, 1992; Spink, 1996; Wilson, 1984). Though distinctly different in procedure and disciplinary grounding, these approaches represent an active segment of current research and methodology within a user-centered paradigm. They cover a broad spectrum of the user's information universe: (1) the repertoire of skills users need in three integrated behavioral domains (Nahl); (2) the stages of development of search literacy as part of personality (Kuhlthau); and (3) how the categories of information retrieval and access relate to the user's life situation (Dervin). [19]

Table 1: Key concepts of three complementary behavioral approaches to the study of information behavior
Self-Monitoring Integrated Model (Nahl) Diagnosis and Intervention Orientation (Kuhlthau) Sense Making Communication Theory (Dervin)
Theoretical Focus
What users feel, think, and do while engaged in information activities What stages users go through and how to assist them in the information seeking process How users assimilate information and apply it to their life situation
Instructing users to observe themselves and to acquire cumulative self-modification skills in the three domains Diagnosing user problems and intervening with particular information services at the appropriate stage Empowering users by facilitating information transfer within society
Key Concepts
Integrated ACS information unit; Self-witnessing method; Affective micro-information skills; Teaching self-regulatory information speech acts; Modifying self-efficacy beliefs of searchers; Planning user-based behavioral objectives; Lifelong information literate novices Constructivist personality theory; Searching is seeking meaning; Longitudinal stages as a process approach; Attention to affective and cognitive needs; Overcoming uncertainty and information anxiety; Zones of intervention for information services; Information counseling Constructivism/ Communitarianism; Information as clay vs. brick; Observer vs. user constructs; User-based user categories; Relativistic information framework; Searching is filling an information gap; Knowledge is information transfer; Information exchange as a communicative act

Nahl applies two basic ideas from behaviorism: (1) thoughts and feelings are behaviors; and (2) the three domains (affective, cognitive, sensorimotor) are exhaustive, integrated, and recursive categories of human behavior. They operate at all levels of goal-directed behaviors. During a search session or activity, users produce a continuous stream of goal-motives (affective behaviors), decisions (cognitive behaviors), and coordinated executions (sensorimotor behaviors). This stream of behavior is hierarchically organized with goal-feelings or evaluations that direct and select alternatives from the available cognitive sequences. The two acting together explode into overt decision and action in sequence: [affectiveącognitiveąsensorimotor]. This is the basic ACS information behavior unit (Jakobovits & Nahl, 1990). All levels of information behaviors are composed of ACS units. For broad information behaviors such as lifelong learning, the ACS unit can be described as [valuing knowledge acquisition and maintaining a willingness to allocate time and resources to it (affective behaviors)ąprocessing and cumulating many types of conceptual information (cognitive behaviors)ąengaging in physical effort, attention, and endurance (sensorimotor behaviors)]. These are broad because they are superordinate in the affective classification system. These broad motives, cumulative knowledge, and time consuming physical effort exert a directive influence over the great variety of sub-activities that individuals must go through to fulfill the broad goals and experience its benefits and satisfactions. [20]

ACS units in library instruction are significantly narrower. A lesson designed to teach individuals to use a web browser to access library services could have several dozen ACS units that need to be presented in a series and built up and integrated through practice. Consider the following example: [wanting to view a web page previously seen and being willing to search for it (affective behaviors)ą remembering the Back button and what it's for (cognitive behaviors)ą locating and clicking on Back and viewing the page (sensorimotor behaviors)]. The ACS unit applies to each of several enabling objectives that together constitute browser competence. Librarians' web design efforts often involve very narrow ACS units or micro-information behaviors, such as where to place a link on a screen and what its appearance or prominence should be. The following is a good example: [needing some information, wondering if there is an email Help button somewhere, and being willing to look for it (affective behaviors)ą remembering that email buttons might be located anywhere and that they may be named several things (cognitive behaviors)ą looking around for it, executing a series of clicks and scrolls, finding it and clicking on it (sensorimotor behaviors)]. [21]

Behaviors are organized into habit patterns that serve goals and situational demands. They can also be changed using appropriate behavioral modification techniques such as modeling, imitation, role-taking, self-monitoring, self-modification, self-counseling, instruction, and communication. The behavioral taxonomic approach has been helpful in identifying the feelings and thoughts of searchers or learners. [22]

Kuhlthau's conceptual basis is grounded in the following psychological maxim. People seek meaning in various life circumstances, and information seeking behavior (sensorimotor) is driven by this deep need (affective behavior) to make sense out of reality (cognitive behavior), to attribute causes to events (cognitive behavior), or to favor one hypothesis over another (affective behavior). But there is turmoil (affective behavior) associated with this reality-construction process because events change or unforeseen forces and constraints come into being. With mounting pressure (affective behaviors) to know, analyze, and decide (cognitive behaviors), one is thrown into a state of confusion and uncertainty (affective behaviors), sometimes with such intensity that an individual may withdraw or resist (affective behaviors) further information seeking (cognitive and sensorimotor behaviors). [23]

Syndromes of technophobia, infoshock, information anxiety, and use avoidance can be scientifically studied and catalogued. With knowledge of the stages of information behavior, information professionals can provide effective assistance and intervention by accurately diagnosing a user's stage and intervening with appropriate affective and cognitive facilitation procedures such as "information counseling." Whether dealing with broad or narrow ACS units, information counseling attempts to strengthen the integration of those units that are at risk due to problems with one of the domains. Sometimes the affective component in an ACS unit needs to be strengthened by building up the value of maintaining willingness or persistence, by building self-confidence, or by helping to weaken resistance due to fear, learned avoidance, or pessimism. Sometimes the cognitive component of the ACS unit needs to be strengthened by clarifying areas of confusion and supplying new information. And sometimes the sensorimotor component of the ACS unit needs to be built up by giving instruction in eye movements for systematically exploring a page or screen. Other individuals may need practice in controlling a mouse or finding keys on a keyboard. When all three components of the ACS unit have been built up and integrated, an information literacy habit, skill, or sub-skill is achieved. [24]

Dervin's conceptual basis lies in the mechanisms that tie social settings to the individual's mental framework. Information is not so much a fixed resource or product as it is a social occasion for communicative exchanges between author-producer and user-consumer. Information is what consumers use to alter their life situation. An affective need reveals a cognitive gap propelling the person to face it and seek information (sensorimotor behavior), whereupon one is attracted to seize (affective behavior) what seems relevant and meaningful (cognitive behavior), that is, what will make a difference in one's situation (sensorimotor behavior). This difference translates into acquiring understanding (cognitive behavior), changing attitudes (affective behavior), solving problems (cognitive behavior), constructing interpretations (cognitive behavior), or becoming more persuasive (sensorimotor) with friends, employers, or officials. Dervin makes it clear that being social requires us to be information seekers and consumers. Being an information user is not a demographic category or personality factor; rather, it is a lifelong process of acculturation, a state of operating we all regularly perform in our daily societal functioning. [25]

The behavioral approach to describing and measuring information use in all its aspects is beneficial to information instruction and management because the behavioral approach is objective and scientific. It has also become the language and method of strategic planning for librarians (Nahl, 2001). Some of these advantages can be illustrated with specific applications of affective concepts in information seeking, as described below. [26]

Taxonomy of Technophobia

Because it is user-based and behavioral, the taxonomic approach can serve as a method for objectively discovering the dimensions of experience that users have in the information world. To illustrate this possibility, the generic ACS taxonomy (Jakobovits & Nahl, 1987, 1990; Nahl, 1993, 1995) was applied to an extensive set of user errors that was collected over several years while observing CD-ROM searching of novices in an academic library. To limit the scope of the present inquiry, items were selected that referred in some way to technophobia and were defined as expressing an affective information problem. [27]

Table 2: Affective taxonomy of technophobia experienced by novice searchers
1a) unwillingness to receive assistance when it is offered even when needed possibly a form of shyness or egocentricity or cultural norm
1b) aversion for reading signs, guides, written instructions and screen directions possibly due to feeling overwhelmed or threatened
1c) feeling inhibited to press keys grandiose fears of "breaking the whole system"
1d) feeling inhibited to walk to the reference or help desk for another CD-ROM disc insufficient motivation to cooperate with the system
1e) fear of making choices or selecting items from a menu a kind of paralysis of the will that's being gripped by opposing forces
1f) not caring for precision and accuracy of keyboard entries a type of resistance or uncooperativeness
2a) low self-efficacy judgment lack of self-confidence as a searcher or feeling too inadequate to keep trying
2b) insufficient motivation to get prepared prior to an online search failing to reflect on essential terms and alternative expressions or searching in an inappropriate database
2c) resistance to viewing searching as a problem solving activity a kind of mental inertia that makes thinking too much of an effort
2d) resistance to the use of controlled vocabulary insisting on the use of natural language perhaps a form of aversion to mental effort
2e) during the reference interview, never wanting to be specific about one's query possibly due to fear of relating to strangers or perhaps due to a cultural norm
2f) overreacting to search results feeling discouraged or blaming self or the system
Information Problems
3a) refusing to accept that searching can be fun or insisting that it is always hard and unpleasant maintaining a kind of obsessive dislike for it
3b) avoiding personalized exchanges with information workers perhaps fear of rejection or conflictual social involvement
3c) not trusting the system being filled with pessimism or belittling its actual capacities
3d) lacking information intentionality not fighting against distractibility or remaining disengaged

Each occurrence of a problem was classified in one of three affective levels in the generic ACS taxonomy. Level 1 consists of user-behaviors necessary for "Adjusting" or "Orienting" to the information environment; it can be rendered more specifically as "Information Adjustment Problems." This first level consists of the affective information behaviors that novices need to learn and perform to become searchers. Table 2 provides an analysis of the affective levels alone. Cognitive and sensorimotor columns may be created to respond to these affective problems. While instruction can focus one component at a time, no habit can be built up unless the individual or the instruction process supplies the other two components. [28]

Level 1 information behaviors consist of elementary but essential activities such as exercising one's willingness (affective behavior) to figure out (cognitive behavior) the directions given, such as to press a certain key on the keyboard (sensorimotor behavior). Or, they must overcome their fear (affective behavior) before they can comprehend (cognitive behavior) some instruction to practice (sensorimotor behavior). Users must be willing to cooperate in many ways in linked sequences, such as following screen directions or reading handouts. Level 1 technophobic behaviors occur in information settings where users are attempting to learn an unfamiliar system and to make adjustments to new demands imposed on them by the information environment. Technophobic behaviors (such as expressing fear, avoiding doing something, or feeling pessimistic) are affective behaviors that inhibit the processing of the instructional information and, instead, facilitate the processing of competing information supplied by the user's imagination, such as "I can't do this" or "This thing doesn't work." Technophobic behaviors disrupt the learning process. In the affective domain, technophobia is behavior that can be seen as an emotional defense mechanism that functions to reduce anxiety in the short term. In the long run, however, technophobia is not beneficial if it inhibits the development of literacy. As experience shows, more productive affective behaviors for controlling information anxiety, such as perseverance and confidence, help progress to further stages of information literacy. [29]

Level 2 in the generic ACS taxonomy is "Interacting" with the information environment. Applied to technophobia, this concept can be rendered as "Search Process Problems" to represent various types of resistance to becoming an independent searcher. Individuals sometimes resist (affective behavior) using controlled vocabulary (cognitive behavior) in writing search queries (sensorimotor behavior) and continue to use natural language that creates problems. Or they may lack confidence as a searcher or adopt a pessimistic outlook that discourages them from going on with the learning activity or skip a specific activity such as carefully inspecting a menu. Some searchers, complaining that it's too much effort to think systematically, exhibit an aversion for thinking in Boolean (Nahl, 1995; Nahl & Harada, 1996). Search process problems (affective level 2) are more advanced than information adjustment problems (affective level 1), but both types go on simultaneously throughout the learning stages. Each type of problem needs to be addressed by the information environment and professional staff. These support activities can be more effective when they are addressed to known user-problems, as indexed by a behavioral taxonomy. Since user problems are recurrent in electronic information environment, it would be beneficial to cumulate an ACS taxonomy database where librarians could contribute specific observations of user behaviors. [30]

Level 3 in the generic ACS Taxonomy is "Internalizing" the information world by identifying with it, personalizing it, and being committed to it as a lifelong practitioner (James & Nahl, 1996; Nahl, 1996). In the case of technophobia, this concept can be called "Personal Information Problems" in order to represent various individual affective habits that become a liability to functioning adequately in the information world. An example is a person who persistently clings to (affective behavior) stereotypes and prejudices about technology (cognitive behavior) to the extent that such beliefs lead to non-use of said technology (sensorimotor behavior). Some people maintain a long held aversion (affective behavior) for mental effort (cognitive behavior) involving technical details, procedures and requirements, resulting in reduced performance and productivity (sensorimotor behavior). They avoid asking questions, refrain from seeking help, and don't trust the system. In short, they remove themselves from the information literacy loop. [31] As shown in Table 2, the generic ACS taxonomy to investigate affective varieties of technophobia can be revealing. In this case, the data from content analysis of user questions and complaints cumulated over several years show the silent struggle novices face. Other data gathering methods are also useful, such as error analysis, systematic field observation, ethnographic studies, focus groups, tests, and ratings (Nahl, 2001; Nahl & Jakobovits, 1992). By constructing and examining ordered lists of information behaviors and problems, information managers and instructors can anticipate particular affective problem areas experienced by users. The ability to predict affective reactions of novices makes it possible to manage the affective environment (Nahl & Jakobovits, 1985). For instance, items (1a) and (1b) in Table 2 show that novices under certain conditions will decline using available help even though they need it. They even have a resistance to reading information on signs or booklets. On the one hand, a librarian managing an information setting can simply accept this as a normal user problem and leave it at that. On the other hand, managers may take responsibility to support the user's efforts to adjust to the information environment. Using the taxonomic approach, a manager might devise various techniques that compensate for people's reluctance to make use of the available help facilities. The ACS taxonomy provides a common focus that allows information specialists to cumulate and share successful experiences. An example of such an application is presented below. [32]

Affective Information Counseling

Table 3 focuses only on the affective domain. In this case, the three levels are specified in relation to the information management solutions to be implemented for specific affective problems that users express or display in ways that can be observed and measured. Level 1 affective behaviors may either resist and oppose the learning process, or they may accept it and promote it. Signs of resistance occur at all levels. Impatience, the feeling of being lost, feeling dissatisfied with the process, ending up feeling disappointed and turned off - these are all unfavorable affective behaviors that inhibit learning. In many cases, they can be transformed into learning-favorable behaviors by introducing new elements into the learning environment. A number of these elements are given in the Solutions column in Table 3. For example, impatience is lessened when the precise waiting time is known ("90 seconds left, 30 seconds left, .") rather than vaguely ("This will take a few minutes"). Or, we can show concern for users who feel upset by technical difficulties, possibly giving them realistic information on how long it took others to achieve specific steps. [33]
Table 3: Information management taxonomy of solutions for users' affective symptoms
Level 1
(in order to
resistance to
Being patient vs. impatient Informing users how long things take (secs./mins.)
Feeling guided vs. lost Alerting users to common errors
Being appreciative vs. dissatisfied Showing concern for users' difficulties with technical aspects
Being realistic vs. disappointed Telling users what is reasonable to expect
Feeling that one is taken care of vs. feeling ignored Being more directive by telling users where something needed can be found
Level 2
(in order to
Feeling opposition to the constraints of the information world Building flexibility into systems by allowing for alternative ways of doing something
Experiencing fun vs. tedium Sharing convenient tips and information useful to users
Feeling confident vs. anxious Reducing uncertainty by giving more feedback (What will happen when and if)
Experiencing clarity vs. confusion Identifying something on a diagram or analyzing an example or showing a model
Level 3
(in order to
acceptance and support)
Feeling enthusiasm vs. displeasure Affirming to users the eventual outcome as being successful
Feeling empowered vs. helpless Affirming the principle that "users are never at fault"
Accepting vs. rejecting Presenting lifelong information literacy as an attainable goal

These information management solutions specifically respond to Level 1 symptoms and are designed to overcome resistance to information literacy. They orient and encourage users who need and want that. User problems are symptoms of the interaction between the individual's socialization background and the demands of the information environment. Accordingly, user problems generated in information environments are not personal problems; rather, they are standard behaviors learned and transmitted through cultural mechanisms. Level 2 symptoms stem from interactive issues such as learning to function with controlled vocabulary, commands, and Boolean logic. In addition, they stem from the idea that information seeking is an active process of exploration and evolution. This is the advising or coaching function in information counseling. Teaching alternative ways of doing the same thing helps to build up the affective repertoire for dealing with constraints imposed by the system. By giving more feedback about what's going on, the information environment lowers the anxiety level and inhibits depressive fantasies that some users may experience. [34]

Level 3 problems are evaluative and address the perceived usefulness of the learning activity and the trust in the process. Rejecting it, feeling helpless, being dissatisfied - these are affective symptoms that need a management response. Ways must be found to reassure or console users by engaging them in activities that promote acceptance and support for the process. Level 3 information behaviors involve a deepening of one's involvement with the information world (Nahl, 1997). Operating in an information environment on a daily basis requires acceptance of it as a way of life and part of ones' personality. Bishop (2000), for instance, describes social informatics as the integration and personalization of information systems into one's way of life. While this is the challenge of the information and computer age, many users find themselves disempowered by their affective distance from this vital aspect of society. A Level 3 affective information symptom includes lack of enthusiasm or even despair, which requires continual reaffirmation to users that the eventual outcome will be successful and valuable. With Level 3 information behaviors, novice users need reassuring and consoling to promote acceptance of information seeking as a lifelong process. [35]

The three levels of the generic ACS taxonomy provide a method for classifying all aspects of information behavior. Managing the affective information environment of users requires methods for monitoring users' affective symptoms and a taxonomy for matching symptoms with information solutions (Nahl, 1996a; Nahl & Jakobovits, 1985). The taxonomy in Table 4 can be helpful as a guide in planning for integrated information services that are keyed to the three levels and the three domains of information behavior. Level 1 information behaviors deal with user adjustment issues. The information environment creates affective challenges that appears as resistance behavior (Category A1) that is gradually transformed through the construction of new meaning (Category C1) that, in turn, enhances the individual's performance and productivity (Category S1). Information behaviors at Level 2 focus on acquiring greater intentionality (Category A2) or personal responsibility as an independent searcher by learning and becoming familiar with the elements and structure of the information world (Category C2), which results in enhanced and successful performances (Category S2). Valuing information literacy and becoming committed to it as a way of life (Category A3) leads to cumulating technical knowledge and understandings about the information world (Category C3), thus facilitating the many activities involved in electronic democracy such as e-commerce, professional and personal networking, information retrieval and evaluation, and rapid diffusion of news and research data (Category S3). This three by three table is called an ennead matrix, denoting nine intersections or cells. It shows that learning takes place in all nine categories simultaneously, albeit at different rates (Jakobovits & Nahl, 1987). [36]
Table 4: Information behavior ennead in three levels and three domains
Level 1
Adjustment Issues
Category Affective-1 (A1) Category Cognitive-1 (C1) Category Sensorimotor-1 (S1)
Overcoming resistance to information seeking Developing coping strategies for seeking meaning Acting to reverse information disempowerment
Level 2
Category Affective-2 (A2) Category Cognitive-2 (C2) Category Sensorimotor-2 (S2)
Strengthening information intentionality Continuously engaging in information retrieval problem solving Exercising practical control over the information architecture
Level 3
Personalizing Issues
Category Affective-3 (A3) Category Coginitive-3 (C3) Category Sensorimotor-3 (S3)
Becoming a lifelong information literate searcher Becoming an information counselor to oneself Maintaining communitarian citizenship in the electronic democracy

The nine categories represent an exhaustive taxonomy or catalog of information behaviors. The ennead of information behavior can serve to unify separate observations and data collection efforts of librarians and other information professionals by providing a common classification scheme for what users do, think, and feel in response to the demands of electronic information environments. It can also be used to guide information counseling efforts by serving as a checklist that librarians and other information professionals can use to identify the areas of assistance an individual needs at any particular time. Every statement a user makes in an interview or in written evaluations can be categorized into the nine zones (Nahl & Jakobovits, 1992). Examples were given in Tables 2 and 3, along with the type of assistance that might be appropriate for each category of need. [37]


The study of information behavior in a rapidly evolving technological society demands close attention to a full range of broad and specific user dynamics. The three theoretical approaches discussed here acknowledge the centrality of the user's feelings and perceptions in the information seeking process. Each approach focuses on how the perspective of users determines their information behavior. Findings from this research show that users are highly interactive, with active motives and intentions. As goal-directed sense-makers, users are seeking meaning, bridging information gaps, dealing with uncertainty and anomalous states of knowledge, translating their own ideas into system terms, actively updating personal frames of reference, filtering both information and feelings, and applying personal constructs in the information seeking process. Information retrieval systems and environments must concretely incorporate this psychological reality into their design to achieve the user-friendly systems that users need. [38]


Nahl, Diane. "A Conceptual Framework for Explaining Information Behavior." Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education 1.2 (2001). http://www.utpjournals.com/simile (insert access date here).


Diane Nahl has been a faculty member in library and information science at the University of Hawaii since 1987. She teaches graduate courses in information structure, information access, instructional design and evaluation, cognitive science, and human-computer interaction. Her research interests focus on the human-system interface, particularly discovering how people approach, understand, and interact with information retrieval systems in an information problem-solving context. Her research is published in Research Strategies, College & Research Libraries, Journal of Academic Librarianship, Internet Reference Services Quarterly, School Library Media Quarterly, Reference Services Review, Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science, and the Journal of the American Society for Information Science.


Diane Nahl, Associate Professor
Information and Computer Sciences Department
Library and Information Science Program
University of Hawaii, 2550 The Mall
Honolulu, HI 96822
voice: 808-956-5809
fax: 808-956-5835
e-mail: nahl@hawaii.edu


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