Back to Diane Nahl Home Page
Back to Table of Contents of the User-Centered Revolution Article

The Role of Legislation

Legislation and community attitude are important influencing factors in shaping information institutions to their users. In 1979, the board of the Association of American Library Schools set up a task force to examine the implications of the White House Conference on Library and Information Services (40), in which the principal theme was a reaffirmation of free and full access for all citizens. While the members of the task force recognized this thrust and supported it, they felt that even more needs to be done, such as "recruiting to the profession representatives from the information impoverished, who may have the advantage of instant credibility with their constituencies" (40)(p.250). At least one of the "elements of a comprehensive national library and information services program" was explicitly from a user-centered point of view, recognizing the idea that access includes education:

A-5: Access to Library and Information Services

That institutions educating library and informational services practitioners assume responsibility to address the needs of said consumers through their training and education, and that guidelines by appropriate governmental leaders establish standards of in-service training and that training standards for library professionals be implemented without delay.

In other words, librarians need to be educated in how to instruct users to gain access to, filter, and evaluate information.

Educating Information Specialists

The education of future librarians to function in technologically reengineered library settings is addressed in a study describing "a model of how academic libraries and schools of library and information studies (LIS) may collaborate to provide useful educational experiences to LIS students and reliable reference services to library users" (41). Students study and apply information retrieval principles and reference interview theory, as well as "role playing, analysis of frequently asked questions, and philosophy of information service" (41)(p.292). The emphasis is on the case-study approach, as students were required to follow-up on the advice and instruction they gave to library users, to test its efficacy and study the entire information retrieval cycle.

In both the course and the fieldwork, students were urged to accept a client-centered philosophy of reference librarianship, and to view library users and librarians as linked in the research process. Students were encouraged to be approachable at the Information Desk, to look out for people who might need information, to ask follow-up questions in reference interviews, to encourage people to return to the Desk or go to another service point for further assistance, and to express a variety of user-centered values and attitudes while at the Information Desk.

This reference fieldwork allowed LIS students to gain experience in answering online catalog and directional questions at one of the Library's busiest information service points. The experience enabled LIS students to make the immediate connection between the theoretical content of the course and the actual experience of reference work in a large academic library. The students consistently expressed their appreciation of this integration of theory and practice that allows them to try out various principles in vivo and receive immediate feedback from library users.

The two factors driving the user-centered movement are the increase in the number of novice end-users and the rapid change in technology. Futures planning in library services for the next century supports a clear user-centered focus. The customer-service philosophy, though not acceptable to everyone, nevertheless points to the recognition that information systems should represent how users think, rather than solely how librarians organize information. Legislation, community attitude, and education of information specialists are moving towards a client-centered philosophy of reference librarianship. The increasing social consciousness of the importance of the user cannot by itself create an intellectual revolution unless supporting scientific theory evolves along with it.

Communication Theory


One of the earliest statements defining the concept user-centered is attributed to the critique of Zweizig and Dervin, whose approach is based in American communication research:

Since the 1970s, critical attitudes toward the narrow conceptions germane to a system-centered approach were evinced. Institutions such as libraries distributing information were seen as instruments serving information seeking and use, not as an end. The critique was made explicit by Douglas Zweizig and Brenda Dervin, precursors of the user-centered approach to information seeking and use. They proposed that instead of asking who is using the library or how much is the library used, the question should be for what purpose was the library used and how did it help? Thus the important question would be not library use, not library users, but library uses (42). Since the late 1970s, suggestions for a refocus of research on the individual actors seeking and using information in practical social and cultural contexts have become more frequent (see, e.g., (43-45). Today we see that these efforts have been successful - the user-centered approach is about to offer the traditional intermediary-centered approach a serious paradigmatic alternative. (46)(p.14).

Sense-making research investigates behavior, both internal (i.e., cognitive) and external (i.e., procedural) allowing individuals to construct and design their movement through time-space. Sense-making behavior is thus communication behavior. Information is the sense that is created at a specific moment by an individual. Information does not exist apart from this subjective, constructive process. The central activities of sense-making are information-seeking, processing, creating, and using. Sense-making is a process; sense is the product of this process. According to Dervin, 'sense' includes 'knowledge,' but also a host of other subjective factors that reflect an individual's interpretations of a situation, including intuitions, opinions hunches, effective responses, evaluations, questions, etc." (46)(p.16). Thinking and perceiving are referred to as "moving forward in the cognitive terrain." When there is a lack of relevant information, or there is confusion and uncertainty, routine thinking no longer works effectively, a situation called "gap-facing" arises and elicits "gap-defining" and "gap-bridging" activities. People evaluate their gaps differently, "optimists" may see no problem where "pessimists" are stumped. They may differ in "rigidity" or "flexibility" in their gap-bridging.

Dervin's sense-making concept, defined as the "movement of thoughts and questions through cognitive time-space," is explained by another commentator as follows:

In this sense, one may be said to move through a series of thoughts and experiences, to encounter 'barriers' to one's progress, to 'lose' one's way, etc. In either case, any given movement can be interrupted when an individual is confronted by the need for some form of guidance; that is, when they need to know something. Based on the work of Carter (47), such conditions are considered cognitive 'gaps,' and may be exemplified in their most general form by the need for street directions or instructions on the use of Boolean connectors, depending on the behavioral context. Information seeking is defined within this framework as 'gap bridging.' Gap bridging can be accomplished by thinking up an answer, asking for help, looking for useful information, or by any other functional method that enables the individual to continue moving. These gap-bridging attempts are operationalized as 'questioning,' whether spoken by individuals or unspoken (48)(p.649).

In an attempt to apply Dervin's sense-making theory to the day to day operation of a library, Morris asks such basic questions as, "What does it mean to have a user-centered reference service?" or "What should a user-centered approach to cataloguing entail?" (49)(p.20). User-centered in this theoretical context means viewing information as something "construed by users" and designing systems and services that are tailored to how humans think and feel when processing information to meet a need. This is in contrast to the traditional system-oriented definition based on Shannon (50)which views information as having an objective existence outside the individual:

When we seek information through the traditional paradigm, our goal is to find the external "information reality" that corresponds to our internal need. As Dervin points out, we don't talk as if we hold this traditional view of information. On the contrary, we admit that knowledge isn't absolute, that what really matters are people, that people change, and that a message sent doesn't equal a message received. (49)(p.21).

In the sense-making model, information becomes "whatever an individual finds 'informing'" (51)(p.22). Information triggers changes in the user's perceptions which alter how the information is perceived. The user is seen, not as a passive receptacle, but as an active participant in a constructive process of information processing. Though users are unique individuals, there is a common or universal process through which all users pass in adaptation to a particular information activity. Addressing user-centered services to these commonalities requires scientific knowledge about the actions, thoughts, and feelings that constitute the experience of being a novice user.

According to Morris, a primary goal of information professionals should be (49), understanding and clarifying ambiguous information needs" (p.25). Ambiguity and uncertainty can be unpleasant and stressful feelings, hence library services such as reference interviews need to be negotiated by librarians with a view to "intervening" in the person's state of information challenge. Vague requests, or those that are too broad or too narrow, may require probing with open questions, addressing the need behind the demand, rather than the want or demand as first formulated by the user. An interesting point raised by Morris is that users tend to operate under the system-centered paradigm in their own views of what information is or what the process of finding it is like. The self-contradictory nature of users is captured vividly in this description:

The picture of the individual that emerges from these studies in psychology holds complex implications for a user-centered, constructivist model of information. Humans are, by their nature, contradictory: drawn to make quick decisions that reduce uncertainty but struggling to understand clearly enough to make a good decision; striving for order, but enjoying the intellectual challenge of disorderly facts and unconventional ideas; needing the familiar, but craving the risk of the unknown; unable to express what is needed, but nonetheless perpetually asking questions; highly knowledgeable but unable to transfer that knowledge. This is the user whom we wish to serve. (49)(p.29)

In a radical proposal, (52) urges that we abandon traditional system-centered categories of users such as demography (age, race, education, gender), personality (cognitive styles and preferences), ability or literacy levels (language, computer, knowledge), purpose for using the system (information, entertainment, research), and user satisfaction ratings. Such categories, Dervin argues, "lead us to a view of communication systems that makes haves and have-nots inevitable" (52)(p. 217). The "haves" are those who successfully use the system, while the "have-nots must somehow get more of what they lack -- education, money, literacy, motivation to read news, computer skill, cognitive complexity, etc. -- so that they can become like the haves" (52)(p. 217).

Revising User Categories

Dervin proposes a radical redesign of the information world based on a deliberate refocusing of the nature of user categories:

The Actor's Situation: This category of user behavior identifies "why in a given situation a person tries to use an information or communication system" (52)(p. 225). How complex is the situation? Is it a piece of a larger project? Under what constraints is the user operating? What barriers does the user perceive?

Gaps in Sense-Making: A query points to some gap in information and the outcome of a search yields a message that can help close the gap by constructing new meaning or new understanding. An information gap is not to be defined by topical categories or subjects, as in the system-centered orientation. Instead, gaps are "gaps regarding the characteristics, aspects, or dimensions of self, others, objects, events, timing, spacing, causes, consequences, and what-ifs" (52)(p. 225).

Actor-Defined Purpose: System-defined purposes for "looking for information" traditionally include such broad categories as information, entertainment, social, cultural, escape, and so on. User-centered purposes are more situationally specific, such as "getting pictures (cognitions), finding direction, gaining skills, getting motivation, avoiding bad places, getting out of bad places, getting support, getting connected, achieving goals, getting happiness, getting rest" (52)(p. 225).

Information-Using Strategies, Values, and Traits:

User-strategies are adaptive mechanisms that people employ in searching for and using information. These include "browsing, formatting, grouping, highlighting, indexing, citing, digesting, abstracting, formulating, transmitting, interpreting, connecting, and skimming" (52)(p. 225). "Actors" (i.e., searchers) evaluate information in terms of its meaning to them, i.e., its "timeliness, breadth, adaptability, accuracy, specificity, touchability, moveability, and newsiness" (52)(p. 225). "Information traits" covers "the specific characteristics of how the user would like the information presented" such as quantitative data vs. qualitative assessment, precedence setting vs. futures planning, hard facts vs. opinion, having a single point vs. options, clinical observation vs. census, and others.

When comparing traditional user-categories with these user-centered dimensions, a clearer view emerges of how the information world needs to be redesigned to make it more serviceable to users in terms of instruction, assistance, and organization (cataloging and indexing). In terms of user-assistance, build a focus on user-categories -- Under what constraints is the user operating? Is the user more interested in gaining an understanding of something specific or exploring without a fixed goal? At what stage of the seeking process is the user at this time? Does the user want to take the information home? Does the user want to see hard facts only or is there an interest in clinical studies also?

In terms of user-centered information organization, the focus is on indexing content in terms that users can recognize in relation to their momentary and variable intentions and motives -- How do I just browse; How do I reformat this text; Where do I find a citation for this; What would help reformulate this; Where can I find a digest of this; I need to see an interpretation of this; etc. A user-friendly environment anticipates and accommodates, facilitates and reassures, and above all, delivers and satisfies. To achieve this goal, information professionals have developed methods for identifying and measuring users' behaviors -- their actions, thoughts, and feelings during the information seeking or knowledge acquisition process.

Modifying User Behavior

Learning Principles for Searcher Self-Modification

A number of writers in the field of library science have urged the application of learning theory principles to library instruction and services (53-55). The field of psychology has broadly discussed the "conditions of learning" that need to be present when acquiring new habits and some of these were summarized for the narrower field of acquiring information retrieval skills (55):

Sufficient Motivation for Learning:

Search behavior is goal-directed behavior hierarchically organized so that sub-goals constitute larger goals. For instance, looking up a word or entry in an index is a sub-skill within the larger skill of locating a document. The sub-skill requires the searcher to inspect the list, look up and down, page through, select terms, and so on. This sub-skill has its own goal and motivation. If the searcher lacks sufficient motivation to persist in the look-up operation, the sub-activity will be prematurely abandoned with negative consequences to the overall search effort. A single global assessment or rating of a user's motivation or interest in completing a task is thus unlikely to predict accurately a person's multiple motivational requirements with all the sub-tasks. The information environment needs to be designed to encourage and facilitate the emergence of sufficient motivation at multiple levels of administration and instruction (56).

Active Responding:

Instruction must provide for some form of responding or active participation from the user. In the sensorimotor domain, locating an item on a computer screen is a pre-requisite skill that needs to be practiced beyond some minimum level before one can expect users to have success in finding information. In the cognitive domain, users need to be given learning opportunities to rehearse reasoning sequences such as "What would happen if I do x?" or how to redirect a search strategy that is not effective. In the affective domain, novices need to be given the experience of overcoming an information challenge by helping them complete a task or operation successfully.

Providing Reinforcement :

In the educational and clinical psychology literature, a "reinforcing stimulus" is an incentive that works. That is, if that reward is systematically applied in a teaching context, learners will acquire the target habit more quickly. Of course, some incentives do not work. One guiding principle is to discover what users find relevant and rewarding in specific information situations. Though it is universally recognized that rewarded repetitions lead to learning new skills, given the hierarchical organization of information skills, global rewards are not always sufficient to maintain consistent reinforcement. Sometimes too much emphasis may be given by users and professionals alike, to the end-result or to overall search success. If this is unsatisfactory, a general negative pall is cast over the entire information seeking enterprise. Instead, users can be taught to appreciate the little successes within the overall (temporary) impasse.

Reinforcement strengthens the behavior to which it is applied. The repetition and rehearsal that occur with hands-on experience become opportunities for applying reinforcement and evolving a routine habit. These experiences need to be instructionally managed to provide sufficient success for sub-activities. Both external and internal levels need to be considered by information professionals. Special attention must given to self-reinforcement activities by searchers, as explained in this description:

Search behavior continuously operates to overcome the aversive stimulus of unfulfilled information needs. Every subactivity is accompanied by affective and cognitive reactions. Success builds self-esteem; failure engenders depression. Part of BI [Bibliographic Instruction] might be teaching patrons how to "self-reinforce" during searching. Many patrons are ill-equipped to deal with the emotions that are aroused during searching. They may engage in damaging self-talk, making self-accusations such as: "You stupid fool. Why did you forget to write that down?" or "I'll never get this done in time." BI could therefore include the teaching of appropriate self-talk such as: "It is normal to feel confused in the beginning of a search" or "Other people make the same mistakes." Teaching students to use self-reinforcing "speech acts" while searching is part of encouraging independent learning skills: the librarian's words, if not the librarian, are present to guide and regulate search behavior (55)(p.79-80).

Broadening user-instruction to include motivational skills and self-regulatory speech acts may appear to some information professionals as too personal or even invasive. However, from a user-centered perspective, the new inner focus on users is both legitimate and beneficial to their needs, preferences, and growth potential in lifelong, holistic information activities.

Back to Diane Nahl Home Page
Back to Table of Contents of the User-Centered Revolution Article